Despite some strong performances throughout and confident direction from Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”), the second season of Amazon Prime’s “Homecoming” ends up feeling too much like a footnote to the first year. Julia Roberts, Shea Whigham, and Bobby Cannavale (mostly) are gone, as the story branches off to new characters while also pushing forward the mythology of the first year and what happened in the groundbreaking Homecoming Program. While I generally avoid the comparison, with only seven episodes at around half an hour each, this season really does play more like a 3.5-hour feature film than any season of television I’ve seen in a long time. And there are moments of greatness in those three and a half hours, most of them in the engaging performances of the cast. However, one can’t shake the large shadow of the first season. Less narratively ambitious in every way, season two feels like an echo of something that didn’t really need an echo.
First, a little recap. Based on the podcast of the same name, the first season of “Homecoming” introduced us to Heidi Bergman (Roberts), who worked at something called the Homecoming Transitional Support Center. A DOD employee named Thomas Carrasco (Whigham) investigated the program and uncovered the story of Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a veteran who was a part of what was an experiment on human memory. Something called the Geist Initiative had developed a drug that could wipe away painful memories, and not only was this a good way to deal with PTSD, but it meant the best soldiers could just be sent right back into combat. The season ended with the slimy Colin (Cannavale) taking the fall for the company and Walter seemingly living in secluded happiness, but there was a hint that maybe he remembered ... something.
Season two opens with the set-up for a great mystery. A woman named Alex (Janelle Monáe) wakes up on a boat in the middle of a lake. She has no oars. She has no idea how she got there. She has no idea who she is. There’s a man standing on the shore, but he flees the scene. She gets back to solid ground and finds her way to a hospital, where the doctor notices a needle mark in her arm. Is Alex a junkie? How is she related to Geist and Homecoming?
The first two episodes play with Alex's identity and how she fits into the bigger picture, but then season two of “Homecoming” switches POV and timelines, jumping back to become a more relatively straightforward sequel to season one. Remember Audrey (Hong Chau)? She was the Geist employee who told Colin at the end of year one that he was going to take the fall for everything, before we saw her rub some of the Homecoming chemical on her wrist, presumably, for a slight dose of memory loss to alleviate the stress and anxiety. Season two becomes Audrey’s story, revealing her role at the company, how she’s related to Alex. It also deepens the mythology of Geist, including introducing us to its namesake, played wonderfully by Chris Cooper. Leonard Geist is watching his invention get away from him, controlled by the morally dubious machine that forms between the military and capitalism. And, given his presence in the credits and trailer, it’s not a spoiler to say that Walter returns, and the narrative then becomes arguably his to continue.
And that’s part of the problem. Season one of “Homecoming” juggled narratives within episodes, cutting back and forth in time to reveal a complete picture. Season two just plays hot potato, starting as Alex’s story, becoming Audrey’s, and then returning to Walter’s. It’s a show without a clear POV or narrative drive, and frustrates when viewed as a complete picture. Monáe is captivating but she’s not given enough here to work with, ultimately coming off as more of a tease to get us to Audrey, Walter, and Leonard. Chau and Cooper make out better, finding subtle beats in a narrative-heavy show.
With at least two great performances—and Monae and James are certainly not bad either—it’s hard to be overly critical of a show like “Homecoming.” But the truth is that I walked away from season one feeling like I had seen an accomplished, standalone project. I was actually surprised to discover that the second season was continuing that story—I just presumed it would be an anthology series with different characters and narratives each year—because it felt pretty complete already. Three and a half hours later, I still feel that way. When people remember this show years down the road, they may even forget season two exists.
Whole season screened for review.