Amazon’s Homecoming finds Julia Roberts starring in a television series for the first time in her career, and she could hardly have made a more cinematic choice for her small-screen debut. Directed by television auteur Sam Esmail, best known as the creator of USA Network’s Mr. Robot, the only small thing about Homecoming is the claustrophobic vise of its mystery. As if claiming itself too large for its own medium, the show frequently toys with the image’s aspect ratio and employs a prodigious amount of split screens, a stylistic technique out of fashion since the ’70s and a particularly audacious choice in the visually cramped era of laptop streaming. The proper reaction to Homecoming’s first episode is, “We’re gonna need a bigger TV.”
The bravado of Esmail’s visual style is pure Hitchcock, sometimes menacing viewers with taut long takes, other times barraging them with an array of close-ups. The opening sequence to episode three, “Optics,” is perhaps the most pitch-perfect homage to Hitchcockian storytelling assembled for television or film in recent years, as irises on a computer screen build the trepidation behind a decisive keystroke and turn an ordinary office cubicle into a site of thrilling suspense.
Astute listeners will also catch hints of Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator, laced throughout the score, and, in fact, those may be more than just hints of Herrmann. They could be Herrmann’s actual music. The entirety of Homecoming’s soundtrack has been recycled from scores to other films. Herrmann is credited in two episodes, and additional audio cameos include the music from The French Connection, All the President’s Men, and Escape from New York.
Homecoming was a hit podcast from Gimlet Media before the show’s creators, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, adapted it for the screen. With the podcast, Horowitz and Bloomberg set out to make “a movie for your ears,” enlisting voice work from the likes of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer. Now, with Esmail directing and Roberts starring alongside Stephan James, Bobby Cannavale, Shea Whigham, and Sissy Spacek, Homecoming has matured into a feast for the eyes too.
The course of the first season tracks one critical mystery: What happened at the Homecoming transitional support center on May 15, 2018? Thomas Carrasco (Whigham), with the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, is sorting through a backlog of grievances when an anonymous complaint about the Homecoming program from four years prior shows up in his workload. Homecoming had been a live-in support service, now defunct, run by a private corporation and purportedly intended to help veterans re-assimilate to civilian life, but Carrasco is able to ascertain little else on the specifics of its management or methods. What begins as a routine inquiry grows more grave and perplexing as everyone associated with the program seems either reticent to discuss it or completely without memory of ever being involved.
The series crosscuts between Carrasco’s investigation of Homecoming and the actual operations there, transpiring four years earlier and leading up to the fateful event Carrasco has identified as occurring on May 15, 2018. Roberts plays a therapist, Heidi Bergman, employed by Homecoming, whose working relationship with a client, Walter Cruz (James), develops into something increasingly personal. But as their intimacy deepens, so too does the mystery, and, as Walter’s treatment progresses, the endgame becomes less and less clear to both client and therapist. All that seems certain is that catastrophe awaits them sooner than revelation.
Homecoming is a tight mystery neatly packaged in Esmail’s sly direction. The first episode opens with a close-up on an otherworldly palm tree suspended in starlit space. The camera pulls out. Goldfish of monstrous size float past. They shrink and multiply as the camera slowly reveals them confined to an aquarium in Heidi’s office. Walter walks in and begins his first session. It’s April 10, 2018. Esmail’s images will lure you in, but the characters will keep you watching.