Arts & Culture » Television

Post-traumatic stress disorder

by Brian Bromberger

Julia Roberts in director Sam Esmail's "Homecoming." Photo: Amazon Prime
Julia Roberts in director Sam Esmail's "Homecoming." Photo: Amazon Prime  

During the Age of Trump we have experienced paranoia, crackpot theories, conspiracy plots, the corporatization of government, polarization, and mistrust. So it is no exaggeration to say that Amazon Prime's new TV series "Homecoming," which started streaming Nov. 2, with all those themes embedded in its circuitous intrigue, puzzling twists, and Hitchcockian suspense, is tailor-made for our times. It features Julia Roberts in her first foray into serial TV, giving her best performance since her Oscar-winning Erin Brockovich in 2000.

Developed and directed by Sam Esmail, based on a podcast by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, the series' action occurs on two alternating timelines: 2018, presented in full-frame boxy 16:0 aspect ratio; and 2022, with vertically cropped 4:3 aspect ratio. So it's easy to distinguish the storylines. The whole series transpires in 10 crisp 30-minute episodes.

Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) is a counselor at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a private facility located near Tampa, Florida, run by the Geist corporation, treating PTSD soldiers returning from active combat duty, using counseling, role-play, and food spiked with a mysterious drug. With its claustrophobic design, the facility resembles a prison. Heidi's boss, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), is interested only in extracting data from the veterans. Heidi develops a friendly professional relationship with one of her clients, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a black soldier home from Afghanistan dealing with survivor guilt about a friend killed in action.

Flash-forward four years later. A downtrodden Heidi is now living with her mother (Sissy Spacek), working as a waitress in a dockside greasy-spoon called Fat Morgan's. Defense Department auditor Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) appears, asking Heidi about her time at Homecoming, but she can hardly remember any details, as if the whole experience were wiped clean from her mind. Together Heidi and Carrasco try to piece together this puzzle of what happened at the now-closed Homecoming program.

Roberts is perfect for this role, because as "America's sweetheart" we trust that she genuinely cares about wanting to help the veterans. But we share her dawning realization that she has unwittingly played an ethically compromised role in a cunning form of brainwashing. They are being used as biopharmaceutical guinea pigs to erase PTSD memories, in a bid to save millions on therapy and recycle them back into combat. In the paranoid 2022 sequences, her mother observes, "People make compromises. You did what you had to do. You took a job."

All the other performances are spot-on. James is suave, charismatic, and vulnerable, creating chemistry with Roberts. Whigham acts as a surrogate for the viewer trying to figure out what's going on. Spacek embodies the clueless but defensive mother. Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Walter's mother, who knows something's amiss, is riveting in her devotion. The scene-stealing Cannavale creates a micromanaging villain in constant motion, intent on making Homecoming a success at any cost.


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