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How The Boys planned and pulled off that shocking Season 1 finale twist
Even in a show filled with graphic violence, scatological horrors, and language equal parts inventive and vulgar, the final few scenes of the eighth episode of The Boys are stunners. Not because of any of the aforementioned depravity — though it's all there in ample servings — but because of the uppercut-to-the-jaw twist that no one could have seen coming. Or could they have?
**Spoiler Warning: There are obviously giant spoilers for Season 1 of The Boys below**
The first season of The Boys, an adaptation of an acclaimed Garth Ennis comic book series of the same name, concerns the corrupt inner workings of Vought International, a massive corporation that controls and profits from a legion of morally bankrupt "superheroes." Seeking Vought's destruction are the titular Boys, a dysfunctional, at-each-others'-throats team of criminals trying to bring the whole superhero system down. Hughie (Jack Quaid) is drafted into the battle after his girlfriend is ripped apart in a collision with a drunk A-Train (Jesse T. Usher), a Flash-like hero with a crippling substance abuse problem. Hughie is recruited by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), a charismatic semi-psychopath who is out for total revenge on superheroes.
On the "hero" side, special attention is paid to Homelander, the handsome, square-jawed leader of the Seven, a Justice League-esque squad of especially powerful (and flawed) heroes. Homelander is a hybrid of Superman, Captain America, and Brock Turner, played with an astonishing balance of vulnerability, arrogance, and sociopathology by Anthony Starr. Butcher has a seething, venomous, all-consuming hatred of Homelander, fueled by his belief that Homelander raped his wife Becca a decade prior, creating a trauma so bruising and total that it ultimately led to her disappearance.
As Butcher obsessively and ruthlessly pursues vengeance, dragging Hughie and his gang along on his chaotic quest, Homelander embarks on a journey of his own. His quasi-Freudian relationship with Machiavellian Vought exec Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) deepens and takes often disturbing, sometimes lactation-heavy turns until he discovers several dark secrets. His sexual tryst with Becca was actually consensual and, unbeknownst to him, produced a child.
That child, gifted with superpowers, has been raised by Vought in secret for years now, and while that was shocking to Homelander, it was absolutely mind-blowing and soul-crushing for Butcher — as was the fact that Becca hadn't run away or even died, but instead stayed with her child; not only had she cheated on Butcher, she sent him spiraling into a decade of despair, self-harm, and in search of misplaced vengeance.
The season ends with Homelander doing the unthinkable, blowing Madelyn's brains out and then dragging Butcher to Becca's front door, where the reality fully assaults him. It's a shocking end and, fittingly, one that required months of debate and rumination from executive producer Eric Kripke and his team of writers. SYFY WIRE spoke with Kripke about how they came up with the twist, which differs from the comic book, and how they changed the rest of the season to reflect it.
Did you know from the start? Or did you come to it later?
It evolved a little bit. One of the primary values of streaming is the lead time, where in Season 1 we had all eight scripts. We had certainly all eight episodes completely broken as a unit, as its own Season 1 piece, and we had at least drafts of every script, and a lot of them production drafts. So, unlike network television, where you're just jamming to keep up, and you're not entirely sure if the episode that even aired is going to track with where you want the finale to go, and you're just kind of, it's a big leap of faith. This one we really had the ability to look at it as we went, and so we kind of evolved it as it went.
We knew a couple of things. One of our original instincts was in no way should we kill the super baby. The super baby needs to be alive. We decided that very early on, and just because it's in my job as a television showrunner to open up every possible path for story, and we were like and that's a f***ing awesome story that got literally smashed in the head with a lamp.
You have this character that is half the person Butcher loves most in the world and half the person Butcher hates most in the world. And that kid is on a precipice of it could follow in its mother's instincts and become the most useful ally the boys will ever have, or he could just as easily become the most dangerous enemy they've ever had. So, from the very beginning, we identified, we're like, that is far too important a character to kill off. So the twist needs to be that that character is alive somewhere. So we always knew that.
Alive somehow, but you didn't know how?
You just sort of chase your instincts, and I think Garth had the luxury of ducking and moving, and his stories are so impressively dense with flashbacks, and what he reveals when, and where he throws you into the story. In TV, we don't have that luxury because we can't jump around quite as easily, and we also can't use internal monologues as easily as he does, and as dense of dialogue as he does.
