The least surprising part about Tenet, the latest movie from Christopher Nolan, is that the filmmaker is once again messing around with the concept of time. (The most surprising/dystopian part was that the film’s second trailer premiered within Fortnite.) Given how much of Nolan’s filmography—Memento, Inception, Interstellar, even Dunkirk—is indebted to jumbled timelines, one could assume the auteur automatically thinks in a nonlinear fashion. (Nolan’s brother being the cocreator of Westworld sounds like a punch line, but it’s actually true.)
All of which is to say: If Christopher Nolan is looking for something to watch during his quarantine, he could do a lot worse than the second season of Amazon’s Homecoming. Whereas the show’s first season—directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts—wore the influences of ’70s paranoid thrillers on its sleeve, the new season belongs more in the company of psychological works where characters have to pick up the pieces of who they are and what the hell is going on. (So, Memento.)
That’s apparent from the jump of Homecoming Season 2, where a new character—played by Janelle Monáe—wakes up on a rowboat in the middle of the lake. She has no idea how she got there, where she is, who she is, or who the mysterious person is whom she sees watching her from the shore before he takes off and leaves her stranded. (She eventually finds a military ID that says her name is Jackie.) It’s an enticing introduction to a new season of Homecoming, moving beyond the source material of Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s Gimlet podcast series of the same name, even if our understanding of Season 1 means the audience knows that whatever happened with Jackie will be inextricably linked to the Geist Initiative.
If you aren’t familiar with Homecoming’s first season, or feel like all the television between its 2018 debut and now has forced you to wipe your memories of the show, we’ll do a quick refresher. Geist is a company that has developed a drug with memory-erasing capabilities, which was used in the first season on military members—like series co-lead Walter Cruz, played by Stephan James—suffering from PTSD. The product wasn’t intended to help transition soldiers back to civilian life, but rather to make it easier for them to return to combat without painful memories from a previous deployment, or even events in an ongoing tour. Shockingly, a drug intended to wipe memories might not be all that safe!
The show’s first season would’ve worked well as a miniseries, in which Roberts’s caseworker Heidi Bergman comes to terms with her role in this unethical experiment after her memories are restored and brings the project to the attention of a Department of Defense worker (Shea Whigham). But the show did leave one creepy loose end in the form of Geist secretary Audrey Temple (Hong Chau). In a post-credits scene, we find out that Audrey has been given a big promotion at the company and pressures Heidi’s supervisor Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale) to take the fall for any legal consequences that might come from the public exposure of the experiment—all while dabbing some of the drug on her wrists as a way of calming her nerves. Talk about drinking—er, applying?—the Kool-Aid.
There’s a case to be made that Homecoming didn’t need the Big Little Lies treatment—a second season that seems to exist solely because the first one was such a hit—but while Season 2 doesn’t quite reach the highs of its predecessor, it does excel as a somewhat understated epilogue. One of the biggest selling points for the first installment of Homecoming was the fact that each episode was roughly half an hour long at a time when TV dramas have become increasingly bloated—the show was a marvel to look at, but it was also admirably efficient. That Season 2 only has enough material for seven episodes is a double-edged sword: There isn’t a lot of new ground for Homecoming to cover, but at least the series spared us the torture of dragging things out just to fill a longer runtime [gestures to every Netflix-Marvel show].
Luckily, while Season 2 begins with several question marks, as Monáe’s Jackie picks up the pieces of how she ended up passed out in the middle of a lake, there isn’t a lot of obfuscation just for the sake of it (also known as Westworld-ing). Within a few episodes, you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on; the middle chunk of the season is completely set in the pre-brain-wipe timeline. (Spoilers ahead; if you read any further I can’t offer you any drugs to erase this blog from your brain.) Jackie’s real name is Alex, and instead of being another veteran exposed to Geist’s memory-wiping drugs, she’s Audrey’s girlfriend, who works as a crisis manager. And by crisis manager, I mean Alex is the kind of person companies hire to make problems—like an employee looking to come clean about sexual harassment—go away.
Alex is, in short, a terrible person, though an undeniably great motivator. She pushes Audrey to rise up the Geist corporate ladder—coaching her on how to manipulate Colin into signing those papers at the end of last season—and agrees to pretend to be a military vet to make sure Walter Cruz doesn’t come forward about his experiences. (Walter doesn’t remember his time at Geist, but is desperate to find out more about his “treatment” at a private company that might’ve wiped literal years from his memory.) It’s through an ill-fated attempt to inject Walter with the memory-wiping drug that causes Alex to end up on that boat in the middle of nowhere—not as a victim of a shady corporation but as someone complicit in a scheme gone awry. And it appears that incidental self-injection, rather than causing the loss of a couple years of memories, is like hitting reset on your entire brain.
Ironically, it’s Alex’s botched attack that gives Walter the incentive to do something; Geist doesn’t deserve to go unpunished for what it did to him and the other soldiers who were part of the experiment. (Rather than reprimand Geist after Season 1’s fiasco, the Pentagon wants to invest in the drug, extracted from berries engineered by the company’s founder Leonard Geist, played by Chris Cooper.) What transpires in the season finale is like the Purple Wedding on steroids. With Leonard’s help—he never intended for the berries to be used for such insidious means and wants the entire crop destroyed—Walter taints the alcohol Geist employees and potential investors drink at a big party to celebrate this. One by one, everyone passes out, resigned to the same fate as Alex in the rowboat of a total memory wipe.
While it’s a very tidy, cathartic, and almost too-good-to-be-true coda, your ability to enjoy Homecoming may well depend on your own feelings about the relationship between capitalism, the military-industrial complex, and the ways in which both are entrenched in the world’s biggest global powers. It’s sickening to watch Joan Cusack’s Pentagon stand-in boast about letting the “best idea win” for the drug, but I didn’t mind the notion that all these malicious figures could be wiped out with a single ill-fated toast—just as I didn’t mind Homecoming’s somewhat expendable, Julia Roberts-less second season on the whole.
No one can replicate Roberts’s magnetic presence, but James remained reliably charming as Walter, Chau continued her streak as a prestige TV scene-stealer (Forever, Watchmen), and Monáe might come out of this series as the biggest winner of all. She has expanded her range as a do-it-all artist with Homecoming as her first leading television role—ahead of starring in the horror movie Antebellum. With Esmail eventually going to work on a Metropolis miniseries, it would be downright criminal if Monáe wasn’t involved in some capacity; if nothing else, Homecoming should put her on the auteur’s radar if she wasn’t already. (While Kyle Patrick Alvarez directed all seven episodes, Esmail remained an executive producer for Season 2.)
Horowitz and Bloomberg are apparently interested in expanding the show even further, but given the truncated nature of the second season, that might be stretching the limits of what can be achieved with Homecoming on the small screen. With fewer potential avenues to explore for a third season, such a gambit might kill what remains of Homecoming’s critical goodwill. Besides, I can think of no better parting image to this conspiracy-laden, psychologically gripping series than every cog in the Geist machine literally drinking the Kool-Aid.