Screenshot: Amazon

You know what? Forget everything I said about Colin Belfast in the last review. Who cares if he’s a rotten boss? What he does in this episode is so, so much worse than anything he’s yet done in his position as Heidi’s supervisor at Geist. You may feel the need to shower after watching this episode. Heidi sure should.

From the moment Colin first walks into the laundromat, it’s clear he’s decided to take his duplicity to the next level. And his subsequent adopted persona is so perfectly Machiavellian—he portrays exactly the kind of emotionally wounded warrior Heidi was dedicated to helping—that you’re already cringing before he starts to seduce her. And by the time he feigns the “aw shucks” failed-kiss bullshit, her decision to lean in and kiss him anyway is the intimate equivalent of the “Don’t go up the stairs!” scene in a horror movie. It’s creepily effective, and reveals new depths of his slimy willingness to cross any ethical boundary to get what he wants. And yet: What he wants isn’t entirely clear—definitely for the audience, and possibly even for Colin himself. The symbolism of the fake name he gives himself—“Hunter”—is all too apt.

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The title of this episode, “Toys,” functions not only as a fun reference to Heidi’s gritty determination in the face of coworker Craig’s intrusions. (“Craig, I haven’t lost a fucking thing. Now shut your wet little mouth, turn around, and go back to your toys.”) It’s also a sly suggestion about the nature of everyday people in the face of corporate interests. For Walter’s mother Gloria, it doesn’t matter what Heidi is trying to do with her son—there are impersonal forces at work that treat the ex-serviceman as a plaything, a literal experiment for their financial gain. And for Colin, present-day Heidi is a toy of sorts, an object for him to wind up and see if anything useful pops out. In both cases, there’s nothing about the humanity of these people that’s being taken under consideration. They are there to be used in the eyes of the users.

And what this episode does so well is take the series’ ongoing exploration of individuals being swallowed up by institutions and structures beyond their control and start to expose the machinery at work. To show how well-meaning people and ill-intentioned bastards alike end up serving at the pleasure of impenetrable forces that will use any impulse—the good and bad, noble or nefarious—in service of its ends. Just as capitalism will take a genuine desire for rebellion and turn it into Che Guevara t-shirts sold at Hot Topic, Geist can use both the Heidi Bergmans and the Colin Belfasts of the world. Want to do good? Great, how about doing some good while helping us make money. Willing to be a duplicitous little shit and abandon any principles in the name of making a buck? We’ve got a place for you, too. What Gloria Morriseau is saying may seem unreasonable, but she’s not wrong: There are powers at work way above Heidi’s personal hopes, and no individual’s charitable intentions can make a difference, can steer the bureaucratic ship away from its single goal of profit. Heidi wants to make a difference, but Geist wants to make orange juice.

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It’s becoming ever more clear why Sam Esmail was attracted to this material. The director uses “Toys” to delve deeply into the same interests he’s exploring over on Mr. Robot: The question of personal identity in a profoundly impersonal world, the relative value of truth and falsehood when the difference between the two no longer seems clear, or even like anyone can define them (“fake news,” indeed), and the way the best of us can be subsumed into the very institutions we hoped to positively impact, only to be transformed ourselves. It’s rare to have a Gloria willing to lay it all on the line to pull you away from the seemingly ease and comfort of such structures; it’s all too easy to rationalize and explain away the nagging doubts and fears you may have about any job, any situation, any political process. Walter sums it up nicely when he tells Heidi there’s no clear line of explanation for him wanting stay—maybe he wants to get better, sure, but what a happy coincidence that his personal desires line up so well with what Geist wants for him.

And this episode starts to twist things around. Whereas before Esmail’s camera would linger on the outside of multiple frames—think of Shrier pacing the confines of his room at the end of “Pineapple,” the camera observing him like an animal in a cage—now we start to be the ones stuck inside a frame, as Heidi in the past gets tangled up by her intentions, and present-day Heidi falls into the web of slimy deception spun by Colin. The episode ends not with the camera observing our characters as they stand hemmed in by their surroundings, but with the audience’s point of view itself hemmed in, as we slowly pan to the hotel-room window, zoom forward, and then look out at the others walking to and from their own little claustrophobia boxes. The perspective has been inverted: Now we’re the ones trapped in the frame.

Gloria drops everything to go try and pull her son out of the Homecoming program, but when Walter refuses, she places an anonymous complaint to the Department of Defense, claiming to be an employee at Geist who has seen Walter being held against his will. She’s not exactly a master spy (ending the call by insisting he has to go home right away isn’t what you’d call Jason Bourne-level trickery), but her paranoia was right on the money. Her call is immediately transcribed and sent over to Geist. Cross-cutting the call with the overhead panning shot again plays up the very links that Gloria is worried about, and that Walter (and Heidi) are so quick to try and dismiss. Things are starting to accelerate in both timelines, and Heidi is in over her head in each.

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Stray observations

  • There’s a wonderful moment when Heidi is walking alongside Gloria toward her office, trying to engage, and her expression after being rebuffed by Walter’s mother is fantastic. Roberts really is doing great work here.
  • Opinions may vary, but I was a big fan of the tilted-drink-in-painting moment.
  • Similarly, Cannavale’s Colin is so nastily manipulative, you can’t help but be impressed by how effectively the actor plays it—getting abashed and emotional any time Colin pushes Heidi a little too hard.
  • “My whole life is phony and fake, and...where’s the real one...the one I won’t let myself see.”
  • As always, if you’d like to discuss upcoming episodes and plot spoilers, please head over to our Homecoming Spoiler Space.

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