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‘Homecoming’ Is a Victory for Amazon—and Sam Esmail

The ‘Mr. Robot’ creator directed all 10 episodes of the podcast-to-TV thriller, which cements his role as a paranoia auteur for a generation

Amazon/Ringer illustration

A three-minute tracking shot that pans across a military facility. A montage showing a medicine’s production from plant to test tube. A woman’s entire worldview shifting along with an aspect ratio. Many of the most striking scenes in Homecoming, Amazon’s 10-episode thriller released on Friday, contain little to no dialogue. For a television show adapted from a podcast consisting almost entirely of dialogue, this is a counterintuitive state of affairs. After five hours of ramped-up tension and unnerving paranoia, though, it starts to make a certain kind of sense.

Homecoming began as a scripted audio drama, the podcasting era’s answer to old-fashioned radio plays. Written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg — a McSweeney’s alum and a sound mixer, respectively — Homecoming the podcast explored the shadowy Homecoming Initiative for returning veterans through the eyes of Heidi, a counselor, and Walter, her patient. With a low time commitment and the backing of Gimlet Media, Horowitz and Bloomberg attracted major voice acting talent to Homecoming, the first season of which was released in November 2017. Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac played Heidi and Walter; David Schwimmer rounded out the main cast as Heidi’s micromanaging boss Colin, whom she almost exclusively talks to on the phone.

The buzziest element of Homecoming’s small-screen version is Julia Roberts, whose involvement with the project was announced at the same time as the show itself. Even in a time where Reese Witherspoon is a regular on multiple series and Naomi Watts is signed onto the Game of Thrones prequel, Roberts is a name big enough to drop jaws and turn heads. Her performance as Heidi, by turns calming and jittery, wide open and defensive, lives up to that promise. More surprising is that the rest of the ensemble, especially 24-year-old co-lead Stephan James as Walter, rises to the challenge as well, making Homecoming less a pure Roberts vehicle than a project that’s simply well-acted across the board. But the most impactful addition to Homecoming turns out to be the person responsible for the biggest augmentations to the original story: its director.

All 10 parts of Homecoming were helmed by Sam Esmail, best known as the creator of USA’s cyber drama Mr. Robot. (After its first season and leading into its final fourth, Esmail has directed every installment of Mr. Robot as well.) The parallels between Esmail’s first show and his second are manifold, making it easy to guess what may have drawn him to Horowitz and Bloomberg’s story. Like Mr. Robot, Homecoming involves characters dismissed for their conviction that everything is not as it seems, only to be proven horrifically right. Like Mr. Robot, Homecoming’s primary antagonist is a faceless conglomerate, with the sinister Geist Group standing in for E Corp. And like Mr. Robot, this battle of individual versus corporation necessarily leads to some forcefully anti-capitalist messaging — here, it must be noted, distributed by the omnipresent creation of the world’s richest man.

Homecoming isolates Esmail’s directing efforts from his writing ones. An executive producer on the show, Esmail certainly had input on the show’s story and structure, which itself differs significantly from the podcast: to expand the original six-episode season, Amazon’s Homecoming significantly beefs up the character of Department of Defense investigator Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), and the TV show toggles freely between two timelines where the podcast was more linear. But the bulk of Esmail’s contributions are in realizing Homecoming’s eerie, unsettling tone into a visual aesthetic. As with Mr. Robot, the result is heavily stylized, filled with split screens, overhead shots, and a constant accompaniment in an intricately composed composite of nail-biting scores. This unmissable guiding hand can prove a mixed blessing, overwhelming the action in a way that distracts from its emotion. On the whole, however, Esmail succeeds in distinguishing this new Homecoming from its first incarnation by adding a dimension that podcasting, for all its innovations, has yet to re-create.

