Now that we’re heading quickly down the backstretch — two episodes left, but only one hour, given those blissfully tight half-hour nuggets (like a sustainable Quibi!) — the complaint that the second season of Homecoming is more epilogue or postscript than discrete entity seems valid. The first season did the hard work of establishing the Homecoming project and facility, and offered up a strong central theme about the collaboration between government and private business in supplying endless wars. The twist here is that the supplies are soldiers, scrubbed up and ready for redeployment.
The second season hasn’t had a theme of that significance — and has, now, explicitly backed away from the original theme. When Francine visits Audrey at Geist headquarters, she surprises Audrey by saying that she doesn’t want to restart the Homecoming initiative. She just wants the DOD to have a piece of the pie when Geist starts blowing out the possibilities of its magic berries. And so the theme, such as it still exists, has now expanded more into government corruption: Rather than using Geist’s secret sauce for a legitimate military application, the DOD has become an investor. And not just any investor, but an entity with the legal authority to assert its will without having to spend a dime. Francine is basically giving clearance for Audrey to dream up whatever crazy ideas she might have for the serum.
And yet, this dilution of purpose hasn’t exacted as heavy a cost as it seemed in the first two episodes, when it looked like Homecoming had started the second season with an empty tank of gas. These last few episodes have been riveting television, built on the high stakes and elegant convergence of multiple timelines — the one where Alex is Jackie, wiped of memory and trying to figure out who she is, and the one that explains how she landed in that predicament. And as those timelines have drawn closer and the various puzzle pieces have fallen neatly into place, the dramatic tension has gone through the roof. We’re waiting for the moment when everything goes wrong for Alex, and every word that comes out of her mouth is one second closer to detonation. It may not be essential, but it certainly is exciting.
The centerpiece of this episode is the fateful conversation between Walter Cruz and Alex, who introduces herself as “Jackie,” a representative for an organization called Vets4Vets. When she picks up Walter from jail, she makes him an offer: In exchange for bail money, all he needs to do is agree to an evaluation. No big deal. They can do it over beer. Walter is immediately skeptical of her motives, for the sensible reason that he has experience with one organization, the VA, being shifty with him—and, from what he can gather, an experience with another organization, Geist, that may not have his best interests in mind, either. He doesn’t trust this woman with a cheap business card has the purest motives. He’ll need some convincing first.
And so, the tension in “Meters” comes from the certainty that Alex will probably fuck it up at some point. That tension is raised by a back-and-forth between them that’s exceptionally well-written, with Walter constantly probing her for war stories and Alex, the professional crisis manager, coming back with specifics about her time in a sniper unit. Her mission is to convince him to drop his inquiry into Geist without making it seem like she has an agenda, and she succeeds well enough after one drink to put in a reassuring call to Audrey that she has everything under control. But when Walter persuades her to have more drinks with him, the likelihood of a slip-up increases dramatically, because even she has only so many persuasive stories to tell. She didn’t actually serve in combat. The more details she reveals, the more her fictions are likely to be exposed.
The dark art of Alex’s spiel is her ability to use made-up personal experiences to steer her mark in the right direction, and she does it multiple times in her conversation with Walter, even after she agrees to more drinks and loses control a little. She notes that one guy in her unit shot himself after pursuing his own answers about his war experiences and does it in a way that Walter seems to find convincing. But Walter cannot fully trust that “Jackie” is telling him the truth, so he pushes for more detail until his worst suspicions about her are confirmed. He wants to know about the dead man’s longest shot as a sniper. She gives him an answer, 1,100 meters, that he knows is bullshit. And now things are about to go haywire.
Stephan James and Janelle Monáe are superb together in these bar scene at Skins, playing characters who have real chemistry as comrades-in-arms, even though that relationship is completely phony. When Alex says she likes Walter, she means it, and when Walter asks Alex to stay for more drinks, he’s probably 95 percent lonely to 5 percent still suspicious of her. Homecoming has been a clever, twisty enterprise from its start as a narrative podcast, but sometimes all that’s necessary is getting two great actors in a room together and watching them cook. Keep it simple.
• “Bro, you like comic books? You got any Adderall?” Walter may be suspicious of Alex’s motives, but he can’t get away from his cellmate fast enough.
“When I got back, I knew something was wrong with me, but I couldn’t explain it to anyone. It was like the people around me were keeping a secret, like we were in a movie, and everyone knew we were in a movie except for me.” That’s good writing, because it feels written. It sounds like a story that someone who never actually served in a war would tell. And that’s Alex.
• Is it possible that Walter’s suspicions about Alex were reignited when she mentioned she was getting a call from her girlfriend? The two of them had been flirting a bit, and he might have reason to think now that the flirtation was an act.
• Audrey hitting Leonard with an injunction to stop him from uprooting his own berry plants is the first of many power plays to come. He’s willing to go to jail himself for pulling them out of the earth, but these are not your ordinary weeds and Audrey knows it.
• What in the world does Alex intend to do with that giant melon? Maybe she’ll inject serum into it the way the gangsters injected liquor into watermelons to get around a teetotaling Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman.