Published on November 29th, 2018 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Sam Esmail, creator of the excellent show, Mr. Robot, has a new Amazon series starring Julia Roberts. It’s called Homecoming, and it’s smart and enigmatic.
Do we ever really make peace with our bad choices in life? Or is that thin line of the human condition so unstable that we fool ourselves into believing we were always good? If so, does the truth even matter?
Homecoming, the new Amazon miniseries from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, asks a great deal of these open-ended questions. Yet, without spoonfeeding any explicit answers, the series works incredibly well at being an entertaining and suspenseful thought-experiment. Our protagonist is Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts in her best performance in years) who is the head-counsellor at a veteran rehabilitation centre. At first her job seems straightforward enough; she conducts one-on-one sessions with soldiers returning home and helps them cope with trauma, better preparing them for the real world. However, as the series’ calculated storytelling moves along in its opening episodes, we begin to see insidious cracks in Heidi’s seemingly impenetrable façade. Her boss (Bobby Canavale) orders her to pursue more in-depth sessions with a certain soldier named Walter Cruz who is deemed, “a perfect candidate,” and as she unknowingly passes the point of no culpability, she begins to unravel the haunting truth about her role at Homecoming. The true purpose of the facility remains a mystery for at least half of the series run-time, but what the show really has on its mind, the mystery the show leaves to the viewer to solve, is whether Heidi is truly responsible for any of the deception and lies going on behind the facility’s walls.
This question becomes especially pertinent when the show flashes forward a few years in the future. We meet a diligent investigator of internal complaints from the State Department (Shea Whigham), a relatively insignificant cog in the bureaucratic machine, who is tasked with addressing a complaint made against Heidi shortly after the events of the series’ main timeline. One problem; when he tracks Heidi down, she is a waitress at some divey restaurant and claims to not recall ever working at the facility or knowing anyone named Walter Cruz. And as a result, the series’ central mystery transitions from ‘who knows the truth?’ to ‘who controls it?’
This is truly one of the most formally original and gripping series in the annals of the “Golden Age of Television.” It uses two radically different aspect ratios: regular widescreen for the Homecoming timeline and an extremely narrow, boxy aspect ratio that almost appears to have been shot on an iPhone for the scenes that take place years later. This juxtaposition between the two ratios is jarring in all the best ways. We feel calmer, safer, more relaxed in the widescreen timeline as we witness the goings on of Walter Cruz’s sessions with Heidi. In contrast, the future aspect ratio is tight and suffocating, giving the viewer an uncanny claustrophobia, which perfectly matches the Heidi’s confused emotional state. Yet, it also eventually serves as a nefarious, literal signifier of the Homecoming’s insidious nature.
The episodes are also a tight 30 minutes each, despite the haunting tone of the series. It is a drama through and through, but in this liberated age of long-form cinema, Esmail and co. break new ground here. The episodes are so tautly paced, so precise and efficient in their storytelling, any longer runtime would contain unnecessary filler. Its always a sign of a good series when the credits come up and you remark, “Wow, that flew by.” It truly makes you want to watch the next one, which is the whole point, isn’t it?
If my description of the premise of the show seems vague, its because the series purposely revels in said vagueness. It doubles down on its enigmatic qualities early, asking you to trust where it leads you. Of course, this is an extremely doable and, in fact, riveting task because of the shows uniquely uncanny and fascinating tone. Like a Hitchcockian, cerebral thriller, or a paranoid Alan J. Pakula mystery, this film basks in the aesthetic of toying with the viewer, teasing them with information. While the show eventually does deliver on everything it sets up, the genius of it lies in the uncomfortable little nuances of the facility and the strange atmosphere of forgetfulness and paranoia that surrounds Heidi in the years after ‘the incident’ (that phrase perfectly sums up the show’s playful ambiguity). You’ll be about as uncomfortable as a fly on a wall, privy to haunting and intense conversations but often without much of a context to place it in. That comes later, in the series final few episodes when all is revealed. Yet, Esmail displays a precision in knowing when to pull the trigger, slowly transforming the show from entertainingly enigmatic to shockingly brutal and devastating. But its in the crucial enigmatic stages that the show really becomes great, setting itself up for an ending that feels both organic and satisfying.
Ultimately, Homecoming is a dense philosophical case study. Not only does it uncover a great deal of fascinating questions regarding perception and memory, but it also unpacks how they play into ethics, the well-being of the soul. It happens to also be an experiment in the viewer’s own perception and how they ethically evaluate what they are seeing. The formal decisions made by Esmail–the aspect ratios, the shorter episode lengths—these serve to distort your perception of events just like Heidi. And in the end, the show leaves it ultimately up to the viewer to decide whether Heidi is a good person or whether distinctions of good and bad do not capture the complexity of the human condition. Are society and the hegemonic powers that be the ones who pull the strings? Or, in our careers, are we still able to be ethical beings, to make a difference despite bureaucracy and corporate greed? And most importantly, how do we live with our choices, our mistakes? How do we move on? Can we, or is it better to just forget?
Again, a lot of questions to be asked, but Homecoming balances them with poise. In one of the best shows of 2018, you get to be the judge.