By the time you finish Homecoming’s first season, the true story underneath its sinister veteran rehabilitation project is clear. Turns out this wasn’t just a story about helping soldiers readjust to their civilian lives! But Homecoming reveals its real motivation — and the past life of Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) — slowly and elliptically. If you’re not watching carefully, you could miss some of the crucial nuances. In case you’re left with any uncertainty, here are some concrete answers to your lingering Homecoming questions.
What was the real purpose of the Homecoming program?
The truth of the “Homecoming Transitional Support Program” rolls out gradually over the course of the season’s ten episodes. None of it is buried too deeply, but our understanding of what exactly is happening does change from beginning to end. At first, we’re led to believe that Homecoming is a readjustment facility for returning veterans, especially for those, like Walter Cruz (Stephan James) who suffer from PTSD. It’s presented as a combination of therapies, including conversations with a mental-health facilitator (Heidi Bergman), role-playing exercises (led by the ineffective Craig), and some kind of medication. The role of that medication — which is meant to diminish the impact of PTSD symptoms — becomes more and more sinister as we realize that Walter Cruz’s friend Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) has adverse effects and is kicked out of the program.
Eventually, when Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale) asks Heidi to reiterate the purpose of the program, she explains that the goal of Homecoming is to treat PTSD like a disease, something to be “eradicated,” rather than a condition to be managed. Then, we figure out the truth: Although Heidi thought the medication was meant to erase the emotional fallout of trauma, the meds actually erase the traumatic memory entirely. She’s furious because this is a huge violation that has the potential to change people forever. But she’s even angrier when she realizes the actual goal of the program: Rather than rehabilitate soldiers like Walter so that they can reintegrate back into civilian life, the medication is designed to wipe away PTSD so that soldiers can be immediately redeployed.
How did it all fall apart?
In one of her meetings with Walter, Heidi realizes that his memory of his friend dying in an IED attack has been erased completely. He not only can’t remember the event, but he can’t recall important things about his previous military service and his bond with his fellow soldiers. (Early in the season, Walter tells Heidi all about his unit’s elaborate prank on a soldier named Benji, in which they told him about a sequel to Titanic called Titanic Rising. Several weeks into his time at Homecoming, Walter has no memory of the Titanic Rising gag.) Even worse, Walter, who desperately wanted to go back home, is now looking forward to returning to Afghanistan.
Enraged, Heidi puts on a happy face and invites Walter to have lunch with her in the Homecoming cafeteria, piling a plate full of gnocchi for them both. Unbeknownst to Walter, the facility’s food has been the delivery mechanism for the memory-wiping medication, so Heidi’s off-books meal actually gives both herself and Walter a massive dose. They are both hospitalized — we get a brief shot of Walter, looking completely out of it, being delivered to his mother Gloria (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) in a wheelchair — and later have no memory of anything that’s happened.
Wait, so did it all fall apart?
Ah, see, no. It did not. In the last episode, Colin has a meeting with Audrey Temple (Hong Chau), the woman who was once a Geist assistant and who ends the season as his boss. Although Heidi and Walter have escaped, the old Homecoming facility is now closed, and Audrey’s forcing Colin to take the fall for the program’s failures, the Geist Group has no desire to close it down. Instead, as Colin explains, it’s been pivoted to something called the “roller project,” which will now focus on “comfort management.” We also overhear calls between Thomas Carrasco’s (Shea Whigham) bureaucrat boss and the Department of Defense, indicating that the government is also invested in keeping the program alive.
So the weird vertical framing is about memory?
Yes! Isn’t it cool?! For most of the series, Heidi’s future timeline story is told inside a visually small frame with giant pillar boxes on each side of the image, while her past story appears in a standard full-screen cinematic aspect ratio. Because Homecoming skips back and forth between both stories, this helps distinguish when everything is taking place. But when future timeline Heidi returns to the site of the Homecoming facility and hears the uncanny sound of a pelican squawking — which reminds her of the past and of the prank Walter pulled on her by putting a pelican in her office — the pillar boxes suddenly recede. Her memory returns, and the future timeline is now visible in a more vibrant, full-screen mode.
Then, we finally see the moment in the past timeline when Heidi chooses to dose both herself and Walter to save him from reenlistment and extricate herself from the program. After Heidi puts the tapes of Walter’s therapy sessions in an envelope and mails them to Walter’s mother as evidence of what’s happened to him, the pillar boxes close in on her again as the medication kicks in and her memories fade.
Heidi manages to find Walter at the very end of the season. How did she do that?
