Sun. Sep 27th, 2020

TV Review: ‘Homecoming Season 2’ – Janelle Monáe gives a standout performance in a tale of greed, complicity, and personal ambition

The first season of Homecoming, Amazon’s conspiracy thriller created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg based on the Gimlet Media podcast of the same name, was a perfect TV from start to finish. It combined old-school Hitchcockian suspense with a contemporary mystery revolving around the military-industrial complex and corporate greed to a brilliant result. It was also starring Julia Roberts in her meatiest role since Erin Brockovich, and directed entirely by the brain behind Mr. Robot, Sam Esmail, who brought a masterful visual style consisting of eccentric angles, and plenty of overhead and tracking shots in each episode. With an even more satisfying ending, the bar is clearly high for season two — but thankfully it’s one that Kyle Patrick Alvarez (The Stanford Prison Experiment), who now directs all seven episodes, and Janelle Monáe, who’s starring as the lead role this time, tackle effortlessly.

Just like season one, each episode is clocking for only 30 minutes or so, making every moment count and the mystery much denser. The story is also still related to Geist, the corporation behind the titular Homecoming, a treatment center meant to help war veterans transition to civilian life after duty. But where the first season is about untangling the conspiracy behind said facility, season two takes a deeper look at the dynamic inside Geist, as well as the aftermath of the fallout that happened last season.

There’s no Roberts’ Heidi Bergman giving therapy to a group of male soldiers with PTSD this time around. Instead, everything starts and ends with a new character played by Monáe. When we first meet her, she’s laying on a rowboat without any recollection of who she is or how she ended up there. But it’s later revealed that her name is Jackie, and that she’s a US Air Force veteran. Or, at least, so it seems.

Throughout the first two episodes, we follow Jackie as she’s gathering information to discover her identity. Her first clue is a lab tube with a Geist stamp on it, and her second clue is a bill under the name of Alex, who’s later revealed has a connection to Audrey Temple (Hong Chau, once again in a phenomenal performance), the enigmatic Geist employee who at the end of last season took over the role of Homecoming supervisor from her former boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale). Who Alex is, and what connection that Jackie might have to Geist become the main puzzle of the season, though of course, there’s a much bigger conspiracy at play later on.

But unlike other shows who like to drag its central mystery until the very end (yes, I’m looking at you Westworld and The Sinner), every question in Homecoming S2 is answered when they should be. And when it unfolds, it does so in ways that do not feel like cheap thrills. Horowitz and Bloomberg clearly care about the characters as much as they do about the mysteries. That’s why throughout all seven episodes, it never feels like Jackie’s self-discovery only serves as the vehicle for the twists, but also as a journey of a woman trying to make sense of her reality.

As Jackie, Monáe gives a standout performance. She peppers every scene with tenacity and confusion at the same time. Even when she’s just delivering “I don’t know,” Monáe always makes sure that each of her scenes is impactful. In the second half of the season, where the story focuses on the event leading up to Jackie losing her memory, Monáe is also given a chance to show more layers about her character. The way she smoothly maneuvers herself from one scene to the next, and displaying confidence in a way that’s not just radiating, but also reveals the terrifying secret buried deep beneath Jackie is simply masterful. This is a performance that’s for sure will be uneasy to forget. Let’s just hope that the Emmys will see it too.

One of the main subjects that Homecoming has been exploring since the get-go is how not having a full grasp on reality can affect people’s psyche, and even lead them to do dangerous things. And in season two, it’s not just illustrated through Jackie who keeps putting herself in great risks while trying to find out her identity, but also through Walter Cruz (Stephan James), one of the victims of the Homecoming facility. At the end of season one, it’s revealed that the real purpose of Homecoming is helping war veterans to manage their PTSD, but more about erasing their memories from the war so that they can be redeployed as soon as possible without them even noticing it.

Season two sees Walter living a nicer life in Fish Camp, California. But it doesn’t take long until he begins noticing that there’s something wrong with his past life. Walter knows that he’s a veteran. What he doesn’t remember is what happened to him while on duty, and how he ended up living in Fish Camp. Like Jackie, Walter embarks on a journey to search for the truth, and it leads him to Geist and its founder Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper in an amazing, abrasive performance). But where Jackie functions as our proxy to uncloak the bigger conspiracy at Geist, Walter serves as the emotional beat of the season as his journey becomes a reflection of the dehumanization that corporate greed causes to people —an arc that James explores with excellent vulnerability.

Both Jackie and Walter’s journeys throughout the season will have you at the edge of your seat, and Alvarez’s visual storytelling that, like Esmail, consists of unconventional split-screen and a lot of insane tracking shots, will no doubt heighten the suspense. To make it all the more remarkable, the composer of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Emile Mosseri, also does a marvelous job at conjuring an uncomfortable ambiance with his haunting score. It truly is a technical achievement on every level, and one that’s not often found on TV.

Still, Homecoming is at its best when it holds the mirror to our reality. In season one, the show not only explored the cruelty that corporate greed can cause to people, but also how that cruelty can be perpetrated by the most significant stakeholder like the government, and even by the tiniest cog in the system, which in this case is Heidi. This season takes that idea even deeper by showing us that the abuse caused by corporate greed itself is not just subjected to people far from the system, but also the one who’s closest to it, like Audrey. Through her arc, Homecoming manages to blur the line between the victim and the perpetrator, and invites us to see what corporate habit —which only rewards people at the top of the ladder— can do to people at the bottom. Of course, personal ambition is a big factor in this scenario. But when we look deeper, the main problem is actually rooted in the system. If Audrey doesn’t feel pressured by the corporate culture at Geist, perhaps she won’t do morally bad things, and thus won’t be enabling the abuse caused indirectly by her actions. The cycle continues not because of people like Audrey, but rather because of what corporate pressure does to her. It’s sad, but it’s the truth of our reality.

Until the very end, Homecoming season two doesn’t try to offer simple solutions on how to solve these corporate greed problems because there might be none. But as hinted by the ending, it requires people at the higher-ups to do something about it, which in reality seems highly unlikely. In an era where zombies, monsters, and talking robots are dominating TV big bad, Homecoming stands out simply for giving us a portrait of reality where no big bad is more terrifying than the one closest to us; corporate greed.

All 10 episodes of Homecoming season two will debut exclusively on Amazon Prime Video May 22.

Reyzando Nawara is a passionate film and TV writer based in Indonesia. He’s a big fan of Mia Hansen-Løve, Alex Ross Perry, and Noah Baumbach. When he’s not busy telling people to watch Halt and Catch Fire, or at work, he likes to spend his days making sorbet and cooking.

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