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Antony Starr and Cameron Crovetti in The young. Jasper Savage/Prime Video

Since its debut in 2019, Eric Kripke’s superhero series The young has established itself as the sharpest and most explicit satire of Trump-era fascism on television. In Season 2, the antagonist is a literal Nazi superhero named Stormfront (Aya Cash) with an avid online alt-right following. Season 3 ends with the Superman-powered, dyed-blonde media darling and psychopath Homelander (Antony Starr) murdering a civilian in cold blood in front of a crowd. The assembled fanbase breaks into spontaneous cheeringa deliberately clumsy allusion to Donald Trump’s boasting that he could shoot someone without losing voters.

Season 4 continues this style; one of the new heroines of this season is Firecracker (Valorie Curry), a podcaster and conspiracy theorist who rants about groomers and the evils of abortion and Jewish space lasers. It’s a good gag, and Curry does a great job of channeling the combined menace and clowning of GOP lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. But the mix of vicious humor, gore, and horror is still a bit too familiar; the show often feels like it’s repeating past seasons rather than building on them. The protagonists have fought and won against Homelander before – but the guy just keeps coming back. As we face a third Trump election and head into a decade of MAGA politics, The young seems to be exhausted. Who isn’t?

Susan Heyward and Valorie Curry in The young. Jasper Savage/Prime Video

Season 4 appropriately focuses on machinations surrounding a presidential election and Homelander’s increasingly ambitious plans to establish an authoritarian superhero state. The super-fascist already controls the Seven, the most powerful superhero team in the country, and he sits at the helm of Vought, a Fox News-like media empire that produces reactionary superhero movies and TV shows and generally advances far-right corporate dominance. The (more or less ambivalent) allies for Homelander’s planned coup include his superpowered young son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), Vice President-elect Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), who as a secret superhero has the power to make people’s heads explode, and Sage (Susan Heyward), the smartest person in the world.

The Boys are the ragtag group of superheroes and non-superheroes who oppose Homelander – and they seem even more ragged this season than in previous ones. Their godless, amoral leader Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) is suffering from rapidly progressing brain cancer. Superheroine and iconic leader of the resistance Annie January/Starlight (Erin Moriarty) has an apparent mental block and can barely use her powers. Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), the moral center of the team, is distracted by his father’s serious illness. Another team member suffers a panic attack during a mission. Several are nearly paralyzed with guilt and remorse as they confront their own past sins, from bullying to mass murder.

Karl Urban, Tomer Capone and Laz Alonso (from left) in The young. Jan Thijs/Prime Video

The focus on individual inner conflicts and tragic backstories is part of why the season feels unfocused. Rather than building toward a dramatic resolution, the plot staggers and meanders, piling on misery along the way as the apocalypse marches on.

It’s not always entertaining to watch, but it has a certain thematic resonance. Butcher, Hughie, Annie, and the rest of the team have been battling Homelander and the forces of fascism for years. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting work. Fascists target them to smear them, exploit their weaknesses, dox them, and even publish their personal medical records. Homelander and his minions also recruit their friends and family – Ryan, Homelander’s son, was raised by Butcher, who must now decide whether to try to deradicalize him or kill him.

Authoritarian regimes rely on the spread of paranoia and hatred because they know that people who are divided are easier to frighten and control. Hughie in particular recognizes that solidarity is crucial in the fight against the forces of reaction. He calls for forgiveness and wants to welcome into his midst anyone who is willing to turn against fascism.

But as time goes on, it becomes harder to hold together as you watch your allies betray you and your own energy and faith run out. Under constant pressure, personal relationships begin to crumble. Paranoia becomes more and more the norm as there are fewer and fewer people you can trust.

The only silver lining, if you can call it that, is that the villains are so completely clownish and incompetent that they nearly defeat themselves. Homelander is a seething cauldron of insecurity and egotism; he surrounds himself with frightened yes-men and then freaks out because he’s surrounded by frightened yes-men. The Aquaman-like The Deep (Chace Crawford) is a submissive guy who can barely find his own gills with a compass and map. The super-fast speedster A-Train (Reggie Franklin) becomes increasingly disillusioned with the Seven’s general cruelty and racism. Tek Knight (Derek Wilson), a Batman-like superhero with super-senses and enormous wealth, is more focused on satisfying his sexual preferences than taking over the world.

Erin Moriarty in “The Boys”. Jan Thijs/Prime Video

So there are plenty of fascist weaknesses to exploit if the guys can just get their act together. The series becomes less of a heroic battle for the soul of the nation and more of a war of attrition to see which group of dimwitted losers will throw themselves out the window first.

In this context, the Boys’ victories often seem sordid or ridiculous. There’s no moment of blatant, empowering triumph like in Season 2, when a trio of female heroes crush Stormfront, or in Season 3, when Annie January wipes out the villains in an explosion of light.

As for the defeats – well. The young has always had a flair for the dark, but there are sequences in season 4 that are among the absolute bleakest television series I have ever seen. The America of The youngand not only from The youngis facing a seemingly endless authoritarian crisis in which we resolutely choose hatred, fear and oppression. Resistance is not futile, but it is debilitating. Season 4 is The young‘ worst season, because the longer fascism is a living possibility, the worse everything gets.

Season 4 of “The Boys” will stream on Amazon Prime starting June 13th.

Review of Season 4 of “The Boys”: The exhausting work of fighting (and satirizing) fascism

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