The Geist Corporation is up to no good. That’s been clear since early in season one of Homecoming, Amazon’s sharp and compelling adaptation of the Gimlet Media podcast of the same name. It was revealed fairly early on that the company was using soldiers as guinea pigs: Men and women coming back from abroad and traumatized by their combat experiences were sent to a secretive facility in Florida, where their ingestion of a new memory-shredding drug was eliminating any recall of the pain they endured. So when Janelle Monáe’s Jacqueline wakes up in a tiny rowboat, in the middle of a remote lake in the woods, with no memory of what happened prior, it’s pretty clear (to the viewer, anyway) who’s to blame.
Or rather, it’s pretty clear what’s to blame. The person or people responsible for Jackie’s current condition, presumably caused by the same dangerous chemical substance that eliminated the memory of Julia Roberts’ therapist-turned-waiter last year, remains unknown for now. Despite the presence of a few familiar names in the credits, this largely looks to be a brand-new mystery—set in the same world and continuing the same basic premise of a story, sure, but with an entirely new protagonist and set of problems birthed by Geist’s illegal project. And as far as first acts of a mystery go, this one is solid. It’s not too flashy, not too twisty, and it’s not as audaciously entertaining in its visuals and framing as the start of season one (though Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who directs this entire season, capably carries on the style established by Sam Esmail), but after one episode, there’s already a strong hook to bring you back for more.
Truth be told, that hook is largely the entirety of the story at this point. Monáe does solid work here, conveying both the confusion and the panic lying just below the surface of her amnesiac soldier (or would-be soldier, rather—more on that shortly), but there’s not a whole lot of character there for her to sink her teeth into as of yet. Instead, the draw lies in the mystery, which unfolds with steady and smart pacing. After waking up in that boat, Monáe’s character rows to shore, where she’s picked up by a well-meaning cop who helps her find her identification (“Jacqueline Calico” is the name on her military ID) and takes her to the hospital, only for the doctor examining her to see track marks and assume she’s a junkie lying to get more drugs. So Jackie runs away, and gets a ride from Buddy, the garrulous older man with an oxygen tank who befriended her in the intake area.
The engaging back-and-forth between the two of them, Jackie and Buddy (played with maximum irascible and exasperating appeal by guest star John Billingsley), forms the heart of this installment of Homecoming, and it functions as both a nice way to elicit some personality traits from Jackie while simultaneously establishing a motif that will presumably carry through the rest of the season. “Fuckin’ people, you know?” Buddy tells her, after hitting her on the head with his hammer in order to make off with the thousands of dollars they discover in the hotel room of the man Jackie spent the previous day getting drunk with at Skins. Fuckin’ people, indeed; in one fell swoop, Buddy teaches Jackie that she can’t even trust someone who acts like a friend. In this world of no personal history and no sense of who to turn to for help, Jackie has just learned that the answer to the latter question is, “No one.”
Moving at a good clip, the episode lets Jackie get some clear indicators of a very complicated past, even as it doesn’t provide anything in the way of concrete answers. Sure, she finds a photograph of herself with three other soldiers, all of their faces crossed out with a black marker, leading to Buddy’s suggestion that she and her former army pals are mixed up with something way too dangerous. But then we also get the scene of her discovering the flaking edge of her tattoo, leading to the reveal that her “AIRBORNE” military tattoo is a fake. So either there’s an involved backstory to her fraudulent claim of being a veteran, or she really is one, but never got a tattoo. Either way, there’s obviously a lot going on that brought Jackie to this confusing place and time.
Equally interesting are the stylistic choices that let the beginning of season two deviate from the first one—or more accurately, hew to it without feeling slavish. For starters, there’s none of the cross-cutting in time, going from the boxed-in frame of the present to the expansive reality of the past. And there’s a much more portentous vibe to the proceedings, aided in large part by the booming swell of menacing music that intrudes upon the score early on. It feels a bit unnecessary, given how fraught the situation already is for Jackie, but it works. Still, the camera floats and fixates in much the same way Esmail’s did, with close-ups on Monáe’s face that don’t rush through to the next cut, instead letting her worried, wondering expression do the work of conveying tone and tension. The overhead tracking shot that glides from the hotel bedroom to the bathroom is signature Esmail, though Alvarez makes his own case for having a good eye in another savvy tracking shot that follows Jackie and Buddy along the outside of the hotel’s second-floor walkway, as they locate the room of her acquaintance and trick a maid into letting them in.
Homecoming continues to be excellent at obliquely laying out possibly ominous details in the margins of the story. True, some of the production design is awfully on the nose, such as the massive Geist billboard featuring the tagline “Get over it” with a shot of their new memory wonder drug, but in general the minor elements are backgrounded nicely. From the dingy cup they use to hold down the receipts in the bar to the melon lying on the bed in the hotel room, there’s a bevy of clever little additions meant to make us wonder what has relevance and what is, well, just a cigar. Hell, I wasn’t even sure that was an electronic car key lying on the shore until Jackie tried to use it to get into the nearest car.
We’ve got a mystery and we’ve got a name (“Alex Easter,” the name on the credit card Jackie finds in the room of her supposed acquaintance), and right now, that’s all we need. Homecoming has already done the work of pulling us into a new situation and new story, and the knowledge we now bring with us from season one helps to drive the question of Jackie’s missing memory forward, imbuing even the smallest aspects of the situation with a potent air of unease. So when we end on Chris Cooper’s Geist, checking on his genetically engineered fruits out in the field alongside his old-timey farmhouse, there’s no warmth generated by this otherwise bucolic scene. There’s just the promise of menace.
- If it turns out the phone Jackie drops in the lake when she comes to at the beginning of all this (someone was on the line, saying, “Hello?”) would have been a call that explained everything and rendered this whole memory-hunt moot, I’m going to be annoyed.
- Props to the lady in the hospital chapel for kicking over the bowl in a fit of anger.
- Towels. That’s all Jackie remembers from before waking up in the boat. But don’t worry, they’re nice ones. “For special occasions.”
- So are we assuming the guy who ran away from the edge of the lake when she first came to was this “Alex” who was drinking with her yesterday? I’m laying even odds on it.
- Baseless speculation corner: Jackie is an investigative journalist who posed as a traumatized military vet to gain access to Geist, but someone found out what she was up to.
- Welcome, everyone, to the reviews for season two of Homecoming! I look forward to going down this rabbit hole with all of you.