Homecoming is available to stream now on Amazon Prime. Here is a review of the new show from Sam Esmail.
I still have not gotten around to watching Mr. Robot (much to my chagrin), but I have heard nothing but promising things about that show’s creator, Sam Esmail. When I saw that his new series on Amazon Prime, Homecoming, were half-hour episodes, I was immediately intrigued to see how a mystery/thriller show would play out in short-form episodes. Now, I cannot wait to jump into Mr. Robot, after seeing what Sam Esmail is capable of with Homecoming, a tense, slightly off-kilter, and technically proficient story of mounting paranoia.
Based on a podcast created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, Homecoming stars Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman, an employee at Homecoming, a facility aiding soldiers in the readjustment to civilian life after being in the war. She interviews these soldiers about their experiences, in attempts to understand and help them grapple with their trauma and lead them into a more peaceful-minded existence. At least, that’s what we think she’s doing. At her time at Homecoming, she builds a rapport with one of the soldiers, Walter Cruz (Stephen James), who is convinced that the facility is nothing but a positive influence on his well-being. The show also jumps forward in time, where Heidi works as a waitress at a diner, seemingly having taken on a whole new life. It isn’t long before a member of the Department of Defense, Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) finds Heidi and begins to question her about what happened at Homecoming. And thus, we have ourselves a mystery that jumps back and forth in time, constantly making us question the real purpose of Homecoming, as well as how much Heidi knows or doesn’t know about what went on at the facility.
This is a show where characters are constantly questioning things, and no one ever really seems to be on the same page with anyone else…about anything. Esmail knows exactly how to mess with your head, and he finds the perfect way to end each episode with a reveal or intrigue that pulls you in further into his intricately designed narrative. It all centers around a terrific Julia Roberts performance that makes us question her reliability from scene to scene; she also plays very well off of James’s Walter Cruz, and their evolving relationship becomes a surprisingly sweet emotional center to a show that initially seems to be all about the mystery. It’s also nice to see Shea Whigham get a meatier role, as I think he’s one of the greatest character actors of our time.
Stylistically, Esmail plays with many clever visual, audial, and editing tricks (sometimes all at once) to heighten the tension. For example, numerous phone exchanges occur between Heidi and her smarmy supervisor (Bobby Cannavale, perfectly cast), which reveal piece-by-piece the inner workings of the company and what they are hoping to achieve. Esmail uses clever editing and crosscutting to portray these conversations in an interesting way, and his use of phone audio while visually showing the characters talk helps enhance the level of disconnect between the two characters, as well as the audience’s disconnect from the truth. Another scene in the second episode finds Carrasco sifting through confidential files in an archive room filled with motion-sensor lights. Esmail lets the music swell as Carrasco gets closer and closer to a key piece of information; just as he finds what he’s looking for, the light goes out and the music abruptly stops. My palms are sweaty just typing this.
The perfectly framed shots and technically impressive camerawork only further highlight that something is off about Homecoming. Esmail even plays with aspect ratio in a way that, at first, seems like a straightforward visual cue to differentiate the two timelines; eventually, this stylistic choice reveals itself to be more connected with the characters’ narrowed understanding of what’s going on.
I can see where some people might watch this show and, at the end of it, ask themselves “…is that it?” I definitely had a few moments, where I was wondering if the reveals of the narrative are as straightforward as they are presented. The way Esmail was able to stylistically convey such intense paranoia made me think there was more to the story he was hiding from us. At first, this slightly disappointed me, but I realized that my “disappointment” only proved how successful he was at making me paranoid. In that sense, Homecoming is very much a technical showcase from the extremely talented Esmail, but one that is able to subtly build a touching relationship between Heidi and Walter amongst ever-growing paranoia and intrigue. Quite the feat, if you ask me.
Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Homecoming is rated TV-MA.