The Boys Season 3 Ending Explained: Toxicity And Trauma Pass Through Generations

Major spoilers for "The Boys" season 3 ahead.

"The Boys" season 3 has wrapped, and the season finale, "The Instant White-Hot Wild," is proving to be a divisive one. Scan fan forums and you'll find some not-so-positive responses, with some even claiming it derailed a previously strong season. It certainly left us here at /Film with plenty of questions about where season 4 will go.

Season 3 saw a split in the Boys themselves. Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Hughie (Jack Quaid) ally with the freshly returned Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles) to take down his old team, Payback, and ultimately, Homelander (Antony Starr). Marvin "Mother's Milk" Milk (Laz Alonso) and Starlight/Annie (Erin Moriarty) are opposed to the decision and set out to keep their teammates in line. Meanwhile, Homelander picks himself back up from his humiliating end in season 2, growing more powerful and unhinged than ever. Scariest of all, he finds that when he shows his true self in public, people like it.

In the finale, alliances shifted as Homelander and Soldier Boy had their promised clash, while the rift within the Boys healed in the face of a common foe. Let's look into how the ending squares with the whole of season 3.

The Instant White-Hot Wild

The finale opens with Homelander reuniting with his son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti). On the outs with his stepfather Butcher, Ryan falls into Homelander's "loving" arms. At Vought Tower, Starlight and Homelander's competing social media activism has crowds surrounding the building. The imprisoned Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) escapes while being transported out, as Butcher knocks out Hughie at a gas station to spare him from the coming battle.

Starlight picks up Hughie and the two reconcile. Maeve calls Starlight and they meet at MM's apartment. Butcher and Soldier Boy bond over their abusive childhoods before Team Starlight barges in. Hughie de-escalates MM and Frenchie (Tomer Capone), trying to talk Butcher down, but Maeve ratchets things back up. It turns out, she agrees that Homelander needs to die, so she throws away Frenchie's Novichok sample and teams up with Butcher and Soldier Boy. Team Starlight gets locked in a safe while Team Butcher, now three strong, heads to Vought Tower. Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) returns to the Tower and prepares to face Soldier Boy, only to get a fatal bear hug from Homelander. Disgusted by his remaining cronies, Ashley (Colby Minifie), A-Train (Jessie Usher), and the Deep (Chace Crawford), Homelander orders them away.

The fight becomes Maeve vs. Homelander and Soldier Boy vs. Butcher, who betrays Soldier Boy after the latter attacks Ryan. This is one of the critiques of the finale; it's an illogical decision since Homelander is a bigger threat than Soldier Boy. The best explanation is Butcher blames himself for Ryan being there. After Starlight and MM arrive, Soldier Boy goes nuclear. Maeve pushes him out of the nearest window before he explodes. She survives but loses her powers. Soldier Boy, on the other hand, is back on ice.

The price of power

According to showrunner Eric Kripke, "The Boys" Season 3 is about toxic masculinity. For starters, there's the Temp V. To fight the Supes one to one, Billy Butcher and Hughie start taking a temporary version of the chemical formula that gives Supes their powers; Butcher gets a version of Homelander's powers while Hughie is able to teleport. As Starlight/Annie discovers, the Temp V is fatal after three to five doses; Butcher and Hughie's power is literally toxic, and it's killing them.

Throughout Season 3, Hughie constantly talks about wanting to "save" Annie, even though she's a Supe and he's a normal human. When Annie confronts him about it in episode 6, "Herogasm," he finally admits he's uncomfortable how he's the weaker one in their relationship. Eric Kripke describes Hughie's decision to use the Temp V as, "selfish, to make himself feel macho & save a woman who doesn't want saving."

That's why Hughie's decision in the finale is so important. During the final fight, when Annie is squaring off with Soldier Boy, Hughie, unaware of the Temp V's effects, considers taking a dose so he can teleport in and "save" Annie. Instead, he throws away the vial and ramps up the power on the lights in the room, which Annie absorbs to blast Soldier Boy. By trusting Annie to save her own life, Hughie unknowingly saved his own. Butcher, on the other hand, continues abusing the Temp V and ends the season with 12-18 months to live.

Inherited toxicity

"The Boys" has never shied away from critiquing toxic masculinity. What makes season 3 unique is how it honed in on the behavior's roots, how it's passed down from father to son. Since the first season, we've known Butcher grew up with an abusive father (John Noble), who he still hates. Episode 7, "Here Comes A Candle To Light You To Bed," features an extended flashback detailing his childhood and how Billy blames himself for the suicide of his younger brother Lenny. 

