Of all the depraved and disturbing things The Boys has forced us to experience over the past three seasons, making us feel even the slightest kernel of sympathy for Homelander (Antony Starr) has to be the worst.

We’re talking about a show that most recently featured a sexed-up octopus, had a self-replicating Supe tossing his own salad(s) and made us watch as a child spewed Medusa-like tendrils out of her mouth and devoured humans.

It’s gross, it’s messy, it’s The Boys, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface – which makes our earlier statement even harder to believe and yet it’s true.

The latest episode walked us down Homelander’s memory lane, where he took a trip to the secret facility he was raised in, spending his early years being poked and prodded like a lab rat.

This isn’t new information. It’s common knowledge that Homelander didn’t have a freshly-baked-cookies kind of childhood and was raised under observation, emotionally manipulated and controlled by his captors, two of whom were still working at the Vought lab when he spontaneously popped in for a reunion.

“Where’s Barbara [the Director]?” he asks his old minders Frank and Marty, “Bring her in, I’d love to catch up.”

Fans of the show will have already spotted the insincerity in his chipper tone, the threat behind the cheer. One could literally foresee the blood and guts on the wall. What one could not anticipate, however, was the feeling of something close to empathy on the horizon.

Things unfold in the typical Homelander way – mind games and savagery.

During his first round of ‘Let’s toy with the humans’, Homelander is playing waste-paper basketball with Frank when he recalls the memory of being burned alive.

Naturally, being the most powerful Supe (yet to be properly challenged by daddy Soldier Boy), Homelander wasn’t incinerated. His flesh didn’t melt away but he felt every ounce of pain in excruciating measure. Meanwhile, Frank fist-pumped in celebration at sinking a balled-up piece of paper in the bin while Homelander’s tears “sizzled away” in the bone-melting heat.

It was the first wobble in our resolve to feel nothing but hatred and disgust for the depraved Supe. It also turned out to be a much more effective way of getting us to engage with him than the flashback of him as a toddler, alone and isolated.

Though we were aware of the link between the innocent tiny tot and the polished psychopath he grew up to be, there wasn’t enough detail to ground that experience, so we did little more than shrug at the yesteryear version of him.

This time around, The Boys gives us something much more tangible to chew on.

It’s easy to imagine the vulnerable child he once was being brutalised by the adults in control. The show draws out that moment even longer but the painful memory that gave him nightmares is one Frank couldn’t even recall – an insignificant footnote in the life of a man who was ‘just doing his job’.

Consequently, by the time Homelander takes his revenge on Frank and throws him in the man-sized oven to burn, you’re not too perturbed.

Another pang of pity bubbles up when Homelander turns his wrath on Marty, helping him to remember the origins of the nickname Marty gave him.

Squirt, as it were, was born out of the moment in which Marty caught a young Homelander masturbating. He’d laughed then and awarded Homelander the derogatory name.

On its own it’s not much, but when Homelander reveals that this ‘daily activity’ was carried out during the only couple of minutes where he was not under the scrutinising gaze of his tormentors, it builds a picture. It echoes the rawness of his pain when he shares that it was the only time in the day that he felt anything good.

It’s sad and pitiable, made even sadder by the embarrassment this already defenceless child had to endure when he was mocked.

For a minute, it’s hard not to disassociate your mind from Homelander the brute and instead to visualise John, the vulnerable. Until he forces Marty to publicly masturbate, laughing at his attempts to ‘shuck the little mushroom,’ as Homelander put it.

His open-mouth cackle as a panicked Marty spits into his hand attempting to move the process along was the kind of soulless, Homelander energy we’re used to. Sadly, Marty is unable to fulfil Homelander’s brief and so the maniac lasers a hole through his penis for being unable to get it up, thus reminding us how truly awful he really is. Just like that, all is temporarily restored. We hate him again.

However, The Boys isn’t quite finished letting us stew in this uneasy mix of sympathy and repugnance, so they pull the ace out of the hole. Barbara.

After bursting Marty’s head like a grape underneath his boot, Homelander enters into a to-and-fro with the Director, who shows absolutely zero sympathy for her past actions.

In fact, she belittles him and momentarily reduces him to the child he was with just words before praising the old teams’ success in curating a desperate need for love within him, in order to control him.

“We have no physical power over you, we never did,” she reveals. “You could have broken out of here any time you wanted, we couldn’t have stopped you, but you didn’t because you couldn’t stand the idea that we would be disappointed in you.”

It’s an oof moment that keeps sucker-punching him.

“Your need for approval and for love – Vought brought in the best psychologists in the world. They developed the protocol that carefully engineered that need so that you would be obedient. In many ways that was our greatest success.”

Of course she paid for her self-congratulatory brand of honesty with Homelander locking her in a room with the rest of the secret lab employees’ freshly-murdered corpses strewn around the place, blood streaked across the walls.

Barbara revealed herself to be callous and unfeeling, and through hers and Vought’s actions it, for the first time, becomes crystal clear how their moulding of Homelander shaped him into the unhinged villain he’s become.

None of this has anything to do with the new crop of employees whose insides now decorate the walls, as once again we are snapped back into reality.

For a moment, we witnessed his pure, innocent vulnerability and we applaud a show that can add dimension to even the most repellent characters.

That said, Homelander may be damaged but he’s still a self-aware, vile Supe who makes no attempt to change for the better and thus remains irredeemable.

Source: digitalspy.com

By Ivaylo Angelov

Ivaylo Angelov born in Bulgaria, Varna graduated School Geo Milev is Tvserieswelove's Soaps Editor and oversees all of the section's news, features, spoilers and interviews.