Early in Amazon’s “Homecoming” there’s a tracking shot following Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) as she exits work while on the phone with her boss (Bobby Cannavale). The eerie stillness of the employees, building, Esmail’s camera shots, and score that feels like a combination of a B horror movie and a Trent Reznor score immediately gives you a vibe as if it’s a horror thriller where the government is experimenting on people (Having only seen the first four episodes, I have no idea if this is true). It doesn’t matter what the voice on the other end of the phone is saying, the tone of it alone is enough to tell you he’s the Baghdad Bob of this operation, the gaslighter in chief.
The theme of PTSD soldiers returning from war and finding themselves in the wrong body, the wrong world fits Esmail’s alienation and paranoia like a glove. The soldier Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) becomes convinced they aren’t in Florida at all and they’re all being set up. His friend and the show’s male protagonist Walter Cruz (Stephan James) doesn’t have it as bad. His scenes connecting with Heidi and talking with fondness about his friends from the war alive or dead add some needed humanity and warmth. The stories don’t contain flashbacks save a haunting shot of broken glasses on the ground, relying instead on the emotion he is able to convey as Heidi would hear them. James is a potential star with the look of an action hero but the ability to convey tenderness and pain. He holds his own and more with the great Julia Roberts.
Heidi shows you don’t have to be a war veteran to feel alienated or broken and as in her Oscar nominated role in August: Osage County role Roberts proves excellent at playing at this older and damaged version. Her ability to connect with Walter shows she has the right job, but it’s in the wrong place. She would have been great with underprivileged kids or with war veterans but without the underbelly of Homecoming. Like her romantic life, she just never found that right spot. Her scenes with Walter or her ex-boyfriend Anthony (Dermot Mulroney) shows a softness and empathy, but in her waitress future she’s tougher and harder to reach, the memories she’s lost also taking a part of herself. It’s unclear by the time she has dinner with Anthony again in the future and suddenly sounds like her gentler self whether she subconsciously reverted back, or is merely putting on a face for him.
Homecoming is at heart a director’s piece from the still or tracking shots, off balance cameras, split screens, a vertical aspect ratio to represent the future timeline, and a score that’s integral to nearly every scene. Near the end of the first episode when the investigator Carrasco (Shea Wigham) is interviewing Heidi, the camera suddenly starts zooming in on his face followed by Heidi’s which creates a creepy disorientating effect combined with the horror-like score. In other shows these flourishes may be distracting, but are appropriate with Esmail’s themes of alienation and keeping the audience slightly off balance and his history playing with form such as Mr. Robot’s sitcom parody episode.
Even at 30 minutes an episode watching Carrasco slowly inch his way through paperwork or Heidi discover slightly more about her past can move at a frustrating pace and as if Esmail is playing a game with the audience but without the big clues to make every step engrossing. For that reason the scenes between Heidi and Walter adding character development and humanity are welcome to take pressure off the mystery plot and give the audience a relationship to root for.
With a visual style and interest in alienation and paranoia that’s uniquely his, Homecoming proves Sam Esmail is one of TV’s truest auteurs.