Television

Homecoming Is a Conspiracy Thriller That Thinks Small

Julia Roberts’ unflashy performance grounds a tale of contained paranoia.

Julia Roberts sits in a chair while holding a clipboard on her lap and staring off-camera.
Julia Roberts in Homecoming
Amazon

On paper, Amazon’s Homecoming, sounds like a big, honking prestige TV show. A conspiracy thriller starring Julia Roberts (Julia Roberts!), it jumps between time periods as it unravels a nefarious corporate plot to “help” U.S. combat veterans suffering from PTSD, all while Julia Roberts (Julia Roberts!) tries to recover her lost memories of said plot. But Homecoming is, instead, surprisingly, welcomingly low-key. The series is based on a fiction podcast of the same name, and you can tell: in the lack of violence, in the relatively small number of characters, in the emphasis on conversation instead of action. Each episode, all of which have been dazzlingly directed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail, clocks in at around 30 minutes. It’s a very contained kind of paranoid thriller: The conspiracy goes up, but maybe not all the way to the top.

Roberts stars as Heidi Bergman, a social worker who, in 2018, is the head administrator at the Homecoming initiative, a project that appears to help returning soldiers readjust to civilian life. Heidi is a little anal-retentive—she’s always making sure her pen sits on her desk just so—but she’s friendly and caring. One of these soldiers is Walter Cruz (Stephan James), an appealing, sensible young man who trusts Homecoming and Heidi in particular. He opens up to her, a little flirtatiously, about his deployment experiences, and Heidi opens up to him in turn—Roberts and James have a nice, simmering chemistry. Heidi’s boss is the oleaginous bully Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale, initially in over-the-top Bobby Cannavale mode), an ambitious employee of the multinational Geist Corporation, whom she speaks with mostly on the phone, a holdover from the podcast. Moments into the first episode, when Heidi suggests to Colin that Homecoming might take a more “holistic” approach to its patients, Colin lectures her—and therefore us—about the shadiness of Geist’s ambitions.

As things begin to play out at the Homecoming facility, housed at a giant office complex in a remote Tampa swamp, the show cuts about four years into the future, where Heidi is now a waitress. She’s approached by Thomas Carrasco (a very good Shea Whigham), a low-level Department of Defense employee investigating a years-old complaint about the Homecoming project. Heidi claims not to remember anything about it, and those claims turn out to be true. Somehow, she’s lost much of her memory. She begins to look into her own past, trying to figure out what exactly happened at Homecoming. She’s working to learn, in the future, what we are working to learn in the present, with both storylines telescoping on a point: What happened at the end of Heidi and Walter’s tenure at Homecoming?

Heidi is a surprisingly unflashy part for Roberts’ first leading TV role. She sometimes gives Roberts occasion to do grounded charming—over beers, in session with Walter—but she never gives her occasion to go full-smile charming. Instead, Roberts is painting a portrait of an ethically compromised woman whose ambitions have clouded her good intentions and perverted her actions. Heidi continues to work at Homecoming by convincing herself she’s doing helpful work, but this requires careful self-delusion: care not to see, or hear, or know all of the things that would reveal the truth. She’s tamped down.

Esmail isn’t muted at all. He’s TV’s most stylish director, largely because of his willingness to call attention to his own direction. He uses bold title cards (the episode title “Pineapple” splashes across a plate of the same); is constantly putting actors in the corners of the frame to emphasize strangeness; loves a long take; and revels in split-screen techniques like a beaver with a screen door. He can get a little carried away—there’s a whole fish motif to the Homecoming office complex, which pays off late in the season when someone points out the entire operation was always “fishy”—but his shows look crisp and debonair and feel, well, chatty: They’re talking to you, visually. The sequences that take place in the future, for example, have a different aspect ratio than those taking place in the present. They have a 4:3 aspect ratio, almost a square, which immediately helps you distinguish which timeline is which (Roberts’ changing bangs don’t quite do the trick), while also referencing the compression, the narrowness, of Heidi’s faulty memory.

Esmail says he didn’t pick Homecoming because of its thematic resemblance to the dystopian cyberpunk Mr. Robot: “It’s not like I read the script and said, well, it’s got an evil corporation and paranoia, I’m in,” he said. And Homecoming, despite sharing those qualities with Mr. Robot, does feel very different. There are a few sequences, particularly in the second and third episodes, involving Walter Cruz’s friend Shrier (Shameless’ Jeremy Allen White), that are wobbly and paranoid, but Homecoming is more a character study than conspiratorial adventure. Even the storyline involving DOD agent Thomas Carrasco, which is filmed in grainy full-body shots that suggest a 1970s thriller like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, ends up being about the limits of one man’s best efforts.

For a show about the power and avariciousness of corporations and the humans employed by them; about how there is no justification for the ethical compromises people make when doing the right thing is too hard; about how those compromises adversely effect real people, the only people who will ever have to pay for the experimentations of the already super-rich, Homecoming doesn’t feel all that bleak. With its lean storytelling, contained plot, and focus on characters as opposed to power structures, it makes chaos feel manageable. This conspiracy, at least, can be understood.