Author’s note: The entire first season was provided for review. It has already been renewed for a second season.
Homecoming, the new thriller from Amazon’s Prime Video and based on the podcast by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, finds Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) treating veterans for their PTSD and trauma at a facility. But there is one vet, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), whom she grows closer to, and with every great thriller or drama, there is more to the story than the surface level.
It’s best to get it out of the way now: this is easily one of the year’s best shows. This season is exceptional in its acting, its direction, its music, and its writing, all married together to create a fascinating look at the effects of emotional trauma on the mind. Some want to use it and others cure it, but more importantly, the personal connection of two people talking proves the more potent drug the show has at its disposal, how closeness can be a solution more than exercises and regimen. It also comments on the concept of memory, and how it can be malleable and ever-changing, how memories can make an imprint but aren’t truly what we’re about.
There’s an excited energy to the way the show is shot by co-creator Sam Esmail, in both the telling of the story and in instances of mundane moments turned into fascinating visual treats. One moment is simply of a lab and delivery process of an item, but the details and the way they’re conceptualized are attention grabbing. The past and the facility are filmed in wide shots, filmed impeccably and gorgeously. The present, however, is claustrophobic, closed-off and almost paranoid, in a small box with imposing, large black bars on either side, such a tiny frame compared to the past. It’s shot as incomplete, as if two-thirds of the image can’t be found and only this narrow sliver of information can be provided to us. Esmail’s direction and the style he employs gives the season a lot of flair, where he knows when to scale back.
James as Walter Cruz is a kind, warm presence on the show. He spends the majority of his time in session with Roberts where it gives both of them time to shine together, and James shines through exceptionally. A simple story of a prank on a fellow soldier to explain a road trip he dreams of, James is able to bring so much humanity to Walter and his connection to Heidi. He’s one of the major standouts of the season.
Bobby Cannavale plays Colin, Heidi’s boss, as an overconfident man who sees the forest for the trees, despite the trees and brush being very thick. The bigger picture is always at the forefront for him, and Cannavale puts on a convincing, thuggish alpha male persona here. It’s a smugness with some charm, as there is more beyond that. He is able to show some cracks in the armor, even some kindness at times, but it can be difficult to decide if this is part of who Colin is or an act to get what he wants. Cannavale and Roberts pair together perfectly, even simply talking over the phone, their characters’ personality types so different and clashing.
Shea Whigham continues his streak of being one of the more fascinating actors on screen. As Thomas Carrasco, the man investigating the Homecoming Center at the Department of Defense after something bad clearly went down, Whigham plays the character as troubled by almost everything, like he can’t quite shake something when it gets in his head. A simple wave of his arm to make the motion sensor lighting come back on in a sub-basement says so much about his character. He is judged as a cog, which he even labels himself at one point, no more than a “yes” or a “no” to go to someone higher up and more important than him. But his gut is pushing him into something bigger, and Whigham, through an almost schlubby performance he pulls off in excellent fashion, makes Carrasco a highly valuable addition to the season.
There are some excellent recurring roles from Sissy Spacek and especially Jeremy Allen White, who in his time on the show brings an emotional tie not only to Walter, but to us as he finds difficulty in the Homecoming project and its overall means.
But the show holds Julia Roberts at its core. As Heidi Bergman, it’s not a showy role, one made for such a big talent to win awards or make the show even more prestige. Rather, it’s a quiet, subtle performance, made by close-ups of Roberts’ face, the turmoil you can see and feel in her distant gazes, uncertain words, and guilt and grief. It’s powerful for its smallness, for how Roberts can command the show with a character over her head and facing the trauma of others. Heidi is a character only wanting to help, and through the storytelling choices, Roberts gives such a remarkable portrayal that is well worth talking about.
Homecoming is about facing trauma, and how each person deals with locking it away in a way personal to them. But the show uses this to make a bigger point on connection, how it takes others to find yourself and bring you back from a tipping point or a difficult time. It’s a wonderful and beautiful season of television and leaves a defining mark.