Huey and Butcher have pretty much exactly the same backstory ... and because we had eight episodes, it always itched at us, and we kept saying, "If we were writing this, not adapting it, in no way would we ever do that." You can tell in a writers' room when there's an issue because you keep assigning people in their scripts like, "Okay, you're the one who's going to finally tell the story of what happened to Becca."
Then they would say, "I couldn't really figure out a place for that speech, so let's just kick it down the road." You could tell every writer couldn't figure it out, couldn't crack it. So finally, we were like, we think she has to be alive, and that Butcher thinks that he has the same backstory with Huey, but he's wrong.
We were looking at this story ultimately as the futility of revenge. It's kind of like this meditation on toxic masculinity in a way. So it really fit with our theme that Butcher's been on this warpath because of this story that he has accepted as true, but isn't actually true. That kind of fit into that thematic, too. So, once we figured that out, and we're like, "Well, who the hell would be raising the baby after all?" It's like you keep these disparate pieces.
Did you go back and add in hints, foreshadowing it? Or was it too late?
There's a lot in there that foreshadows it. We were in the middle of writing I think Episode 6 when we finally figured this out. So then it gives you the ability to ... Because thank God, we weren't even close to shooting Episode 1. So you could go all the way back and say, okay, this is the truth in our reality now, how do we make sure that everything lines up so that it fits, and that you can really be coherent as a universe? You can drop elements in Episode 1 that don't pay off until Episode 8.
I really love plants and payoffs, and I love the clockwork of series, of like, "Oh, the little thing they dropped in here and it turned out to be really important there." So it was such a pleasure once we really knew what the season was to be able to make all those little adjustments to clue in, and just these little notions of that was when that story told us like, okay, then we really need to lean into how f***ed up Homelander was to not have a mother. So these things start piecing together so it all feels coherent.
Do you pepper in a lot? Is there a hard and fast rule to how many plot points and conversations you want to layer in there to create that payoff?
No. It usually was bits of dialogue and the context of certain scenes. We were wholesale making massive changes because it was already at the ballpark. Because Butcher was still on the quest for revenge and still believed what had happened, so we needed the audience to believe it. So we couldn't go too far afield.
It was more like little things like Vogelbaum tells Homelander how much he regrets not raising him with a mother. There's these little details throughout. That moment when Becca's sitting on the park bench for three hours, and what is she thinking about? And she gets up and walks away. We added little notions like that to hint at it was more than just being abducted and killed. There was something she was deeply in thought about that when you look back you're like, "Oh, yeah. She's going through the revelation that she's pregnant." So, it's those types of details that you just kind of layer in.
The end with Stillwell probably surprised me most. That's such a complicated relationship, but I did not expect him to kill her.
We got to the mom thing in part because we knew just things, again, fit together in a puzzle. We knew we wanted Stillwell to be a female. We started thinking about their relationship. We said, oh, do they have a romantic relationship? And someone in the room was like, "Well, that's pretty straight forward. How do we make that weirder?"
And we were like, "Well, what if he didn't have parents, and if he was raised in a lab, you got a perfect Norman Bates up in the tower there." And someone's like, "Yeah, that's great and that fits, and he was raised in the lab," and being raised in a lab is in the books. So, someone said, "Remember how he was raised in the lab? Think about that. He never had any parents, and so all he would really want to do is breastfeed."
I don't think it was me that threw out the breastfeeding thing. I think it was, actually funny enough, I think it was Anne Saunders because when she worked with me on Revolution, she had an infant, and she was always stealing off to her office to breast pump. We were talking about how like, "Remember that? And remember how you always had to do that? It's such a weird thing in an office because it's so natural, but like you have to pretend like you're going off to sh*t or something. That's so unfair."
We were talking about all of it, and then I remember it was just a room conversation, and then it comes up, and she's like, "You know, that would drive Homelander nuts." That was any one of our first images, like watching her breast pump, and knowing that that milk isn't for him would drive him f***ing nuts because he wants to be her kid, and hates that she has another kid. And we were like, "Yeah, it's amazing!" So, again, these things just evolve through everyone brings personal conversations.
It clearly drove him very crazy.
He needs to increasingly cut tethers with those people who have control over him. It's my job to look at it from his point of view and make sure that it's logical. You don't have to agree with it, but you have to understand it. Same with Stillwell. He could not handle the control that she has over him. He just he couldn't live with it, and she just lied to him one time too many, and he needed to sort of literally cut the apron strings. Leading to a more ascended, more dangerous Homelander in Season 2.