Homecoming Is a Taut, Paranoid Puzzle Box

The new Amazon drama by Sam Esmail stars Julia Roberts and Bobby Cannavale in a highly stylized mystery.

Julia Roberts stars as Heidi in the Amazon drama 'Homecoming'
Julia Roberts stars as Heidi in Homecoming. (Amazon)

Homecoming, Amazon’s new dramatic series starring Julia Roberts, is pure Hitchcock. In one scene, a Department of Defense investigator, Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), runs down a staircase that’s shot from above, shown from a skewed, helter-skelter perspective that makes it seem like Carrasco is a human ball bearing tilting his way into the center of a labyrinth. The scene plays out over a swooping score of strings and brass so redolent of mid-20th-century thrillers that you half expect Tippi Hedren to be waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

But Homecoming is also Steven Soderbergh, between its tendency to introduce episodes with sound first, its jarring use of alternating aspect ratios and split screens, and its heady, brittle state of paranoia. It’s Vince Gilligan, too: A bravura sequence at the beginning of the fourth episode showing how a pharmaceutical substance goes from raw plant material to sterile, packaged product feels ripped right out of Breaking Bad. Sam Esmail, who actually directed Homecoming in its entirety, loads it up with all these visual elements and more of his own idiosyncratic flourishes—characters placed in the corner of a frame, flattened color palettes, and overhead shots that make characters look like pieces in a puzzle while also leading viewers to feel like they’re surveilling something.

The result is a television series that’s frequently breathtaking. Each frame of Homecoming feels meaningful, and most feel at least vaguely familiar. But it’s a curious way to approach telling a story that was first told in podcast form, without any visuals at all. As Homecoming unfurls its mystery through 10 half-hour installments, the stylistic choices can seem more like aesthetic overdecoration than vital components of something fully cohesive. At the end of each episode, the credits play out over scenes that continue to roll, blocking the characters still in shot with names overlaying them in bold type. It starts to feel like a larger metaphor for the show: There’s so much happening that you can’t actually see it clearly.

If this feels like sniping—complaining that a television show is too striking—it’s only because Homecoming is otherwise terrific. It’s a stylish, cinematic mystery that’s unlike anything else on TV, streaming series or otherwise. Esmail (the creator of Mr. Robot) takes what was essentially an old-fashioned radio play about intrigue in the military-industrial complex and turns it into a suspense story that’s both old and entirely new. Not to mention that Homecoming has Roberts, a pharmaceutical-grade movie star, at its center, making her starring television debut with a performance that’s so interior it feels almost intrusive to watch.

When Homecoming debuted as a podcast (written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who also wrote the show), it starred Catherine Keener as Heidi, a caseworker, and Oscar Isaac as Walter, a serviceman coming off his third tour. Roberts now plays Heidi, the lead administrator of a program called Homecoming Transitional Support Center, which she tells Walter (Stephan James) is a “safe space” for him to process his military experiences and re-familiarize himself with civilian life. Heidi’s job includes weekly sessions with the Homecoming residents and sporadic phone calls with her boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale), a buffoonish shark of a corporate middle manager who praises Heidi by saying “fist bump” out loud.

The series jumps back and forth in time between the Homecoming scenes, set in 2018, and scenes set a few years later, when Heidi is working as a waitress at a waterside diner and is visited by Whigham’s investigator, Carrasco. The podcast signaled leaps in chronology with a whooshing kind of jet-engine sound; Esmail employs the same device, but he also renders the future scenes in a square 1-to-1 ratio, making them feel tense and claustrophobic. It hardly seems necessary, because it’s so clear from Roberts’s performance that these two Heidis are totally different. 2018 Heidi is girlish, earnest, motivated, and compulsively organized. Future Heidi is pallid, lifeless, hollow, and claims not to remember anything about her old job. The question of what’s happened to her becomes the show’s defining mystery.

Mr. Robot was a show that forced the audience into an intensely paranoid state via an unreliable narrator, and Homecoming does the same but in a sunnier, more amnesiac way. Heidi’s early conversations with Colin include vague references to “medication” and background checks for busboys that prickle with menace. Walter’s friend Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) expresses distrust for the Homecoming center, having learned long ago to believe in his own instincts and to question why private corporations might invest substantial amounts of money in veteran welfare. Early episodes encourage viewers to go along with Shrier’s suspicions, simply because everything seems so strange. Esmail trains his cameras on tiny details in one shot (the bubbles in a fish tank, the angle of a pencil on a desk) and on vast tableaus in another, reducing the characters to mere details. Or data points.

These are aesthetic choices that could easily make Homecoming unbearable, but the series is balanced by moments of humor and strong performances from the supporting players. James is emotive and persuasive as Walter. Dermot Mulroney pops up as Heidi’s ex-boyfriend, the kind of guy who’s developed a new career around a workout regime that’s “CrossFit-based, but not CrossFit per se.” Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies) is remarkable as Walter’s acerbic, protective mother. Alex Karpovsky (Girls) plays Craig, a slightly robotic Homecoming employee who helps retrain the soldiers for civilian job seeking in cringeworthy role-playing exercises. Sissy Spacek plays Heidi’s mother, although she’s underserved in a role that mostly requires showing visitors the door.

As Carrasco, Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) is the kind of G-man who’s usually the bad guy, with a starchy, ironed short-sleeved shirt, short haircut, and spectacles that clip together at the front. But he’s one of the most compelling characters in the series, fully aware of his paper-pushing irrelevance but fiercely committed to doing the right thing anyway. Carrasco’s scenes also feel the most explicitly nostalgic, anchoring the character in a Twilight Zone aesthetic with his 1960s haircut and his surreal experiences. His antithesis is Cannavale’s Colin, a sharklike, Glengarry Glen Ross extrovert whose best scene has him furiously chasing chickens through a coop while ranting at Heidi on the phone.

Roberts gives the most striking performance, flattening her natural charisma and absorbing her character’s feelings until she’s almost unrecognizable. Past Heidi is poised but clearly introverted; Future Heidi is totally deflated, biting her inner lip so intently that her mouth forms a permanent line. In one scene, Heidi gets a makeover at the mall, giving viewers a glimpse of Julia Roberts, megastar and Lancôme spokesmodel—and the contrast is so disconcerting that it’s a relief when Heidi awkwardly wipes the makeup off. Roberts almost never utilizes her infamous smile, and in the fleeting moments when she does, it’s to signal that Heidi is putting on an act.

It’s clear by the end of Homecoming that the show is setting up pieces for a second season (particularly with a post-credits sequence that asks more questions than it answers). If so, it has the potential to expand its story in a way that melds the narrative organically with Esmail’s stylistic flourishes, rather than layering one on top of the other. The series’s jangly throwback visual cues go surprisingly well with Horowitz and Bloomberg’s tight contemporary conspiracy. It’s an old tale of corporate intrigue, gaslighting, and manipulation with new possibilities, split screens and all.