At first glance, Homecoming, Amazon Prime Video’s newest series based on a popular podcast of the same name (created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who adapt their story for the screen here), may seem familiar to fans of Mr. Robot, which redefined the way one frames a scene for traditional television. Yet executive producer/director Sam Esmail not only knows how to make a mystery thriller look good, he knows exactly how to keep you on your toes and demanding more of the story.
Here, Esmail returns to confuse and intrigue audiences with another conspiracy thriller, this time leaning heavily into noir and Hitchcock to tell the story of Homecoming. We follow Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a caseworker in a shady military reintegration facility that sells itself as a help center which prepares veterans for their return to civilian life. Bergman seems to be genuinely interested in helping her patients, instead of just using them as lab rats that can be mined for data on their trauma. She is especially interested in newcomer Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a soldier who’s on the verge of a breakdown as his compatriots’ paranoia starts getting to him, and the secrets of the eerie help center may threaten their very lives.
While most of the story takes place in the Homecoming center, Esmail juggles two time periods, with a parallel mystery unfolding in a future timeline where the Homecoming program has completely disappeared from public record. A Department of Defense employee (Shea Whigham) starts digging into the history of the program and its end, and when he comes looking for Heidi, she is no longer working at a giant office or dealing with her controlling and impatient boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale). She is now working as a waitress at a diner with no apparent memory of the existence of the Homecoming program.
Just as Esmail used unconventional framing to aid the dissociative narrative of Mr. Robot, so do the visuals aid the story of Homecoming. Director of photography Tod Campbell, along with many other alums of Mr. Robot, are here to employ Esmail’s signature long takes and off-center framing shots to give the story a sense of discomfort. Esmail excels at making the audience feel as disoriented as the patients of the Homecoming center, and the numerous overhead shots make you feel like you’re being watched by some strange entity.
To distinguish the two timeframes, Esmail moves from the 16:9 widescreen format in the scenes at the help center, to an old-school squared 4:3 ratio in the present timeline. He also uses bright colors and warm music for the scenes in 2018, while the future of 2022 looks like a grainy ’70s thriller, with muted colors and louder, staccato music. Speaking of the sound of the series, music supervisor Maggie Phillips combines original sounds with select scores from ’70s thrillers to invoke the paranoia of the Cold War era. We even hear the ominous musical score to Carrie in one scene.
Esmail has no problem balancing the two storylines and making them distinct and intriguing. Both focus on the mystery of what exactly happened in the help center, but Esmail – who directed all 10 episodes of the season – has mastered the art of teasing a bigger mystery and leaving the audience guessing. Homecoming is a show designed for binge-watching, with a fast pace and huge momentum that makes you eager to fall deeper down the rabbit hole. It also helps that each episode is tightly edited and packed into 30-ish minutes, a welcome change in the usual bloated run-times of Peak TV. Will Homecoming keep up the momentum throughout its 10 episodes? Time will tell, but if the first four are any indication, Amazon Prime Video may have a breakout hit on its hands.
Homecoming plays on the ideas of memory, the military industrial complex and unchecked government privilege to create a visually stunning thriller that feels positively Hichcockian in its slowly unfurling mystery.