HOMECOMING: Mirror, Mirror

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Movie and television thrillers are labyrinthine and claustrophobic. They lead their protagonist(s) and the viewer through a byzantine series of twists and turns, as new and unnerving layers of truth about an inescapable (or seemingly inescapable) environment are discovered. I like thrillers, despite their conjuring of feelings of airless oppressiveness, and their revelations that we do not really know where, and possibly who, we are. Pervy? Don’t think so. Thrillers reward us with their startling aesthetics, their visual signatures of the labyrinth that so dazzlingly speak to us about our own trepidations about hidden dangers.

Historically, thrillers have softened the blow of their depictions of helplessness and confusion by etching clear distinctions between the good, vulnerable, but nevertheless conquering heroes with whom we identify and the powerful, evil villains onto whom we can project our anxieties. More recent thrillers, however, have become more challenging, demanding that we recognize that the world is not that easy to read. Homecoming (2018), an Amazon Studios streamed series created by Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, is such an evolved thriller, or at least it is in its auspicious first season. As it peels away the layers of appearances toward its big reveal, it makes us feel that too often good is sleepwalking and evil is not easy to comprehend, let alone battle.

As far as I know, there will be two seasons of Homecoming, so it is still possible that this wonderfully innovative beginning will collapse into a formulaic conclusion in the next season, marooning us in the older thriller world of simplistic right and wrong. (I hope not.) But the series thus far is so tantalizing that a discussion of the way it touches on current anxieties and blind spots in contemporary America is not premature.

SAFE?

The series begins in the eponymous Homecoming facility, which bills itself as a “safe space” where returning American veterans may volunteer for a program that will help them to re-integrate into society. We quickly discover, however, reasons to be suspicious of appearances. There’s a gaspy moment when we realize that the opening action is not taking place in the present, as it seemed, but rather in the past. The narrative, we discover, is built on two time frames, and its temporal shifts expose a disturbing secret agenda. First it becomes clear that Homecoming no longer exists in the present time of the series. Then it begins to seem that it never should have existed. Shuttling between present and past, we are confronted by both glaring discrepancies and subtle discomforts. A government freebie of such luxe therapeutic services starts to strain credulity. Then too, facts we should be able to take for granted become dubious. We are made to wonder where where the facility was actually located Was it in Florida as the volunteers have been told? Or in a place that was constructed to look like Florida? And there are bigger misgivings. Was it really voluntary? Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), an investigator for the Department of Defense is, in present time, looking into a claim that it wasn’t.

Visually, we are bemused by the seminal historically traditional hallmark of the thriller labyrinth: an image of a circular, winding staircase seen from a high angle, metaphorically suggesting the convolutions of the situation. There are also sudden cuts away from the action to high angles of ordinary rooms and exterior spaces that make them look starkly geometrical, like mazes. And then there is the series’ distinctive, innovative visual signature, the claustrophobic image of a large fish tank in the office of Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a likeable, smart, empathetic counselor at Homecoming, and also its onsite administrator. The fish tank figures prominently during her therapy sessions with Walter Cruz (Stephen James), a young, handsome, hopeful African-American vet whose trusting optimism about America is at the heart of the series secret and Heidi’s shock of recognition that she has aided and abetted in the treacherous exploitation of Walter’s faith. Heidi is white, so there are free floating intimations of racial issues here. Heidi is a woman, so their relationship is also haunted by ghostly implications about how social subjugation causes oppressed people to prey on each other.

The fish tank, containing brilliantly colored goldfish and plastic palm trees is not only the first image we see; it is the logo image for the series. Scored with a lush, dreamy, soporific soundtrack melody, this image, particularly the plastic palms undulating mesmerically in the water, seem not only to evoke the palm trees that surround the facility, but also both the seductive promises of the program and its hermetic isolation from the larger world. Film buffs will recognize the soundtrack music as the theme from Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill, 1980, a psychological thriller involving the deceptions attached to therapeutic counseling.

In Homecoming, the deceptions are brought to light by the primary signature of this thriller, the labyrinth of time. Cross cutting between Heidi’s past and present, the series tantalizes us with the difference between the status Heidi once had at Homecoming, and her current job as a waitress. In episode one, we are barely acquainted with her in her quasi-glamorous capacity as Homecoming administrator, when time shifts and she appears before us as a downtrodden waitress in a diner holding a carafe of coffee. It doesn’t add up. In the parlance of modern art: it’s discontinuous. Now a server, in the past she was in charge, or as much as she could be, given the leadership style of Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), the slick, ambitious, aggressive off-site administrative officer who micro-manages her via smart phone.

