The first season of Homecoming worked like a modern-day adaptation of a radio play, converting a scripted series from Gimlet Media into a ten-episode Amazon Prime show that felt like a pocket-size All the President’s Men or some other paranoid thriller from the 1970s. The creators of the podcast, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, wrote many of the half-hour episodes, and hired Sam Esmail to direct in a style that cribbed deliberately from a range of cinematic sources. The stars of the podcast, Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer, were replaced, capably, by Julia Roberts, Stephan James, and Bobby Cannavale, respectively. It didn’t necessarily need to be a television show, but Esmail and company did well to blow it out into a gripping and bingeable work of suspense with one of Roberts’s rangiest performances in years.
Now the second season arrives with a few as-yet-unseen players returning — chiefly Hong Chau as Audrey Temple, who rose sharply to a position of power at the end of season one, and James as Walter Cruz, one of the subjects of a secret experiment on military veterans — but how it connects with the previous story is not yet clear. So it’s probably worth remembering the gist of it before the new season brings us back around to specifics: The Homecoming Initiative is a diabolical collaboration between the military and the private sector. Young veterans suffering from PTSD, like Walter Cruz, were sent to the Homecoming facility in Florida run by the Geist Group, for a therapeutic treatment. But key to that treatment was a memory-erasing drug that was administered, in ever-increasing doses, in the food they were eating over the trial run. The idea was not simply to blot out the trauma that triggered the soldiers’ PTSD, but to return them to a psychological state that would allow them to be redeployed.
It was a clever conceit for our age of endless war, when plenty of troops have done multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and politicians and citizens have all but forgotten about them. The second season is blowing up the Geist initiative beyond the self-contained facility of the first and into society at large, which suggests a larger application for the company’s memory-erasing drug. It will also continue to focus on military guinea pigs, with Janelle Monáe in the starring role as Jackie Calico, who at this point wouldn’t even know she was in the military if she didn’t have an Airborne tattoo on her arm. Though it’s only seven episodes — again at that sweet half-hour length — Homecoming intends to pick up after the events of the first season while addressing some unanswered questions about the Homecoming Initiative and the people responsible for it.
But for now, there’s the simple mystery of Jackie waking up in the middle of a lake, in a rowboat without paddles, not knowing who she is or how she got there or what she’s supposed to do. She’s Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive or Matt Damon in the Bourne movies, drawing on sense memory to get by, but otherwise left searching for answers to the most basic foundational questions of identity and purpose. That’s a solid, shake-and-bake suspense premise, and this first half hour runs with it capably, even though it doesn’t quite have the hook or stylistic brio of the first season yet. The big question viewers might have — “Is this a good and necessary extension of Homecoming?” — will have to be answered later. For now, the show is compelling enough to ask again down the line.
Horowitz and Bloomberg have returned to scriptwriting duties, and they’ve laid a long trail of breadcrumbs for Jackie (and us) to follow. The crumbs, in rough order: Who is talking to her on the phone she drops in the water after she comes to? (“Hello? Are you there?”) Does this mean that she lost her memory shortly before? Who is the figure on the shoreline who dashes into the woods after seeing her? To what car do the keys she finds on the shore belong? (Not the one at the roadside when she emerges.) Then when a policewoman discovers her and brings her into the ER, there are still more questions, like why she has the track marks of a drug addict on her inner arm and what that Airborne tattoo says about her past.
With the help of another man in the ER, Jackie dodges suspicion by fleeing the hospital and pursuing the one clue she has on her person: a cocktail napkin from a restaurant called Skins. (It seems absolutely certain that we’re about to head into a strip club, but it turns out to be a now-family-friendly establishment that specializes in potato skin appetizers, which doesn’t seem like the most surefire business model.) After persuading the waiter to let her peel through the receipts from the last time she visited — apparently, she and a “war buddy” were too rowdy for Skins — Jackie and her ER mate end up in a nearby hotel room that was once occupied by the man who had drank and dined with her days earlier. She finds a credit card for “Alex Eastern,” a Geist syringe with the red residue from the memory-erasing drug, and a photograph of her in military gear alongside three men whose faces have been scrubbed out. She also finds some cash, which her ER mate steals after punching her in the face.
And that’s it. Like the knockabout PI in a detective story, Jackie has to take a few shots to the jaw before she gets to the bottom of a conspiracy. It’s a roundabout entry point for the season, deferring our reintroduction to the Geist company by at least half an hour, but it firmly establishes Monáe as the lead, which shifts perspective from company functionaries like the one Roberts played last season. This guinea pig has to find her way through the maze.
Replacing Esmail as director for the season is Kyle Patrick Alvarez, whose work includes the underrated thriller The Stanford Prison Experiment, which is about the infamous 1971 prison study that demonstrated all too well the dynamic between guards and prisoners, and the genesis of abusive behavior. In that respect, hiring Alvarez to direct Homecoming is like casting an actor to type.
• The closing credits introduce us to Chris Cooper, a new addition to the cast, as Geist himself, shown farming the flowers that go into the Homecoming serum. At the end of last season, Audrey talks to Cannavale’s disgraced Colin Belfast about visiting Geist’s farm. (“You haven’t been?”) It’s not the luxurious place her tone suggested, but it was enough for her to assert her sudden ascendant over him in the corporate hierarchy.
• The sampling of other scores in the first season went hand in glove with Esmail’s visual nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Alan J. Pakula, but this season has an original score that nonetheless sounds like it has been sampled. Both seasons favor an aggressive, overwhelming soundtrack that contrasts with the small-scale dramatic action.