In the eighth episode of the Amazon Prime thriller “Homecoming,” a character says, “Let’s be really careful how we unpack this whole thing.” It’s an intentionally meta line in that the show, stylishly directed by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail, is all about how we unpack things—memories, traumas, betrayals. It is a puzzle box of a show, one that plays with form and episodic structure to keep you confused and uncertain about what’s really happened to the characters you’re watching. It’s a show about which I expect some really interesting thinkpieces to be written about how we process trauma and so regularly seek to just forget instead. Most of all, it’s a thriller that actually earns the word Hitchcockian with a second-half dynamic that alternately echoes “Psycho” and “Vertigo.” With great ideas, an interesting mystery, and a phenomenal ensemble, the only thing holding “Homecoming” back from the top tier of current television is a common issue with streaming service shows—pacing. Even at ten half-hour episodes, “Homecoming” drags its feet a few too many times, sinking back into valleys after notable peaks in episodes four and eight. It could have been a masterpiece at five or six episodes.
“Homecoming” takes place in two time periods, defined by a distinct formal choice. The material that occurs in 2018 is shot in full widescreen, allowing Esmail to take full advantage of his many stylistic habits (for example, he loves shooting people overhead going about their jobs like rats in a maze). Half the show takes place years later, and that material looks like it was shot on an iPhone. The quality is less defined and the frame is constricted, reflecting its protagonist’s limited viewpoint.
That protagonist is Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), who is now a waitress but used to work at a facility called Homecoming, a place designed to help returning soldiers deal with PTSD. A Department of Defense employee named Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) opens an investigation into an old claim that a soldier named Walter Cruz (Stephan James) was being held prisoner at Homecoming. He wanted to leave but was not allowed to do so. Heidi claims not to remember Walter at all, and, come to think of it, barely remembers Homecoming. Why is that? In flashbacks, we meet a number of key players at the facility, including Heidi’s boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale) and an employee named Craig (Alex Karpovsky). The incredible ensemble is filled out by Dermot Mulroney, Jeremy Allen White, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and the always-wonderful Sissy Spacek.
“Homecoming” bounces back and forth between Heidi’s job at Homecoming and what results from Carrasco’s investigation into the complaint about Walter. Homecoming seems like a relatively helpful facility. The soldiers are given all kinds of treatment, including social roleplaying with Craig and one-on-one time with Heidi, where she gets much closer with Walter. He seems to be progressing well, but there are signs that something sinister is happening, and not just because Colin is such an obvious villain. Cannavale is fantastic here, perfectly playing the kind of white-collar animal who takes any opportunity in front of him, no matter the morality. I love how he’s always moving. Even when he’s on the phone with Heidi, Esmail never allows him to just be seated at a desk. He’s walking, pacing, skulking around. And when the show gets Cannavale and Roberts together in the back half, its Hitchcock influences come to the fore.
Whigham is also excellent as a government lackey who realizes there’s something odd about this old complaint. He doesn’t play him as a morally righteous superhero as much as someone who has fallen into something that he knows is important. Roberts’ performance is one I expect to be divisive. There are times when it felt too flat to me, but that’s arguably inherent in the character, one who is out of the loop and manipulated in both time frames. It’s a difficult role, and Roberts is good if not the best on the show. Spacek only has a few scenes but kills them, and Stephan James, along with his work in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” is proving that he’s about to be such a big star that you won’t remember a time that he wasn’t. He’s so charismatic and magnetic here.
“Homecoming” can be so good that its occasional pacing problem is all the more disappointing. There are times when you can literally feel the narrative grind to a halt in order to fill episode length, especially after narrative peaks in episodes four and eight, although it helps that these episodes are half the typical running time of network dramas (I'm all in on this new trend with this and "Maniac" being half-hours instead of hour-longs). Be patient. Get through those valleys. There’s enough value in the peaks still to come.