Confusion about the purpose of Homecoming also builds. It smells nastily corporate as Colin foments chaos by refusing Heidi’s requests that he outline a clear protocol for dealing with problems and tells her to be creative at the same time that he demands that she adhere unquestioningly to his stipulations. When she wants to talk about developing relationships with the vets, he cuts her off with emphasis on profits. But maybe government. In the present time frame Tom Carrasco shows up with his Department of Defense ID card and his files to interview Heidi about a complaint that Walter Cruz was held against his will at Homecoming.

Time will tell that Homecoming is a governmental-industrial hybrid. The ambiguity of that toxic confederacy is initially prefigured by the incongruity between the responses of Heidi and Colin to Tom’s scrutiny in the present and what we have seen of them in the past. Although it is only four years between the frames of time, Heidi claims to remember nothing about Walter, Colin, or her time at the facility; Colin denies outright having any knowledge of or connection with the program, Heidi, or Walter. Huh? Like Tom, we need to know more, since it must be that Heidi and Colin are both lying. Right? Reader, it’s much more peculiar than it seems.

Heidi genuinely doesn’t remember, and the series is primarily about what happened to her memory and Walter’s—which you will discover when you see the show. (HINT: Their memory losses are the result of Heidi’s long delayed heroic insubordination that resulted in both of them suddenly departing from Homecoming.) It is also about her bittersweet recovery of that time in her life, and of her identity. But the glory of the series form of narrative is that its extension in time leaves open the possibility of multiple protagonists with multiple stories. Homecoming also traces Tom’s and Colin’s stories, which are tightly interwoven with Heidi’s in a labyrinth of corporate and governmental lies, ignorance, evasions, mental deterioration, and amnesiac confusion in which innocent, trusting Walter has been snared. Down the rabbit hole we go. And on the way, we get a compelling story, but we also get the opportunity to meditate on our own concerns about the double-dealing interpenetration of government and industry in America—and who among us doesn’t have those concerns in the face of an unstable, malignant president and his appointment of corporate shills to administer the agencies that monitor businesses to which they have allegiance?

I sense you getting itchy to be told some solid details about the secret agenda of Homecoming. But, how much do you really want me to tell you? Even though it essentially doesn’t matter what you know in advance about a really good series, thrillers do depend on surprise, and I feel I owe it to you to hold back some details for your future viewing pleasure. And anyway that agenda is really only a “Maguffin,” the term Hitchcock famously coined to name the irrelevant thing that ignites the plot. As Hitch explained, the irrelevant necessity of the maguffin meant that it could be replaced by anything that would get the action started, since it was the relationships that grew as a result of it that really mattered. In the final analysis, that’s all there is to the secret agenda. The specific incidents bizarrely forgotten by Heidi and concealed by Colin involve a crime against humanity. But Bloomberg and Horowitz could have used any violation of that magnitude to show us the moral paralysis of the characters when they encounter a great cultural evil, that is to say the grip over all of our lives of the prioritizing of profits and power over human life.

The crucial point of everything that happens is that even though Heidi ultimately commits a self-sacrificing act to save Walter and even though Tom finds evidence that will alert the Department of Defense to what was going on at Homecoming, it may be too little too late. Worse it may be that any resistance to the powers that be is no more than spitting into the wind. Homecoming reflects on the moral and ethical chaos of contemporary America without providing easy answers. It sears us with the spectacle of life lies. It breaks our hearts and challenges our minds as it ensnares us in the socio-economic mechanisms for disenfranchising the truth.

PARALYZING DREAMS AND DESIRES

One of the great shocks of recognition for the audience is how something as comparatively trivial as ambition makes both Heidi and Colin willing, for their separate reasons, to deceive themselves about evil. Through them, we observe how the emotions of Americans are so tied to ambition that we are prone to denying anything and everything, no matter how heinous, that would deter us from grabbing the brass ring. Inexperienced and lost, Heidi is so glad to have a job that no matter how obvious Colin makes it that the claims in the Homecoming brochure that it is a safe space are lip service; despite every indication that she serves a grim purpose, Heidi clings to the fiction that she is in a position to help the returning soldiers. Fat chance. Heidi is the proverbial virgin in the whore house, and emotionally unstable to boot. The first season emphasizes that she has abandoned her personal emotional life and seeks connection to people through her work, most worrisomely through her vaguely defined, inappropriate romantic feelings for Walter, which suffuse the way they talk to each other in their therapeutic sessions, particularly when they lapse into fantasies about Walter taking the road trip he would like to embark on once he leaves Homecoming. Their conversations drift into a dreamy conflation of Walter and Heidi. It’s her road trip too. Or theirs?

