Homecoming season 2 lacks the brilliance of its predecessor, but keeps up with narrative twists, stellar casting
The conceit of Homecoming season 2 is similar to the original: a woman with memory loss (Heidi Bergman — played by Julia Roberts in season 1, and in season 2 Jackie, played by Janelle Monae) tries to piece together crucial information she has forgotten.
This post contains spoilers for Amazon Prime Studio's Homecoming Season 2.
A woman wakes up in a boat in the middle of a lake. She senses something awful has happened, but has no recollection what. In fact, she has no recollection of anything, not even her name. A man stands on the shore, watching her. She shouts to him for help; he flees. As she makes her way up the embankment and starts to walk down the highway, a police patrol car approaches and seeing her disoriented state, an officer escorts the woman to a hospital.
The woman uses the sole clue she has on her person (a paper napkin from a particular restaurant) to retrace her steps, to piece together who she might be and how she got there. It's a high-stakes reverse scavenger hunt, and marks the first half of Homecoming season 2. Based on the Gimlet Media podcast of the same name, and following a critically lauded season 1, this new set of seven episodes (each about half an hour in length and available to stream on Amazon Prime Studio) is not so much a continuation of the previous story as much as it as an offshoot. It also introduces a new cast member in Janelle Monae, who plays Jackie — the woman at the centre of this story.
Jackie's investigation leads her to Geist, a mysterious biotech/pharma company, where — in one of season 2's neat twists — she discovers all her conclusions so far are wrong.
The conceit of Homecoming season 2 is similar to the original: a woman with memory loss (Heidi Bergman — played by Julia Roberts in season 1, and voiced by Catherine Keener in the Gimlet podcast; Jackie/Janelle Monae in season 2) tries to piece together what she has forgotten. In season 1, Heidi is "helped" by her conversations with a Department of Defense official called Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), looking into a complaint against Heidi's former employers — an initiative called Homecoming, run by the Geist company. The initiative is meant to help rehabilitate soldiers recently returned from their deployments back into civilian society.
It's been four years since Heidi quit the Homecoming programme, but she has scant memory of her stint, remembering nothing beyond the bare basic fact of having worked there. With Carrasco providing her case note recordings of a soldier she worked with — Walter Cruz (Stephan James; voiced by Oscar Isaac in the podcast) — Heidi's association with Geist comes back to her. Heidi had discovered that the drugs that were meant to target the soldiers' traumatic memories and aid their smooth transition into civilian life are actually erasing all their memories. Moreover, the soldiers' PTSD isn't being treated so they can lead normal lives, it is so they can be redeployed to the frontlines — another detail Heidi's hectoring, manipulative boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale; voiced by David Schwimmer in the podcast) has kept from her.
Aghast at her inadvertent complicity and wanting to prevent his redeployment, Heidi ingests along with Walter a large dose of the Geist drug that was being administered to the soldiers, which causes significant (temporary) impairment and memory loss to both.
Meanwhile, back at Geist, Colin's mishandling of the Homecoming programme helps his colleague Audrey Temple (Hong Chau; voiced by Amy Sedaris) to oust him from the company and cement her own control.
Season 2 of the Homecoming podcast focused on Heidi's quest to find Walter and make amends, but the screen adaptation fast-tracked through it and showed her encounter with him merely as a post-script.
Instead, the Homecoming series' second season is based on an entirely new script by creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, tracing the mystery of Jackie's identity, which ties into Walter and Audrey's storylines.
If Homecoming season 1 — with its striking and distinct visual aesthetic — indicated a path forward for other podcast-to-screen adaptations that hope to emulate its success, then season 2 does so in how it chooses to spin off the original story into a new direction, foregrounding the characters of Jackie and Audrey. There is also a fresh sub-plot in the form of Department of Defence honcho Francine Bunda (played by Joan Cusack) who wrests control of Geist to ensure a steady supply of its "miracle" memory erasing drug, with its limitless possibilities. And we discover that the company's founder, Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper), may have been in the dark all along about what his product is being used for.
Homecoming season 2 is gripping enough, but the layer upon layer that the podcast and debut season worked on, seem missing this time round. This season is, despite the storytelling device, a more straightforward narrative. Maybe it has to do with the change in directors (Kyle Patrick Alvarez takes over from Sam Esmail) or perhaps it is the thinness of the plot itself.
A problem with Homecoming (the podcast and show) has been that its twists and turns can sometimes seem a little too pat, and not all of its finer details are worked out: the widely varied way the Geist drug dosage impacts Heidi, Walter and the other soldiers, for instance; or in this season, how very easily Audrey accomplishes her Geist coup. Geist itself — the shadowy villain of this story — is felled so quickly this season. The corners of the plot that wouldn't hold up to too much scrutiny are usually camouflaged by the riveting performances and striking visuals, but you can still sense they're there.
Where season 2 does score is in the excellent chemistry between Monae-James, and then Monae-Chau. Watching Monae's equation with each of them turn — from friendly overtures to mistrust and hostility (with James), from love to confusion and again hostility (with Chau) — lends emotional depth to the events unfolding. And while nothing quite matches up to the season 1/podcast conversations between Heidi and Walter, the poignancy this season too is evoked by the new characters grappling with the same question:
How much of ourselves is our memories?
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