Although Walter has no memory of his time with Heidi, or of their extensive conversations about taking a road trip to Yosemite and moving into a cabin together, he hits the road anyhow after recovering from his double dose of the Geist medication. Heidi, who has recovered most of her memories by this point, uses details from her past conversations with Walter to track him down — with an assist from the road map that he left at Homecoming — carefully sweeping several small towns in the area in search of him. Eventually, he just happens to walk into a diner where she’s sitting.
What’s the meaning of Walter tilting that fork?
As Heidi and Walter become more friendly, we watch Heidi carefully straighten objects on her desk, especially her pen, which she places at a precise 90-degree angle to her notebook. Every time, Walter comes into her office and deliberately tilts the pen away from its neat orientation. It’s a sweet little symbol of their intimacy: Heidi and Walter’s relationship is something beyond a therapist/patient one. It’s more playful, and more of a two-way street. They respond to each other and are moved by one another, in a deep, simple way.
In the last moment before the season finale cuts to the end credits, Heidi stumbles onto Walter at that diner and is immensely relieved to see that he’s doing all right. He may have lost his memory, and there’s no way to know how much of his personality has been destroyed forever, but he seems happy. Briefly, they sit together across a booth in a diner, and Heidi briefly considers showing him the old map — perhaps with the hope that it’ll restore his memories of Homecoming, much like the pelican’s squawks did for her — but she ultimately decides against it. As Gloria told Heidi earlier in the finale, “He’s finally back to who he was before this whole mess.”
When Walter says good-bye and stands up to leave, though, Heidi watches him walk away and then looks down at the table. At her place setting, a knife and spoon are carefully arranged, and the fork has been tilted so that it’s no longer lying straight on the napkin. Heidi turns her head in shock, craning to see Walter as he walks away. Maybe it means he remembers something after all? Or maybe not. (As Homecoming creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg told Vulture’s Maria Elena Fernandez, it’s deliberately ambiguous.) But if nothing else, it makes it clear that somewhere, deep down, he’s still the Walter that Heidi knew.
Why does Carrasco pull a leaf out of his suit jacket?
Everyone on Homecoming gets a moment when they have to reckon with everything that’s happened. For Thomas Carrasco, who spends most of the season just trying to put the pieces together, that experience comes as he submits his report on what happened at Homecoming and makes the choice to “elevate” the complaint about everything he believes has gone wrong there. He empties his recorder, his notebook, and his badge out on his desk, and then discovers a leaf in his jacket pocket. Back in episode five, “Helping,” Walter’s friend Schrier gave Carrasco that leaf, telling him it was a way to remember. Remember Schrier? He’s the one who was kicked out of the Homecoming program because he wasn’t reacting to the medication with the “results” Colin wanted to see in the drug trial.
Although Carrasco can’t know this, other parts of the finale feel like a victory for Homecoming characters, if not success then at least a resolution. Walter gets to build a deck on his rural cabin; Heidi remembers what happened but gets to learn that Walter isn’t damaged beyond repair; horrible Colin gets his comeuppance. But the leaf is a form of remembrance that not everyone made it out of Homecoming without being seriously harmed — Schrier was seriously messed up and will never be the same. We have to imagine the same will be true for many other subjects of whatever the sinister Homecoming project becomes in its new “roller” iteration.
What happens to Colin at the end? And why is Audrey suddenly his boss?
When Colin realizes that Geist needs a head to roll after the failure of Homecoming, he swiftly tries to throw the blame on Heidi. It does not go well for him, but Colin’s downfall comes with a big surprise. Until the final episode, we only see Audrey in her role as an administrative assistant at Geist. Now, the tables have turned: When Colin fails to neutralize the fallout after Heidi’s memory returns, he’s called to a meeting in an enormous conference room and initially assumes that Audrey’s just there as an underling. She gleefully clarifies that she’s there to clean things up, and that she’s had direct contact with Geist himself. (Be careful of taking that statement at face value: Bobby Cannavale tells Vulture that Audrey’s statement could well be a ruse. And, as Jen Chaney points out, Audrey might actually be Geist. Cannavale and Homecoming’s showrunners also say that Audrey will play a larger role in season two.) Facing such a huge shift in corporate power, Colin decides that his only chance is to do whatever Audrey asks of him.
And with that, Audrey forces Colin to sign a piece of paper that will mean he “takes responsibility” for what’s happened at Homecoming. The full content of the paper isn’t clear, but whatever comes next certainly can’t be good for Colin: In the very last image of the season, during a post-credits scene, we see Audrey pull a vial of red liquid out of her bag and roll it across her wrist — it’s the roller project! — presumably either erasing the memory of coercing Colin to take the fall, or easing its emotional impact.