The first season of Amazon Prime’s Homecoming is a blessed 10 half-hour episodes. That alone should be enough to get you in the door. What will keep you there is a stunning story of purpose, justice, and the work ethic that powers both the evil of America and the forces trying to save it. You will be sucked into one of the year’s most compelling mysteries.
Walter Cruz (Stephan James) is a young veteran who, along with his friend Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) and a few dozen more, has checked into the Homecoming facility to help adjust to civilian life. And it’s weird. Things are off, but we can’t really put our fingers on why. We also meet Julia Roberts’ Heidi Bergman, Walter’s caseworker, who immediately appeals to our need for stability—until we realize, thanks to a multi-year flash forward where she’s working as a waitress with only fuzzy memories of Homecoming, that she’s not stable at all. What the hell happened between now and then? And, wait, what exactly was going on then, anyways?
Directed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail, the show doesn’t waste a second establishing barriers between past and present as two distinct realities. Nor does it waste a second making its visual presence felt as it takes Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s podcast and amplifies its central tenets with an entirely new sensory mode. It’s like watching those videos of babies hearing their mothers for the first time thanks to a hearing aid, except with conspiratorial mysteries. Horowitz and Bloomberg, who also wrote and produced the show, provide such beautiful conch-like scripts (perfectly clipped at the edges and a flush, spiraling complexity in the middle) that the hook is in us before we even realize what’s happening. In fact, the very way we watch changes without us becoming aware.
As soon as it clicks that the mystery will be one of those kinds of mysteries, one whose clues are sprinkled throughout the tiniest corners of the screen and smallest pieces of dialogue, it’s hard not to become a hyper-attentive, pause-the-screen-and-search, write-down-numbers kind of viewer. Does it matter that someone’s taking a 22-hour flight? What some graffiti says in the background? A license plate’s state? But any danger of Westworld Syndrome is defused by the relatable humanity flowing throughout the characters: Homecoming doesn’t give in to the easy exit of nonsense profundity.
For all the meaningful symbolism of fish tanks, these are still people who, from what we can see, want to eliminate the simple binaries placed upon them. These divisions are central to the series, and so is the viewer’s clash with them. There are the people on the outside, who are ridiculous and almost definitely evil, and the military subjects, who are decidedly not. They might be sweet and complex and crude, but they all certainly fall into the heroic-and-damaged camp. Bureaucratic black-and-white is structurally applied, and part of the mystery is refusing to accept it.
A lot of this is due to the writing and performances. These also differ depending on the timeline. Bobby Cannavale, playing Heidi’s boss, is brash and slimy; a Wall Street bro kind of evil. A recognizable evil. Shea Whigham’s muttering and bumbling, uncomfortable in his body and with his words, immediately puts us on his side, Columbo-style. (Give that man the reboot, damn it, because we know him too.) But throughout the series, as the need for plausible deniability shifts allegiances, the fiber of the characters themselves becomes ingrained in the mystery.
The delicate dance between James and Roberts has so many delicious components when it begins—soft confidence, easy flirtation, misplaced trust in authority—that its evolution into something more complicated is magnificent. That’s not even diving into the ensemble of charming oddballs like Craig (Alex Karpovsky), Heidi’s earnest coworker, or Anthony (Dermot Mulroney, flat-out excellent), her mewling boyfriend, or Ellen (Sissy Spacek, a delight), her fed-up mom. Every interaction—often just one-on-one conversations—simultaneously builds out the world (not in a “world-building” way that people like to talk about with sci-fi, but in the way a drama has done by its tenth season) and drops clues small enough to debate but too large to miss.
Still the direction of the show is its ace in the hole. The show plays with everything: aspect ratio, screen division, set design, costuming, camera placement—hell, even the timing and placement of the credits. Silky zooms and ethereal fades waltz with the uncomfortably designed architecture and constantly mounting score to make things feel even worse than they are. It’d be one thing if it featured the disjointed, arrhythmic movement of psychological horror, but the construction make it feel so natural that it gets even scarier. The planning and craft, so obvious in its aesthetic, bleeds from the filming of the series into the running of Homecoming’s operation. It feels wrong and too thorough to escape.
There are only so many ways to talk obliquely about a mystery series that obviously has many pleasures besides figuring out the mystery, but the main draw is having an eye-gluing, note-taking, binge-watching plot to solve. But there are hopefully enough ways to describe the labyrinth without tracing the path through it to let you appreciate the excitement and danger you feel when you give yourself up to it. Homecoming is a scary dream you want to solve so badly you can’t wait to fall asleep, and it’s one of the best TV shows of the year.
Homecoming is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.