Through two-plus seasons The Boys has provided countless scenes that are emotionally brutal and difficult to watch. But season three’s fourth episode, titled “Glorious Five Year Plan,” might have featured the single most gut-wrenching moment so far. It didn’t involve a sociopathic supe or even a character sharing their tragic personal story, though. Nor was it one of the series’ signature spectacles. It was a brief, quiet shot both horrifying and heartbreaking, because it showed what can happen even to someone as good as Hughie when they they lose themselves seeking power. Especially in a world that insists being ruthless is the only way to get ahead.
Jack Quaid’s Hughie Campbell has always been the soul of The Boys. That’s true of both the show and the vigilante group. And it’s true despite the fact he lives in a world that grinds down and abuses kindness, all while rewarding the strongest and most unscrupulous. Through every horrible event, Hughie has kept his humanity. Even when it’s been necessary for him to resort to violence, he has always returned to who he is at his core: a good person. Hughie sees that as his greatest weakness, but Butcher knows that’s always been Hughie’s strength. That why the laser-focused, uncompromising, and Machiavellian Butcher needs Hughie. “The Kid” is Butcher’s moral compass. Without him, Butcher would get lost in his own compromising rage. And that would almost certainly lead to Butcher hurting those he wishes to protect.
But even the strongest compass will break under enough pressure, and Hughie’s humanity began to crack with four words: “I want to try some.” Despite knowing as well as anyone what super powers do to a person, Hughie wanted to become one, even if only for one day. He was tired of being a “loser” and a “f***-up.” More importantly, he was so angry he could barely breathe. Life had finally beaten him down. After Homelander threatened him in front of Annie, he said, “It was like I was back with every bully that I ever had, just taking it.”
Like Hamlet with no time to think, anger over Robin, anger over Butcher using him, anger over Annie’s mistreatment by Vought, and anger at himself has allowed Hughie to act when he might otherwise not have. Until he stole Compound V24, though, he never gave himself over entirely to his base instincts. He never stopped being Hughie.
That became harder to do when he learned the truth about Victoria Neuman. Hughie tried doing things the “right” way when it came to stopping supes. He thought he could trust in the system, in justice, and in others. Hughie genuinely believed in his heart that you didn’t have to be an uncompromising machine like Butcher. Or that death and violence was the only way to hold powerful people accountable for their own death and violence. But his faith couldn’t survive learning his boss’ true identity. Her connections with Vought showed him just how rigged the system is. There is no “right way” to overcome a system that is intentionally so wrong. What followed that revelation was a wave of cynicism that carried him right back to Butcher and his way of doing things.
It’s hard to blame Hughie for feeling that way. How can anyone be a good person in an evil world that rewards the wicked? Can any of us rely on kindness when kindness is not only viewed as a weakness but it is abused and exploited by the most powerful? How can we ever go high when the lowest among us trip anyone who tries to get by?
Those are the questions we all must answer every day. Can we continue to care and fight for what we know is right when it seems like things will never get better? Can we keep our humanity when so many around us celebrate and benefit from their lack of it? And how much does anything we do matter in a system that doesn’t care?
When given the chance to even the playing field, the question isn’t “how many of us would take Compound V24?” The question is would any of us turn it down when the world, both of The Boys and our own, is broken. After all, the bad guys keep winning and things seem to be getting worse. Why wouldn’t we fight fire with fire? Maybe violence, corruption, and cynicism is the answer.
We know in our heart cynicism and corruption are not a path to a better world. Just like we know violence is not the answer to our problems. It only begets more violence, adding more pain, despair, and suffering to the world. And when we give in to hate kill the good inside of us. Violence eats at our soul until there’s nothing left.
That’s what made Hughie’s ride in that van so horrible. That wasn’t the Hughie we know. It was a total monster, no different than Homelander. It was only fitting he’d been naked smiling at his bloodied hand that killed a man. Hughie gave in to his basic instincts, becoming more animal than man. He became intoxicated with strength and lost his humanity. His friend Kimiko was dying behind him, but the person who once insisted on saving A-Train’s life didn’t even notice. He was enjoying the sensation of literal power running through his veins. He stared at his arm and what it represented and he liked it. In that moment he became the living embodiment that absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s always been a major theme of the show, but it never resonated with such a sickening punch as it did seeing power destroy Hughie.
Butcher knew exactly what would happen when he refused to give Hughie the serum, which we see when The Boys leader warns him about what Compound V really is. “It’s not power; it’s punishment.” That’s exactly how Kimiko feels about her abilities. She couldn’t believe Butcher would willing do that to himself. That’s because both of them have seen—and experienced—what happens to the someone when free of consequences and vulnerability. It’s something to be shunned, not craved, especially not by Hughie.
As Mother’s Milk—a victim of the most powerful person on that planet, Soldier Boy—realized what his friend had done, he told Hughie the truth. “You’re better than this, kid,” he said. MM is right. Hughie was better than this and always had been. He was never the weakling he believes himself to be. His greatest, most admirable power was in not wanting to be the power-hungry monster the world wants him to be.
At least it wasn’t until we watched him feel the wind passing over his fully healed arm as Vought’s poison coursed through his veins. In that moment it was hard not to fear the road he’s heading down. It’s a dark path without kindness and empathy. It’s a road that leads to the an empty soul like Homelander’s. But what’s really horrifying is that we know that that when someone as good as Hughie can lose his way and end up there, we could too when faced with the same opportunity?
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.