The second season of Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s once-based-on-a-podcast Homecoming has a common problem found when expanding from “story” to “franchise.” The shadows in the corners of the Amazon mystery series’ world, the ones that once invited our imaginations to fill in the gaps, have—by design—evaporated, for little reason other than that Season 2 needed a story to tell. It’s not unwatchable, it’s just unnecessary.
The excellent first season kicked off with a past-and-present relationship between soldier Walter Cruz (Stephan James) and caseworker Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) that had deteriorated into nothing. But as the gaps filled in from both ends, we got context. This season starts off with a gap, then uses its mystery to provide text.
Janelle Monáe plays Jacqueline Calico—or at least wakes up with that ID in her pocket. She, whoever that really is, wakes up in a rowboat in the middle of a lake with a phone in her hand and no idea how she’s gotten there. The phone is quickly dropped into the water, but the amnesia’s more permanently in her possession. Unfortunately, the initial investigation into her identity isn’t particularly compelling TV, as it feels like a silent video game protagonist playing a point-and-click mystery. Unlocking new locations by finding the right clues, her procedural drive replaces personality. It becomes I Spy, with only the absence of information sucking us in like a black hole. Eventually, however, it all returns to the Homecoming program.
My Season 1 review of the show was vague about the memory loss plot, the mysterious Geist Emergent Group, and the secretive Homecoming program at the heart of it all, but specific about the artistry behind them. That vagueness will remain (partially because I’m prohibited from sharing details, outcomes, and entire characters, and partially because there’s still enough fun to be had with some reveals that it warrants a cautious approach) just as the artistry has persevered. Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail has passed on directorial duties to The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Kyle Patrick Alvarez, someone who brings plenty of experience with fucked-up experiments, and who also maintains the striking visual language of the original.
Slick split-screens, ethereal crossfades, long tracking shots (a home invasion looks impressively complex), and lingering credits sequences keep Homecoming looking great. These latter sequences, almost always mundane counterpoints to the high-concept antics of the preceding episode, remind us that life goes on and that even the most outrageous actions and reveals are built upon boring errands. Ned Stark’s head wasn’t lopped off without a lot of off-screen blade sharpening.
But there aren’t too many shocking twists over Season 2’s seven half-hour episodes. The brief runtime is a continued highlight that seems especially praiseworthy as streaming dramas (especially mystery-laden ones) bloat to obscene, Quibi seed funding-like levels. But the second season is shorter, less ambitious in scope, and still feels like it takes three episodes to get going. That’s partly because Homecoming gets caught up providing answers nobody was asking for, like “Who’s the weird old farmer at the head of Geist?” and “Has he been upstairs the whole time?” (he has, as played by Chris Cooper at his crustiest). It also supplies those that were more interesting when they were ambiguous, like “How’s Walter holding up in his new life?” and “How did secretary Audrey Temple (Hong Chau) take over Homecoming?”
The latter, at least, gives Chau more to sink her teeth into after being solid in the first season and a breakout in HBO’s Watchmen. Her transformation from underling to corporate bad guy is one of the few times the season nears the commentary of the first, as ambition, oppression, and overcompensation wage war inside her strained expressions. While Monáe has occasional flashes of brilliance over the season, Chau is the real star. Her understated, dry deliveries come in scary, biting, or bashful varieties—she sells cute and unassuming or cold and calculating as naturally as she swaps outfits.
Audrey is a good character, bolstered by a bananas side performance by Joan Cusack (who shows up as a military devil on her shoulder), that often seems on the periphery of her own show. James and Monáe get left out to dry as surly, confused, and emptied-out shells, while the conclusion lacks grace or “everything clicks into place” satisfaction. The show’s incidental plotting, often obfuscating the point for the sake of a later reveal, carries over to its arms-length tone.
The show still attempts to have warmth (there’s another relationship at its core that should be sweet, but never quite clicks) and humor (mostly dark humor interspersed through its reveals mixed in with more fun-poking, Dilbert-esque corporate silliness), but never really draws us in at a human level like the first season did with its tragic flirtations and bumbling investigations.
Whereas Homecoming’s initial mystery was engrossing, its second is simply unfocused. It’s not that it’s hard to follow, it’s just hard to figure out why we’re following it like this. Is it a story of ever-present corporate temptation? The story of Monáe’s character finding her identity? An interlude surrounding Walter’s life, as he’s drawn back to the Homecoming program that poked holes in his mind? Or is its purpose one of the countless things I’m not allowed to tell you about? Homecoming can’t quite decide, leaving those hoping for a repeat of the first season’s success wishing they could blot this season out of their memories.
Homecoming Season 2 premieres Friday, May 22nd on Amazon Prime.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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