Butcher's abuse is why even his relationships with those he cares for are troubled. His bond with Hughie is because he sees Lenny in him, yet even when saving his life, he does it by punching him out instead of just being honest and admitting their shared mistake. He also pushes Ryan away by blaming him for the death of Becca (Shantel VanSanten), Butcher's wife and Ryan's mom. 

Episode 7 is also home to the twist that Soldier Boy is Homelander's father. In the finale, Soldier Boy talks about how his own father considered him a disappointment, and he didn't want that relationship with his own son. Yet when he sees Homelander misty-eyed at the thought of finally having a family, Soldier Boy decides his son doesn't meet his standards of masculinity and that he's beyond helping. The brand of disappointment is passed down from one generation to the next.

Ironically enough, Homelander is the closest of three men to a loving father — he reels in Ryan by assuring him he doesn't blame him for Stormfront's (Aya Cash) death and promising the boy he'll always love him. Having Homelander in his life is a definite negative for Ryan's development, but it shows how a little paternal affection goes a long way.

A peek behind Black Noir's mask

The season's exploration of processing abuse isn't limited to parental relationships. Black Noir (Fritzy-Klevans Destine when unmasked in flashbacks) used to be Soldier Boy's teammate on Payback. Soldier Boy ran the team like a tyrant, and Noir is still reeling decades after his abuse. Thus, Noir and the rest of Payback set Soldier Boy up to be kidnapped by the Soviets. As a result of Soldier Boy's return, we finally got to learn something about the most inscrutable of the Seven.

Before this season, Noir's face hadn't even been revealed, and he never spoke. It's revealed in episode 7 that, thanks to Soldier Boy's thrashing, his face is disfigured and his brain damaged; he can't speak. In a more surreal turn, we also learn he hallucinates cartoon animals who were mascots at the "Buster Beaver" restaurant he went to as a kid. It's through the cartoons' play-acting we learn the full extent of Noir's history with Soldier Boy. Noir can't fully process what was done to him, so he filters it through a literal cartoon version of reality.

The cartoons also observe Noir's main flaw as a person: his lack of agency. He's always been depicted as a man who dutifully follows orders, and his first instinct is to run from Soldier Boy. Ironically, it's a mild streak of independence that gets Noir killed; Homelander kills Noir because Noir had kept the secret that Soldier Boy was Homelander's father, and Homelander felt betrayed. Like his father, Homelander doesn't tolerate his team stepping out of the lines he sets for them.

Queen Maeve gets a happy ending

Even if she's down an eye and her powers, Queen Maeve gets the happiest ending this season. Since season 1, she's been a foil for Starlight; Maeve used to be the plucky heroine Annie is but became a disillusioned burnout due to Homelander's abuse. Throughout the series, even in the finale, Maeve has been telling Annie there's no such thing as heroes.

In "The Instant White-Hot Wild," Maeve proves herself wrong when she throws Soldier Boy out the window, saving everyone in Vought Tower. This is the genuinely selfless act of a true hero; sure, she lived, but she didn't know she would. There's also a sense of atonement to her actions. After all, she disposed of the Novichok, the thing that could've stopped Soldier Boy.

The powerless Maeve fakes her death and after a final conversation with Annie, she finally moves on with her life alongside her girlfriend, Elena (Nicola Correia-Damude). Maeve's ending demonstrates how "The Boys," for all its cynicism, is still a more optimistic story than its source material. When Maeve turned against Homelander there, he tore her head off and threw it out the window of Vought Tower.

The supporting cast

MM's arc this season was about, in the words of Dominic Toretto, family. For one, the reason MM distrusts Soldier Boy and splinters from Butcher is MM's grandfather was collateral damage during Soldier Boy's crime-fighting. By trying to avenge his family, MM is also splitting it apart; he's on the outs with his wife, Monique (Frances Turner), and trying to keep his daughter, Janine (Liyou Abere), out of his work life.

Unfortunately, Monique's new boyfriend, Todd (Matthew Gorman), is part of the Homelander cult. This embodies a modern variant of the lesson, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Seemingly harmless people are being indoctrinated by right-wing propaganda everyday. MM learns the lesson many Americans have: Members of your own family unit can be brainwashed like everyone else. When Todd tries to spread his Homelander worship to Janine, he earns a punch from MM. In the finale, MM sits down with Janine and discusses the truth about Supes and real heroes with her, mending their relationship.

