Janelle Monáe is here, though she doesn’t remember why
The first season of the Amazon Prime show Homecoming explored the nefarious goings-on at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a corporate program that purported to help veterans return to civilian life. But in fact, it used a regimen of drugs to erase their traumatic memories of war, the better to send them back to duty. In the recently launched second season, the corporation has shut down the Homecoming program, but the drug remains, scads of it. It’s all anybody can talk about. It’s a regular Chekhov’s gun, and it goes off with quite a bang. In the meantime, though, we have to watch six other episodes of unlikeable characters arguing about the drug.
Maybe Homecoming’s creators meant for the title to be ironic. It layers alienation on alienation, with characters’ relationships to others and even to themselves moving from conditional to compromised to dissolved. Though season one protagonist Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) doesn’t return, the veteran Walter Cruz (Stephan James), who was in her charge at Homecoming, does. Like no one else on the show, he has uncomplicated motives: he wants to find out what happened to him, and why his memories don’t seem to match up to reality. The show pulls a bit of sleight-of-hand by also erasing the memory of our new main character, Alex (Janelle Monáe), thereby making her more immediately sympathetic.
The season opens with her floating, oarless, in a boat on a pond with no recollection of how she got there or even who she is, echoing Walter’s struggle. Later we learn that this is about halfway through the action of the season, and that far from being the helpless veteran Jackie named on the ID in her wallet, she’s a conniving corporate hack, sent to find Walter and talk him out of pursuing anything regarding the Geist Emergent Group, Homecoming’s parent company. It’s a cheat, really. If things had proceeded chronologically, without an episode brazenly titled “Previously” to fill us in, we would have been happy to see Alex get what she deserved.
There’s some welcome frisson between new faces Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper) and Francine Bunda (Joan Cusack), as, respectively, the founder of Geist Group and a Department of Defense factotum. Between them stands Audrey Temple (Hong Chau), a former assistant at Geist Group who’s used the collapsing framework of the Homecoming project as her own upward corporate ladder. Now in charge, she allies with Bunda to steamroll Geist’s objections against continuing production of the memory-erasing drug. Temple walks a fine line between seeming diffidence and steely resolve, never having to raise her voice to convey that people must do things her way. And Geist and Bunda’s final conversation, in the field that produces the berries that make the drug, is a lesson in economy, no word or gesture or expression out of place.
There’s lots else to like in the show. The music (by composer Emile Mosseri) is appropriately taut. The camera work is clean and crisp, though the few times the show employs a split-screen device come off as contrived. Everybody’s working hard, and it shows, right down to the toss-off exchanges between minor characters. But in the end, the season makes one unforgivable mistake: it follows mostly the adventures of Alex/Jackie, instead of those of Walter.
By the time it all wraps up, it’s become a tale of Walter’s revenge, in which Alex and Audrey and everyone else are just bit players. But it’s come to that by fits and starts, refusing to take a direct path to the only place it could have gone. It’s as though the show itself has been dosing itself with the roller-pen memory-killer that Audrey and others apply to their wrists to get them through tough moments. But the trouble is, it’s the tough moments that make a good show. And Homecoming has dosed itself into mediocrity.