The red serum in Homecoming is a little like the Big Pharma equivalent to Lacuna Inc. in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry’s bittersweet science-fiction/romance/comedy about a man who tries to erase the memories of a particularly painful relationship. The idea of the service, in both cases, is to eliminate trauma, even if the nature of that trauma isn’t exactly the same. There’s no comparison between the pain of a soldier coming back from conflict with PTSD and a man feeling bummed out because of a breakup, and there’s also no comparison between one getting his memory wiped involuntarily and the other hiring a service to do it.
And yet Homecoming and Eternal Sunshine have come to the same conclusion: All memories are precious building-blocks to who we are, even the bad ones. That idea underscores Walter’s conversation with Leonard the night before the big Geist party, after he happens to pull up to the property of the one person at Geist who would be a friendly audience to him. He says that he remembers where he grew up and where he went to high school and what his old girlfriends were like and how his mother is a Marxist. What he doesn’t remember is his service, and he can’t see that as a blessing under any circumstances. He’s not even stuck yet on the idea that Geist has blotted these memories in order to make replacement easier or that it wasn’t a treatment done with his consent. He just wishes he could remember. Period. That’s the wrong that hurts the most.
So with that understood, it’s a little perplexing that this season of Homecoming ends the way it does, with the Jim-Jones-meets-Carrie moment of Walter posing as a waiter and passing out cups of Geist juice to partygoers. His actions make a little sense as an act of revenge against the company that wronged him. And they make even more sense as the only way to stop this terrible product from getting developed for broader commercial distribution. Yet after his speech to Leonard about the impact of this hole in his life—not to mention the sadness and disorientation that we’ve seen Alex and others feel after losing their memories—it’s out of character for him to inflict that pain on anyone else. He may be having to consider the best of two bad options, a building full of memory-scrubbed people versus a world of them, but there are a lot of innocents involuntarily losing their minds here. And he can identify.
The finale is a reasonably satisfying finish, with some strong Brian De Palma-style theatrics at the climax. (The empty jugs of Geist juice under Walter’s cart resemble the vicious teenagers under the prom stage in Carrie, waiting to yank the rope on the bucket of blood overhead.) But it does expose this season of Homecoming as a slick thrill machine first, with characters and theme arriving a distant second. The best episodes of the season were the ones that stepped on the gas, playing up the suspense over how Alex lost her memory and her identity. Now that we’ve reached the end of the line, there isn’t much left to say about any of these characters, who each had their own clearly defined stake over the Geist serum, but were never understood more thoroughly than that.
The biggest casualty of the season might be Hong Chau as Audrey, who gets far more screen time in the second season than the first, but makes less of an impression. Deep down the bench of supporting players in season one, Chau thrived as the opportunistic wild card who undermined Colin and cooly seized the throne when the Homecoming initiative went south. In the second, her character has been more nuanced but also harder to understand: She’s a creature of pure corporate ambition, but soft-hearted and sympathetic whenever the script calls for it. Perhaps the writers were wary of a season in which all the good guys are men and all the bad guys are women, but it was hard to know how we’re expected to feel about Audrey.
Of course, some of that is by design. When Alex comes back to Geist headquarters a blank slate, she also gets the chance to see Audrey with fresh eyes and tries to understand her almost as a stranger would. The one great scene with them in Audrey’s office finds Alex demanding to know what the rationale was for sending her to deceive Walter. The answer Alex gets is unsatisfactory to her, setting up the moment later on when she realizes that Walter has spiked the punch and lets Audrey guzzle her cup down anyway. Audrey said they were always doing things “for us,” rather than other people, and amnesia has apparently restored Alex’s sense of right and wrong. If Alex could remember anything, she might act like the duplicitous person she used to be.
There are questions left to puzzle out about the aftermath of the mass memory-wiping. Unlike Lacuna, Inc. in Eternal Sunshine, which looks crude but attacks specific memories, Homecoming is vague about what the serum does. How much memory is lost? Is the loss permanent? Leonard suggests that the amount of serum consumed makes a difference, which would explain the mild effects of those rollers, but how long will Alex, Francine, and the party attendees be a blank? Or Walter, for that matter? The answers seem to be “a while” and “forever,” but it’s still hard to know for sure.
As for the possibility of a third season of Homecoming, the show opens the door just a crack in the final moments, when Walter is flipping through his personnel files and sees the name of the other soldiers who went through the program. The question for the show’s creators is not could but should: Season two demonstrates a facility for good thriller plotting and dramatic construction, and the episodes are still unusually and blessedly tight by streaming standards. That’s the could part. The should part requires deeper reflection.
•It’s been odd seeing what Kyle Patrick Alvarez has done as the director this season. He took over from Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot fame, who conceived the show as a mishmash of visual and aural references to past thrillers, like a game of “guess the reference” you could play every week. Alvarez has delivered the goods with professional aplomb, but without putting his own stamp on it. The occasional split-screen sequences and overhead shots seemed like following through on the brand.
• Wonderful comic moment from Francine, who isn’t bothered at all by Leonard’s rambling speech decrying his own company. “He’s like a mascot,” she says, giving a big thumbs-up from the top floor.
• How about a spinoff show about the European development guys Francine has nicknamed “Fire” and “Ice”? I’d watch that.
• This episode having a Jim Jones ending is a good reminder never to use the phrase “[He/she/they/you] drank the Kool-Aid.” It references a grisly tragedy, but that part has somehow been divorced from the phrase, which is now a glib shorthand for ideological conformity.
• “What a waste. I was gonna do something big. I was going to take a fucking moonshot.” Francine and Audrey are a good team, in that their outsized ambition clouds every important decision they make.