Then there's Frenchie and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara). I'll be honest, they definitely felt like the most ancillary of the cast this season, even if their storyline did give us that amazing musical sequence. In a nutshell, though, Kimiko's arc is about accepting that her powers don't make her a monster, while Frenchie's is about learning to stand up for himself. In the finale, Kimiko fights off guards as she listens to Michael Sembello's "Maniac" while Frenchie tells Butcher off.

The Seven aren't seven

On the other side of the cast, the Seven is now just the Three. Starlight quit, Maeve faked her death, and Black Noir and Supersonic (Miles Gaston Villanueva) are actually dead.

A-Train's arc this season could be the beginning of his redemption. He attempts to get racist Supe Blue Hawk (Nick Wechsler) to apologize for harassing Black communities, and it ends with Blue Hawk paralyzing A-Train's brother Nathan (Christian Keyes).

Ashley silences A-Train's rage by pointing out the truth: A-Train only cares about collateral damage now because it affects him. Her words seem to awaken something in A-Train; next time he sees Hughie, he finally genuinely apologizes for killing Robin (Jess Salgueiro) in the series premiere. Then, he does the selfish thing and kills Blue Hawk, almost dying himself. A-Train is saved by having Blue Hawk's heart transplanted into himself. A-Train's last focus scene of the season is him visiting Nathan, who's disgusted by the murder ("I wanted my kids to see [Blue Hawk's] mugshot on the TV") and practically disowns his brother. Will A-Train make his change of heart more than literal? That's a question for season 4 to answer.

On the other end, The Deep continues to throw away every chance for self-improvement. He spends the season sucking up to Homelander and being puppeteered by his wife, Cassandra (Katy Breier), who leaves him when he requests an Octopus threesome. The Deep ends the season alone, looking at a portrait of himself at Homelander's side.

Then there's Ashley. While she's as scared of Homelander as ever, she spent the season developing more of a backbone. She even deletes footage proving Maeve survived. Will she finally work up the courage to not bow to Homelander?

Fauxgressive politicians

The last-minute twist in "The Boys" season 2 was that the mysterious Supe who'd been blowing up people's heads was the plucky, seemingly anti-Vought Congresswoman Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit). When season 3 begins, she's heading the Federal Bureau of Superhuman Affairs and buddying up to Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito).

Neuman is a parody of politicians who posture as progressives to win support but do the bidding of corporations once in power. Edgar praises her for weeding out "a few bad apples," the phrase frequently used to dismiss structural change in favor of personal ones. It even turns out Neuman, birth name Nadia, is Edgar's adopted daughter and has been groomed for a role of political power since childhood. This is a more literal version of how the rich and powerful support politicians' rises to power in exchange for favors once they're in office.

By the end of the season, Neuman is on track to be the next vice president. Along the way, she threw Edgar under the bus in favor of Homelander. Even though Edgar is gone, Vought's still corrupt, even worse than before. The chain of events is what causes the more optimistic characters, like Hughie and Annie, to realize "changing the system from the inside" is doomed. That's why Annie sheds the Starlight identity and joins the Boys officially.

'I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn't lose any voters, OK?'

That was an off-the-cuff remark by former President Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign. Six years later it's proven terrifyingly true; not even possible inciting treason was enough for his supporters to jump ship. In the finale's closing scene, Homelander, whom Eric Kripke has confirmed is a Trump stand-in, finally shows off the "real" him, and it's terrifying, not just because of what he does, but the reaction.

Throughout season 3, Homelander has been attracting a cult of right-wing followers. During one of his rallies, he introduces Ryan to them, only for a protester to throw a bottle and hit Ryan. Enraged, Homelander decapitates the guy with his heat vision. The pro-Homelander crowd goes silent, but once the moment of shock passes, they're cheering even harder than before. Homelander and Ryan both smile as ominous string music closes out the finale.

The show has been teasing this moment for a while. In Season 2, Homelander fantasized about slaughtering a crowd of protesters with his heat vision. It also came with the assumption that once the world knew of Homelander's true, murderous self, that would spell the end of his reputation. But as we've found out in real life, that often isn't the case. People project what they want out of their leaders onto them and make excuses for their bad behavior. If anything, the skeletons in someone's closet being aired can actually embolden their support because it gives them the chance to play the martyr.

Ryan's smile ties the season together. Now that he's under the tutelage of his father, he is starting to inherit his worst traits.

"The Boys" is streaming on Prime Video.