Homecoming Is Taut, Paranoid

Excerpted from The Atlantic – Sophie Gilbert 11.3.2018

Homecoming, Amazon’s new dramatic series starring Julia Roberts, is pure Hitchcock. In one scene, a Department of Defense investigator, Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), runs down a staircase that’s shot from above, shown from a skewed, helter-skelter perspective that makes it seem like Carrasco is a human ball bearing tilting his way into the center of a labyrinth. The scene plays out over a swooping score of strings and brass so redolent of mid-20th-century thrillers that you half expect Tippi Hedren to be waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

But Homecoming is also Steven Soderbergh, between its tendency to introduce episodes with sound first, its jarring use of alternating aspect ratios and split screens, and its heady, brittle state of paranoia.

The result is a television series that’s frequently breathtaking. Each frame of Homecoming feels meaningful, and most feel at least vaguely familiar. But it’s a curious way to approach telling a story that was first told in podcast form, without any visuals at all.

Roberts  plays Heidi, the lead administrator of a program called Homecoming Transitional Support Center, which she tells Walter (Stephan James) is a “safe space” for him to process his military experiences and re-familiarize himself with civilian life. Heidi’s job includes weekly sessions with the Homecoming residents and sporadic phone calls with her boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale), a buffoonish shark of a corporate middle manager who praises Heidi by saying “fist bump” out loud.

The series jumps back and forth in time between the Homecoming scenes, set in 2018, and scenes set a few years later, when Heidi is working as a waitress at a waterside diner and is visited by  Whigham’s investigator, Carrasco.
 It’s so clear from Roberts’s performance that these two Heidis are totally different. 2018 Heidi is girlish, earnest, motivated, and compulsively organized. Future Heidi is pallid, lifeless, hollow, and claims not to remember anything about her old job. The question of what’s happened to her becomes the show’s defining mystery.

As Carrasco, Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) is the kind of G-man who’s usually the bad guy, with a starchy, ironed short-sleeved shirt, short haircut, and spectacles that clip together at the front. But he’s one of the most compelling characters in the series, fully aware of his paper-pushing irrelevance but fiercely committed to doing the right thing anyway. Carrasco’s scenes also feel the most explicitly nostalgic, anchoring the character in a Twilight Zoneaesthetic with his 1960s haircut and his surreal experiences.

Roberts gives the most striking performance, flattening her natural charisma and absorbing her character’s feelings until she’s almost unrecognizable. Past Heidi is poised but clearly introverted; Future Heidi is totally deflated, biting her inner lip so intently that her mouth forms a permanent line. In one scene, Heidi gets a makeover at the mall, giving viewers a glimpse of Julia Roberts, megastar and Lancôme spokesmodel—and the contrast is so disconcerting that it’s a relief when Heidi awkwardly wipes the makeup off. Roberts almost never utilizes her infamous smile, and in the fleeting moments when she does, it’s to signal that Heidi is putting on an act.

 

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