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Homecoming's penultimate episode is 20 straight minutes of tension building

Illustration for article titled iHomecoming/is penultimate episode is 20 straight minutes of tension building
Screenshot: Amazon
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Have you ever baked something from a really complicated recipe? You’ve got to be extraordinarily precise; one wrong measurement, and the entire baking experiment goes to hell. It’s not like cooking, where you can play fast and loose with the rules. Baking benefits from a surfeit of right-brained thinking—measured and calm, with a deep knowledge of the materials you’re working with. So let’s take this analogy and apply it to the second-to-last episode of Homecoming: To put it mildly, what in the actual fuck was Alex thinking?

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The thing is, “Needle” is so skillfully acted, directed, and edited, concerns about the rational aspect of the narrative we’re seeing play out are almost beside the point. (Almost.) This is something that has been baked (sorry) into the DNA of Homecoming from the very beginning: It’s so well made, and the momentum of its story so propulsive, questions of motive or logic become secondary to the experience of watching it unfold. Not unlike the Hitchcock films it occasionally shamelessly borrows from, Homecoming knows you don’t need to worry about why people act in ways counterintuitive to common sense. Why does Tippi Hedren go upstairs when she hears a noise in The Birds, when it’s obviously the birds making the noise? Because she wants to, so who cares—it’s thrilling to watch. Why does Alex pull up an arbitrary amount of an extremely dangerous and unpredictable drug into her needle? Because she wants to. Alex gets things done.

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Or she used to, at least. The entire episode is basically a countdown clock, as minute after minute ticks by, the audience waiting on tenterhooks for the crisis manager to make her move. From the opening seconds, where she practices her injection technique by stabbing a melon, to the final minutes of the two of them walking through the forest to the lake, the shows directs all its energies to building tension, and damned if it doesn’t work wonderfully. Old-school in its craft but contemporary in its pacing, Kyle Alvarez’s direction superbly blends the beats of Hitchcockian suspense with the prosaic nature of the setting and situation. Once Alex commits to her plan, she’s all in, even if it means accompanying Walter on his “fishing” trip to the middle of nowhere, with nary a backup plan or idea of what to do if things go south. And go south they do: Walter was tipped off by the “meters” slip last episode, true, but he was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, until he followed her to the supermarket, and then to his cabin, and watched her break in. Alex made mistake after mistake, until ending with the biggest one of all—thinking she could get the drop on a seasoned soldier.

Illustration for article titled iHomecoming/is penultimate episode is 20 straight minutes of tension building
Screenshot: Amazon

There are individuals sequences that stand out, including that break-in, the very definition of a forehead-slappingly dumb decision on Alex’s part even if he hadn’t been watching her. But Alvarez also masterful stages the back-and-forth during the car ride, Walter’s seemingly harmless questions parried by Alex with increasing defensiveness, even her extensive training in deception unable to keep up with her growing nervousness and panic at the situation she has willingly walked into. The pause, when Walter pulls over to let a truck go by, is especially good, a great moment of traditional bait-and-switch tension wholly crafted by the editing. Monáe and James are both strong throughout, but the camera and the editing room are the real stars here.

There’s not much to say beyond that, honestly. The only real moment of character study is when Alex realizes honesty will make the conversation less fraught, and opens up about the issue with her relationship. She’s actually fairly aware of the problems she and Audrey have, from Audrey’s OCD and mistrust to her own overconfidence, though she seems to think “compromise” is all that’s required from her to fix everything. Walter, though, not only intuits the truth of Alex’s words, he immediately senses the key to her insecurity. “What if it isn’t the baby she’s not sure about? What if it’s you?” Maybe he’s baiting her into impulsive action; maybe he just wants to twist the metaphorical knife in someone who has been lying to him. Either way, it’s a gut-punch that pushes Alex into even more emotionally overheated territory, giving him control of the situation and leaving her without words—maybe for the first time ever—when he confronts her. So she runs. He follows. She attacks. And it ends with him parrying her attack and leaving her injected with her own serum, scrambling into the boat where we began the season, her memory ebbing from her mind. Roll credits on a very worried Audrey and their dropped phone call.

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With one episode left, it seems impossible to leave Walter’s story on anything but a “to be continued,” which is a shame, given it ended so beautifully after season one. Maybe Homecoming is counting on a third season to wrap things up, but as of now, the finale has some heavy lifting to do.

Stray observations

  • Baseless speculation corner: God, Alex’s plan was so much dumber than I had guessed last time. And the melon was just stabbing practice? Anyway, let’s try and predict what happens: Audrey realizes she’s in too deep, tries to pull the plug, and Bunda comes down on her, possibly even with some blackmail. And poor Walter is stuck waiting for answers he’ll never get.
  • Seriously, every move Alex made here was worse than the last, though I did laugh when she rounded the corner to her motel room right as she was saying Walter’s name into the phone, only to almost walk right into him. “Mother fucker! ...Take me off this list, right now!”
  • A phone call from a loved one that starts with, “I fucked up” and ends with “He knows” before being dropped is basically the definition of a panic trigger.
  • Honestly, this was such an elegantly constructed episode. And extra applause for being only roughly 22 minutes long; it ran exactly as long as it needed, no more.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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