The story Homecoming tells is relatively small. This compactness includes the run time of its episodes, which range from 37 to just 24 minutes, a relief to overwhelmed critics and audiences alike. It is also a direct reflection of Homecoming’s themes: Each of its major players are, as Carrasco himself admits, cogs in a machine, without much power to effect lasting, systemic change. Heidi is just an employee overseeing a study; Walter is just one of its unwitting subjects; Carrasco is just a bureaucratic functionary; even Colin, now played by Bobby Cannavale, is just one disposable rung of Geist’s dizzying corporate ladder. The challenge, and also the point, is what can be done in the face of such indifference and inertia. Additionally, the flashback structure makes clear the stakes don’t involve changing the world, in the vein of Mr. Robot’s economy-altering cyber attack, or life and death. In the present timeline, where Heidi mysteriously cannot recall her time at Homecoming, everyone is alive — even Walter, who remains almost entirely offscreen but whose survival is confirmed by his mother. What’s changed, besides the cessation of the Homecoming Initiative, is Heidi herself.

Much of Esmail’s accomplishment lies in dramatizing Heidi’s experience and relationships such that they feel as monumental as they do to her. In this context, some of Homecoming’s showier flourishes start to feel less like excesses and more like useful exaggerations. The most prominent of these are the show’s dueling aspect ratios, full-screen in the past and square in Heidi’s amnesiac present. The symbolism is admittedly heavy-handed; when Heidi knows less, the viewer quite literally sees less. Yet the device is also genuinely useful for distinguishing one period from another, maintaining clarity and preventing the suspense from crossing over into a Westworld-like jumble. (The same logic applies to Roberts’s noticeable wig, which seemed questionable in preview images but in practice forms a contrast with Heidi’s present-day wavy bob.)

Throughout the season, Esmail’s touch fortifies the podcast’s already unsettling mood. Heidi’s phone calls with Colin — her anxious and people-pleasing, him rushed and distracted as he bulldozes over her concerns — are a centerpiece of both Homecomings; Esmail even distorts the audio such that Roberts and Cannavale sound like they’re on a call, though we can see both of them in the flesh. In the show, however, you can also see Colin as he power-walks through a decidedly non-legitimate-looking factory in Vietnam, unbeknownst to Heidi, portraying him as deceptive as well as domineering. Later, as Heidi searches for relics of her past in her mother’s house, the camera abruptly shifts to straight-down view, underscoring the surveillance-state impression that Heidi is constantly being watched.

Fortunately, Homecoming also makes plenty of space for its actors to work their magic. Several of Homecoming’s cast members, including Cannavale and Frankie Shaw, are direct carryovers from Mr. Robot; others, like Dermot Mulroney and new prestige favorite Hong Chau, settle for relatively minor parts relative to their stature. Scenes like Walter and Heidi’s therapy sessions show why the script held a strong enough appeal to lure a mega-star like Roberts. Intimate and warm where the rest of the show is isolating and cold, Walter and Heidi’s platonic-yet-definitely-a-little-bit-romantic connection forms the emotional crux of the series. That the queen of romantic comedies can communicate such an unspoken bond is not exactly a surprise, though the inevitable awards nominations will be well-deserved. The real revelation is the lesser-known James, currently in the midst of a breakout fall. There are no swooping 360 shots for their conversations, no arresting compositions — just two people, in a room, finding humanity in an inhumane enterprise.

Though Homecoming makes additions and changes to the podcast, including its ending, the show is not a radical reimagining of the basic story. For a thriller driven by questions of who’s doing what to whom, this presents a potential obstacle; it’s hard to sustain interest on mystery alone when the solutions are just a Wikipedia search away. But like other recent adaptations (Sharp Objects, Big Little Lies), Homecoming adds more than enough to stand on its own and suggests how other audio-to-visual pipeline members might do the same. David Lynch, whose Twin Peaks: The Return obviously inspired the show’s end credits over ambient scenes, has defined cinema as “sound and picture, flowing together through time.” Homecoming already has the sound. Esmail provides the picture.