REVIEW: Amazon’s ‘Homecoming’ Will Mess With Your Head

Based on the fictional podcast of the same name by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, "Homecoming" deeply engrossing episodes that are hard not to binge.

click to enlarge Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman (left) and Stephan James as Walter Cruz. - Courtesy of Amazon
Courtesy of Amazon
Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman (left) and Stephan James as Walter Cruz.
Conspiracy theories have long existed in fringe circles, but this type of thinking has become more mainstream in recent years, whether it’s being spouted by world leaders or used as an explanation for atrocities in society. And while these ideas are flawed and often false, they open a line of questioning: Do you trust the messages delivered by authority — your government leaders, your boss? Do they truly have your best interests at heart? Would you even really want to know the truth? Red pill or blue pill?

Amazon’s Homecoming sends its characters — and viewers — down this mysterious rabbit hole as it follows Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) during and after her stint working at a government facility for veterans. Based on the fictional podcast of the same name created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg (both credited as series creators here), Homecoming is directed and executive produced by Sam Esmail. And since we won’t be getting a new season of the director’s brilliant hacker thriller Mr. Robot this year, Homecoming is an excellent way to get your Esmail fix.

The two series initially seem unrelated on the surface, but there are many elements he artfully employs in both: amazing uncut, continual shots; unreliable narratives with protagonists going through psychological breakthroughs and competing with their own minds to find truth; even a few actors, including the always fabulous Bobby Cannavale and SMILF’s Frankie Shaw.

The entire cast, including Sissy Spacek, Alex Karpovsky (Girls) and Shea Whigham (who shines in everything from Boardwalk Empire to Vice Principals), deliver powerful performances. Julia Roberts is impeccable as Heidi — an absolute Emmy contender. Remarking on decorated film actors transitioning to TV is a moot point now — so much television, especially of the streaming variety like on Amazon, has a cinematic caliber — but it’s always exciting to see a favorite performer in a new medium.

It’s hard to explain in much detail what Heidi’s job is because she doesn’t really seem to have a complete grasp on things. In the past, she served as caseworker at Homecoming Transitional Support Center, where recently returned American soldiers are helped to better acclimate to civilian life. But in the future she’s working as a waitress and living with her mother (Spacek), which is odd for a woman who once held such a high-level job. She doesn’t seem to remember much about her time there. Maybe she doesn’t want to.

At Homecoming, she worked extensively with optimistic vet Walter Cruz (portrayed by Stephan James of Race and the anticipated If Beale Street Could Talk, who gives a perfectly understated performance); he truly engages in the therapy and believes he is in good hands. But not everyone in the program is as trusting as Walter and questions surrounding Homecoming’s mission permeate from him to Heidi.

Years later, a pencil-pushing fed from the Department of Defense (Whigham) sets out to follow up on a complaint filed against Homecoming. He’s determined to uncover the truth about this mysterious program years after its apparent end. But it’s also after anyone cares, including his boss, who demands he drop it. He doesn’t, and once the layers of the case are peeled back, odd turns begin to pile up.

At 30 minutes a pop, the deeply engrossing episodes pass so quickly — stop me if you’ve heard this before — that it’s difficult not to binge. The only thing that might hold you back is the emotional punch the series packs. Homecoming loads an impressive amount of twisty psychological drama into a half-hour (some popular series with hour-plus episodes should take note). There are so many hints, cinematic references, clues, red herrings and “easter eggs,” it would take multiple viewings to catch them all. Pay attention to the aspect ratios as the show jumps back and forth in time. Each cinematographic element is thoughtfully executed.

Once the truth about Homecoming is uncovered — and fear not, definitive details are eventually revealed — the characters are left with the difficult task of deciding whether to move on with that knowledge and leave well enough alone or expose the truth, potentially upending perfectly fine lives. It begs the question: Would you want to know if you were living a happy, healthy lie?

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