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With its third episode, Homecoming starts to loosen up and have some fun

For its first couple of episodes, I wasn’t sure if Homecoming was planning to play it totally straight with its intentionally retro stylistic tics. That would have been okay, but it would also be an unexpectedly stodgy choice. Thankfully, that’s not the case—and the third episode is here to make sure you know it.

What makes “Optics” so enjoyable as a stand-alone episode is how it indulges in the very same old-school flourishes that defined the first couple of installments, but gives them just that extra tweak to let you know the show isn’t taking itself too seriously. From the swooping, Hitchcockian strings on the soundtrack to the repeated slow zooms, everything here gets a little half-turn of bombast to goose the tone and liven up the mood. This is never clearer than when Shea Whigham’s Thomas is deciding whether to close out his study of Walter Cruz—while his finger dangles over the “enter” key as the music swells and the compliance officer squints at the monitor, director Sam Esmail goes the extra distance, blackening out the screen so that the only thing left visible is the waiting digital request: “Click to confirm.” It’s over the top and a bit silly, and it restores a healthy sense of fun to the proceedings.

From then on, we’re free to enjoy the story with a knowing wink, the assurance that no one has forgotten the mischievous element of playful uncertainty that keeps what could’ve been far too somber a mystery from sinking into a ponderous swamp of self-importance. And it’s not just older cinematic touches that Esmail plays on here for effect; his sense of pop-culture savvy also extends to location. When Walter and Shrier fly the coop, stealing a van from Geist and hightailing it out of the facility, hoping to find a bar and confirmation that everything is normal after all, they stumble upon the retail strip of a retirement community—which sharp-eyed viewers might recognize as the original town from season one of The Good Place.

Esmail has always taken pleasure in fucking around with pop-culture associations, whether it’s an Alf-fueled fever dream on Mr. Robot or the Twilight Zone-esque tools he employs in this episode to render Walter and Shrier’s journey the stuff of small-screen fantasy, complete with stark chiaroscuro lighting that might as well have been rendered in black and white, the better to lend an air of Rod Serling otherworldliness to the escapade. If Walter and Shrier’s imaginations were fueled by the latter’s paranoid fantasies, Esmail’s seems fueled by the landscape of cultural inspirations from which he can pick and choose to add warped meta insights to his mystery of memory.

And for its part, Homecoming is taking pains to show Heidi’s growing connection with Walter, the former soldier’s easy charisma and pragmatic mindset both contributing to her sense of protectiveness over his place in the program and inspiring a sense of guilt about the possibility for harm. That much is clear in her latest go-’round with her overbearing boss, Colin: When he advocates for throwing Shrier out of the program and then throws Cruz into the dustbin for good measure, she fights back, convincing him that the sensible program participant was just looking out for his friend, and better yet, having such a trouble story in his file will actually make it look that much better when their process…helps him? It’s very unclear what this is all about as of yet, medication-wise or other, so whatever they’re hoping to achieve is still a nebulous MacGuffin when it comes to the narrative. Suffice to say, Heidi seems very concerned abotu what would happen to her charge were he to be released prior to completing the program.

But their spark is rapidly becoming more than just case worker and ward. His description of how you can really get to know someone through a road trip highlighted just how little human connection Heidi has outside the walls of Homecoming Center. Better still, it allowed to show to fill out some character beats for Walter Cruz beyond “soldier with a mysterious past.” He can be playful, teasing, even flirtatious, and despite Heidi’s resistance (or even irritation, at points), it elicits fleeting glimpses of the personality behind the all-work-and-no-play persona.

No wonder modern-day Heidi is so lost: She has suddenly been confronted with the fact that she can’t account for her past, and it has left her feeling very much less than a complete person. Her reunion with Anthony is tragic for a number of reasons, but by the time he’s gotten past his anger at realizing she’s fishing for her of her life back then, not his, she’s confessed to the amnesia plaguing her. It’s ostensibly about her lack of memory regarding Colin (“You don’t remember him?” “No, I don’t”) but it soon emerges her time with the project is just gone. It’s more than just the pen on her desk that Walter messed with, and yet none of her experience has been retained. Something ugly happened.

And Thomas thinks he’s starting to piece it together. After going through a truly Kafka-esque number of boxes (and slapping attendant Xs on Post-It notes for each one) to find Heidi’s file, he discovers that she was let go from her position the same day Walter was discharged—hospitalized, in fact, a detail he can’t help but link to Walter’s being let go for an act of violence. This is almost certainly a red herring, but it at least gives Thomas (and the audience) somewhere to go narratively, the beginnings of an explanation coming into focus. And, given the series’ new penchant for fun, that focus might necessitate the rest of the screen being blacked out.

Stray observations
The reveal of all the boxes labeled “452″ was such a classical visual gag, I half-expected Esmail to throw a sad trombone over it.
I also loved the motion-sensor archive lights that turn off before the next one has a chance to kick on.
We get a glimpse of Colin’s home life this week. Surprise, surprise: He’s not exactly the world’s greatest dad.
If Heidi’s warnings about pulling clients off medication too abruptly are true, things aren’t looking good for Shrier.
Also, we learn an interesting tidbit this week: They’ve been dosing the soldiers through the meals at the facility. Maybe the pineapple turnover was even more significant than Shrier realized.
‘We’re done. Get your shit out of my bathroom and your…fuckin’ forks.”
Anthony doesn’t exactly make a great second impression. His personal trainer work is sort of like Crossfit, but “sort of my own philosophy.”

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