What happened to Heidi Bergman? After thirty minutes of some of the most enticing table-setting this side of an Agatha Christie novel, that’s the question facing viewers as we’re left outside a waterfront dive, with little sense of where we’re heading and even less of how we—and she—ended up here.
If there’s a gripe to be had about “Mandatory,” the first episode of Amazon’s new drama Homecoming, it’s that the ending feels abruptly imposed, creating the sense that what you’ve watched is less an episode of television than the first half-hour of a five-hour movie. But even this is a small quibble; with the continually evolving nature of what “episodic television” means in the Peak TV era, the show is simply adopting a different tack to create its world and draw you in. Director and showrunner Sam Esmail’s approach here is almost the opposite of the J.J. Abrams “mystery box” style of storytelling: Rather than teasing a bunch of eye-catching bells and whistles, he has stripped away everything but the beginnings of a character study of two people, then plunked one of them down for an ignominious landing as a waiter in a low-rent restaurant, provided no indication of how she got there, and promptly left us hanging. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does—marvelously so.
That’s not to say the series is minimalist when it comes to aesthetics or cinematography. Much as he did on Mr. Robot, Esmail is carving out a bold look and feel for Homecoming, one much indebted to Hollywood conspiracy thrillers of the ’70s like The Parallax View. (His signature off-center framing does pop up here, however, most notably in the first meeting between Heidi and Walter.) Rarely does much time pass before we’re doing a slow zoom on someone’s face, or pulling back to a mid-range shot of someone hemmed in by a window, a room, an entire building—as is perhaps best evidenced by the scenes set in the “present” (i.e. four years after the past events of 2018) in which the screen ratio shrinks to 1:1, this is a show following people who are being confined in one way or the other. Whether it’s literal or figurative, everything about the series works to reinforce the nagging sense of anxiety and claustrophobia threatening to erupt in every scene.
Thanks to the info dump of a conversation between Julia Robert’s Heidi and Bobby Cannavale’s motor-mouthed boss Colin (and some smoothly handled exposition elsewhere), we’ve got a rough sense of the situation: Heidi has been hired not just to function as a case worker of sorts, a sort of combination therapist/social work manager dealing with soldiers recently returned from overseas service. The men have enrolled at Homecoming Transitional Support Center, where they are undergoing programs ostensibly aimed at helping them re-enter society with minimal disruptions or emotional trauma. But as Colin repeatedly stresses (with poorly concealed paranoia), she’s also responsible for monitoring security and employees, specifically conducting background checks on the food service workers. Add to this the ambiguously menacing nature of the “medication” being produced for the program (“let’s not throw that word around the facility, okay?” Colin nervously notes) and the elusive “data” she’s supposed to harvest from the soldiers in her sessions (“everything these guys remember”), and it’s all too clear there’s a more sinister agenda at work behind Heidi’s comforting PR-speak with Walter Cruz (Stephan James), the first enrollee we meet.
The show may have been based on a podcast, but Esmail works overtime to ensure the transition to a visual medium is justified. His tracking shot of the Center during the Heidi-Colin phone exchange is a thing of beauty: It doesn’t feel like a showboating maneuver designed to call attention to itself, but it manages to convey the layout of the building, the pace of daily life inside the operation, the meticulously standardized nature of the furnishings provided to the men in the program, and the scale of the project, all while the dialogue conveys just how fraught with tension is the relationship between Colin and Heidi—and all of it hemmed in by the unbroken (or seemingly unbroken) camerawork. There’s that claustrophobia again.
And yet, Heidi seems more alive in her role as newly empowered career woman than she does in her personal life. With little more than some exasperated looks and mild interjections, her displeasure at having to endure another person in her home, even one who’s apparently been dating her for almost a year, washes over the situation like a tidal wave. Anthony is committed to her, and even inspired by her ability to restart her life in Tampa, and she can barely muster the energy to ask him a single question about his day. It’s unclear how much she had invested in the relationship prior to beginning this new phase, but the odds of Anthony sticking around much longer don’t look good.
And we already know the odds of him being around four years later. What’s most fascinating about the scenes with Shea Whigham’s investigator (outside of his delightfully low-key Columbo-esque performance) is how effectively Roberts manages to sell her frustration and pragmatism, even when it’s clear what she’s saying to him is patently absurd. She doesn’t remember anything of her full-time job? No memories of that time or work? It’s a nicely understated performance from someone who can honestly lay claim to being one of the world’s few true-blue international movie stars, and it’s some of her best work in years, even at this early stage in the series. 2018 Heidi is fastidiously neat, focused on attention to detail, and consumed with her job. 2022 Heidi is frazzled, frustrated, supposedly living there to take care of an ailing mother, and has no explanation for her current lot in life. (“There weren’t many jobs here” doesn’t quite explain away such a profound shift.) Everyone is doing good work, but Roberts is setting the bar.
Perhaps the biggest narrative question mark at this point is Walter. The returning soldier seems affable and relatable, immediately establishing an easy rapport with Heidi and demonstrating a facility for reentering society during his interview practice session. And even after his fight with Randy, he comes across as abashed—“It doesn’t feel like me”—making for a sympathetic figure. Yet his direct-to-camera monologue about his desk, and occasionally wanting to slam his head into it, reveals a cracked darkness hovering below the surface, one that he not even be aware of, if his casual smile is any indication. It’s all suggestion and unease, layered under the sun-dappled sheen of the outside world, and it makes for a smartly compelling disjunction. This world is not what it seems, and we’re here to find out why.
- The teleplay, credited to Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, is full of nice little details that mesh well with Esmail’s sensibilities. Colin ending his phone call with, “You are killin’ it—fist bump,” feels very Esmail-esque.
- All hail the 30-minute drama! Well done, Amazon.
- Fun to see Esmail vet Frankie Shaw pop up for a cameo as one of Heidi’s fellow waiters.
- Similarly, the best meta joke of the casting might be deploying Roberts’ My Best Friend’s Wedding costar Dermot Mulroney as the hapless Anthony.
- I’ve specifically avoided the podcast in order to go in fresh to this show, but for anyone who has listened to the Gimlet Media audio series and wants to delve into the differences between the original podcast and this new iteration of the story (or have watched ahead and want to discuss upcoming episodes), please head over to our Spoiler Space.
- Welcome, all, to our reviews of Homecoming. I’m looking forward to discussing this strange little series with all of you. We’ll be posting reviews at the rate of one a day for our coverage—it’s always odd to figure out the best ways to cover streaming series released all at once—so I invite you to join the conversation.