Mortuary materialities and commemoration are repeated dimensions of the comedy superhero television series The Boys. Here are my Archaeodeath highlights. While I’ve largely talked about mortuary dimensions to historical dramas focused on the Early Middle Ages, the ways in which mortality is materialised and spatialised in our contemporary past via television is also a fascinating dimension of the archaeology and heritage of death and memory. In this regard, The Boys is especially interesting since it represents death, mourning and commemoration in the contemporary, but also critiques media manipulations of it.
‘Cool your jets, guv, it’s not a hate crime!’
Billy Butcher walks casually away from his missing wife Becca’s cenotaphic headstone. With a sledgehammer still in hand, Butcher has responded to a ‘hey’ of objection from a groundsman to his actions. He answers his mobile phone as if nothing has happened of significance while the groundsman just stands gawping in shock.
His sister-in-law had placed the headstone for her mother to have somewhere to grieve her missing-presumed-dead sister, but Billy has refused to give up hope she is still alive. In a rage, having confronted his sister, he attacks the headstone with rage but calculation.
The memorial has been positioned in a historic leafy lawn cemetery with fresh white roses placed at its foot. His visit to this tranquil location was an act of funerary desecration to decommission the memorial. Butcher thus physically and materially articulated his denial that his wife’s disappearance years earlier.
This dark comedic moment encapsulates the quasi-sacrality afforded to the grave and the wider cemetery context in American popular culture including innumerable films and television series. Usually, however, in these representations, ‘romantic’ and/or intimate love and attempts at reconciliation between the living and the dead involves a quiet graveside dialogue (as most recently and popularly seen in Stranger Things 4). This scene brings to mind the widespread broader tensions surrounding death in the modern West, specifically relating to the location, identification and repatriation and memorialising of the dead.
For Butcher, attacking the gravestone is tangibly not an act of disrespect, but actually serves to dispel the very concept she might have died. It also simultaneously materialises his deep-seated trauma over his wife’s supposed demise. On a further level, it articulates Butcher’s ‘outlaw’ demeanour and his broader capability to break social mores in a decisive and subversive way.
The Boys is excellent and horrific, taking The Watchmen to a next level, but this is but one way in which black comedy navigates contemporary attitudes to death and loss.
And of course, the Becca’s corporeal absence mirrors in some regards the trauma Highie Campbell suffers after his girlfriend Robin is slain by accident by the superhoero A-Train at the opening of the season. Absence women, and romantic relationships with them, murmur through the first season, Robin appearing as a visual apparition to Hughie on multiple occasions.
This short scene at the cemetery encapsulates so much about the wider series themes linking the living to the corporal absence of the dead in The Boys season 1.
Season 2 brings a richer range of Archaeodeath themes and takes us outside the cemetery more explicitly.
The series opens with the funeral of Translucent, killed by The Boys in season 1 and his body fragments recovered from the sea by The Deep. The superhero’s funeral is a ludicrous Vought Corporation celebrity performance. A glass coffin is situated upon stage in a theatre hilariously revealing Translucent’s invisible presence. Floral tributes abound outside. Merchandise is on sale by a street vendor at ludicrous prices – funerals are opportunities for profit, superhero funerals even more so.
Meanwhile, The Deep watches on TV from a bar, seeing himself cut out of the news reports memorialising the ‘fallen hero’. To top it all, Starlight sings the song ‘Heroes Never Die’ at the funeral. Of course, the funeral is a lie: lying about the circumstances of Translucent’s death.
The second funeral in season 2 takes place in episode 2, when we see CIA’s Grace Mallory and Billy Butcher at the funeral of Deputy Director of the CIA, Raynor, killed at the end of Season 1 by a mystery supe. At the funeral, they spot a fruit bouquet in a prominent central point beside the coffin. After, Mallory asks: “I assume you sent the edible arrangement?”
Butcher replies: ‘Deluxe Bereavement Bouquet with white chocolate dipped pineapple doves: Raynor would have loved that’.
Again, Butcher is revealed as a funerary subversive: honouring the dead but in a distinctively ridiculous fashion: both caring and comedic.
In episode 4, Butcher and Mallory meet outside the makeshift memorial wall pinned onto the temporary hoardings in front of an apartment block after Stormfront and Kenji Miyasharo fight through it and kill 59 people. This reveals the sustained connection between these characters in their fight against the supes. This scene allows reflection on the civilian death toll behind the Vought superhero’s behaviours.
The Lovers of Valdaro
References to the archaeological record are a further dimension to The Boys.
In episode 4, the Church of the Collective are interviewing potential wives for The Deep to help rehabilitate his terrible reputation. One of them, Cassandra, gives her philosophy on love inspired by an archaeological example: ‘They say if you love someone, you should set them free. But that seems crazy to me because if you love someone, you will never let them go. Never. Have you heard of the Lovers of Valdaro? They were alive, like, 6,000 years ago and they were found in this tomb in Italy. These two skeletons with their arms around each other. That’s love’.
We learn in episode 5 that Cassandra Schwartz is an anthropology professor at Vasar, explaining her evocation of the mortuary archaeological record to mirror her own aspirations for romantic entanglement. Through seasons 2 and 3, she is represented as the superficial but clingy and manipulative wife of The Deep who is happy to be spoon-fed lines by her to advance The Deep’s standing with Homelander and Vought.
