To a certain extent, Homecoming is starting to feel like Amazon’s answer to Stranger Things on Netflix, in that both feel less like original series spun from whole cloth than an extended homage to past masters. Stranger Things has two seasons’ worth of references to all things ’80s, leaning particularly hard on Steven Spielberg’s suburban sci-fi classics, and as I’ve noted in previous recaps, Homecoming has been larded with visual nods to Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and especially Alan J. Pakula’s run of ’70s paranoid thrillers like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and Klute. The show essentially takes place in Pakula Land, a place where nefarious, far-ranging government conspiracies threaten to swallow up any ordinary person who catches wind of them.
But as “Test” snaps the nature of this particular conspiracy into focus, the film it’s starting to resemble most is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Michel Gondry-directed, Charlie Kaufman-scripted romance about a technological procedure designed to erase painful memories. The differences are significant, of course. In Eternal Sunshine, it’s a voluntary procedure. In Homecoming, it’s a corporate-driven experiment in human engineering. Yet beyond the conceit of memory erasure, they have in common the belief that memories are precious, even the ones that bring trauma and pain, because our experiences make us who we are and we always take something important away from them. Watching a loved one die, for example, is an excruciating experience, but there aren’t many eulogies where anyone regrets having known a person for having had to endure the painful end.
“Test” finally clarifies how much everyone knows about the Homecoming initiative, Heidi especially, and helps make her motives a little more sympathetic. Granted, she should be dubious of a company known for its household cleaners pushing a military-grade drug to treat PTSD through memory erasure. But it was her understanding that the impact was targeted, with a laser-focus on the specific moments of trauma. (As medication harnessed from Vietnamese berries and injected into people’s food should be expected to act. C’mon, Heidi.) When she interviews Walter in his fifth week, however, she discovers that entire swaths of his time overseas have been wiped out, including the story about the elaborate Titanic Rising prank. Walter can’t remember what happened to Lesky. He can’t remember anything at all, really, despite his efforts to fake it based on what Heidi is telling him. He feels great. He’s a blank slate, baby.
For Colin, this is fantastic news. He tries to reassure Heidi that they can make tweaks to the medication to be less destructive, but his barely masked enthusiasm recalls George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, downplaying the potential impact of nuclear retaliation. (“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.”) He also casually reveals the endgame here, which is to get the men back in mental shape so they can return to the war. This shocks Heidi, but he’s shocked that she’s shocked, because why else would they go through the trouble and the expense of treating these soldiers? Their welfare after they’ve fulfilled their commitment to the government is not really worth the investment. But restocking the front lines in an endless war is a necessity, and short of manufacturing a robot army, technology can perfect the organic warPods we call humans.
It’s the perfect plan, but now we’re waiting for Walter and Heidi to disrupt it. The timelines seem to be merging toward the point at which the two of them take the action that gets them both expelled on the same day, and Thomas gets clarity on exactly what happened. Though, as he explains, Thomas’s job isn’t to crack cases. It’s merely to “elevate or dismiss a complaint,” which makes him a “cog” (his words) in the investigative machine, but also sets a low standard of engagement — if he elevates, out come the wolves. Shea Whigham has played Thomas as a dogged paper-shuffler whose earnestness leads skeptics like Gloria to open up to him and adversaries like Colin to underestimate him. Thomas and Colin have a tortoise-and-the-hare dynamic — one slow and steady, the other frantic and improvising — and we know how that race ends.
In the meantime, we have to squirm in discomfort as Colin, posing as “Hunter,” offers to drive Heidi to her old job site. With her internal hard-drive wiped clean, he’s in control of where this story goes, and she’s in the passenger seat.
• 24 minutes. All hail the bite-size prestige drama.
• “You’re okay letting go of those feelings. You don’t feel responsible for them?” Heidi asks this of Walter, who had earlier castigated himself for putting Lesky in the car that hit an IED but now feels no guilt or sadness about it at all. Heidi is trying to get Walter in a nuanced place where the memory doesn’t cripple him, but it doesn’t go away, either. Remorse is a human quality that seems dangerous to buff out.
• “Walter doesn’t belong to you” is a line that hits more powerfully now that Walter, played by Oscar Isaac in the podcast, has been replaced by Stephan James. The notion of the government “owning” a person is chilling under any circumstances, but it’s much more loaded in reference to a black man. (Good timing on the casting, too, because James is mesmerizing in Barry Jenkins’s new film, If Beale Street Could Talk.)