Homelander’s Confederate commemoration
Throughout the show, the Seven are everywhere – on cereal packets, on TV, on billboards, and of course in films and various Vought fascist-style frescos and sculptures. There’s more to it than promotion of their corporate superhero identities and revenue streams.
The most sinister spin reflecting the rising white nationalism inspired by Stormfront, is when Hughie and The Boys head south and encounter the physical impact on the rural landscape. The South features on billboards – opposite a church there is a huge billboard with the statement ‘That Baby you Abort might be Super’. They pass a deeply sinister mural of Homelander on the side of a barn with a Confederate flag replacing the flag of the United States.
So many deaths, but I honestly didn’t spot much Archaeodeath in the third season until the very end and the final episode.
A brief news report from iVoughtemundo shows the funeral of Supersonic. The first Latino member of the Seven and newly appointed to the team via an online celebrity competition, he made the mistake of confiding in A-Train the plan to kill Homelander with the help of Starlight. He is killed by Homelander who displays his corpse as a warning to Starlight to fall in line.
The funeral itself isn’t represented, but instead, we are shown how TV and social media manipulate and present the events we see as an audience. Via TV, we see his hearse and a scene of the 19th-century Catholic cathedral of St Patrick’s, where his funeral is taking place. The location is significant, on 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, as it alludes to Supersonic’s religious and cultural heritage simultaneously, this integrity and roots reflected in his loyalty to Starlight contrasted with the fake media story regarding the circumstances of his death.
In other words, even though only via this passing reference, a careful reflection is made regarding the narratives constructed around death in America’s multicultural landscape, media and corporate politics. This is strung out through season 3 in other scenes, including the incessant corporate adherence to ‘woke’ themes and language such as the gross racial and sex/gender injustices met with banal corporate platitudes about ‘healing’ and ‘diversity’ and Trump-esque populist politics.
Under the power of Mindstorm who puts him into a nightmare-riddled coma, Billy revisits his early years and the suicide of his younger brother Lenny. The only specific material culture dimensions are gun itself which Lenny uses on himself to escape their father’s physical abuse. The nightmare-Lenny blames Billy.
This is worth noting because the power of memories of these incidents, combined with the treatment and demise of Becca, shape Butcher’s determination to see through his revenge against the supes and to save Hughie with whom he regards the spitting image of Lenny.
Black Noir’s helmet
After slaying him, Homelander brings in Black Noir’s helmet as a trophy to show to Ashley, The Deep and A-Train. Popular science fiction genres are obsessed with masked heroes and villains, but also with helmets and masks as memorial symbols to those who had worn them. This is but one among many manifestations of this trend and is deserving of note, even if there is no specific memorial use for the item itself in this instance.
Remembering Queen Maeve
Reflecting the media spin following Supersonic’s death, we see the mourning of Queen Maeve’s death via the TV reporting. Under the caption ‘Remembering Queen Maeve’, a montage of images of her are accompanied by a narrative of her as ‘one of America’s greatest superheroes, a role-model for little girls everywhere’ and making the ‘ultimate sacrifice’. The media manipulation of her promoted Vought identity as a ‘proud lesbian’ mischaracterises her more complex sexuality as well as the circumstances of her death. Of course, her ‘death’ turns out to be a deception too, and a positive one for once: Maeve escapes the lies and fame of Vought.
Toppling Soldier Boy’s statue
The final act of memorialisation is one of statue-toppling and the decommissioning of memory. In a dark subversion of the recent spate of Confederate statue-toppling in the US and elsewhere, and mimicking the 6 Jan Capitol riot, we see Homelander’s far-right ‘base’ protesting and toppling Soldier Boy’s statue. Again, we start to see it through the media gaze.
The Capitol Riot allusion is made explicit with one of the protests wearing a Buffalo-headdress bearing his naked torso and wearing stars-and-stripes face-paint just like Jake Angeli had done when storming the Capitol Building. Yet instead of Norse tattoos, he has a Homelander cape and stars-and-stripes shorts. He points to the camera whilst another protestor in paramilitary garb berates the media as responsible. We realise that Stormfront and her neo-Nazi followers are amidst the rest of the crowd and their ‘American Safety First’ banners. Parodying Donald Trump as ever, Homelander descends into the crowd and compliments them: ‘you are America, true patriots’. Hence the statue toppling is not a rejection of a dark past, but simply a succession from one populist superhero demagogue to another. And then, Homelander introduces his son, Ryan…
The Boys gives us an eclectic but insightful range of dark and amusing reflections on contemporary mortuary and commemorative practices, materialities and landscapes in the US from the pop culture world of superhero comics, films and television which in turn reflect and refract our actual historic environment.
The Boys shows us funerals to makeshift floral memorial walls and cemeteries and the varied superhero statues and representations, as well as how the media spins sacrificial and heroic death from messy and dismal realities. Through seasons 1-3, we get some fascinating cluster of parodies and reflections on US celebrity death culture and the simplification and manipulation of social memory by corporations, politicians and the role of the media.
Perhaps it is only at the very end of season 3 that we get a reality check of the kinds of remembrance that actually matter to most people beyond social media, and the media nonsense, and the corporate lies. When MM talks to his daughter Janine about her grandad, explaining he was a real hero. #she replies, ‘you’re my hero Daddy’. Thus, we get a reality-check that the real heroes are indeed (in this story) ‘The Boys’ and their loved ones. Indeed, their memory is mediated and defined by acts, by family, by verbal dialogue, and the material cultures here of significance are humble family photographs.