Heidi allows herself to be manipulated and victimized because of a willful lack of self-knowledge. Thus her retaliation by purposely blowing a blank space in her brain and in Walter’s is highly ironic. But whether she is self-deceived or brutally self-aware, she is always surrounded by a similarly compromising lack of self-awareness even in those she should be able to trust. Consider Ellen Bergman (Sissy Spacek), who at first presents as Heidi’s very genuine and caring mother. Surely, mother will be able to give daughter Heidi some guidance about resisting the evil in which she finds herself entangled. But no. If Ellen had her way, Heidi would concentrate on recovering her earlier status instead of recovering her suppressed memories. Ellen has no use for Heidi’s moral angst. Of course there was something “fishy” at Homecoming; she knew it from the start, but everyone compromises. The banality of complicity with evil is the secret behind the flamboyant secret of evil.

Something surprisingly similar is at work in the life of Colin, who strikes us as a perfectly conscious abomination until the meaninglessness of the life he is creating for himself, marked although it is by the symbols of success, leads him to try to attempt some form of honesty. To our surprise, his wife who has seemed to be a decent spouse and mother, critical of Colin’s corporate shallowness, suddenly emerges as the enforcer of Colin’s duplicity and lack of ethics. As he tries to confess to her what he has done, she shuts him down with a fantasy game that they obviously have been playing for the duration of their married life. She tells him to “put it in the box.” Honesty would, after all, endanger her affluent life style. Colin dutifully writes something brief on a scrap of paper and slips it into the slit on the top of a what looks like a tissue box, but is obviously the graveyard of truth for this couple. See? she says. All gone. As a treat for her “good boy,” she then sexually seduces him. Don’t you love the idea of sex as moral paralysis?

NO EXIT

Consciousness and courage astonishingly fall to Tom Carrasco, a colorless, 9 to 5 guy, doing a thankless, routine job, when he is assigned by the Department of Defense to look into a complaint that Walter Cruz was being held against his will at Homecoming. We bring to his appearance in the story some long standing assumptions about plodding, time serving government functionaries who have been deadened by massively oppressive, non-productive protocols. And Tom is a man who lives professionally by filling out cut and dried forms, and clicking on computer links that will routinely and impersonally either consign an investigation to a cyberspace dustbin or elevate it for further consideration by people higher in the pecking order than he is;. Moreover, he seems suited to being an inchworm. But Shea Whigham manages to capture in his nuanced portrayal of Tom a sense of the stuttering extraordinary in the ordinary. The stereotype is also shaken by a striking visual that encapsulates the way Tom’s tiresome yet moving punctiliousness is at the same time doggedly off-beat. Tom sports a pair of reading glasses that split at the piece of plastic at the bridge of the nose. When Tom removes them from his face, the glasses click apart (magnetically?) and they click together when he puts them back on. They are ingenious, but in a pointless, irritating way. Why the Hell would anyone come up with such an unnecessary alternative to wearing and removing glasses in the usual way? And yet, the irritation is captivating and imbues Tom with an oxymoronic air of intense dreariness. So when his bureaucratic boss refuses to engage Tom’s doubts about the Walter Cruz case, saying, “It’s a binary”–meaning she doesn’t care whether he takes the investigation to the next level or doesn’t–it is Tom’s very unheroic attentiveness to dotting i’s and crossing t’s that makes him unable to ignore the anomalies he is turning up.

You’d think that a button pusher would cave easily at the clear signs of his boss’s lack of interest. Why not just move on? After all, the Homecoming we see in all its absurdity, evil, and mystery in the past has been shut down. Heidi and Colin are leading new lives, and Tom can’t find Walter. The complaint is a moldy four years old. But Tom can’t leave the t’s uncrossed. From the fiber of his being, he can’t disregard the illogicality of the data. This is no Jimmy Stewart, glamorously discovering the labyrinth of lies in Rear Window in collaboration with a sumptuously stylish Grace Kelly. This is no daring, individualist Fox Mulder of X-Files fame. Au contraire, Tom’s motivation is that of the humble desperation of an ordinary man to be what he is.

By the end of season one, like the erosion of rock by water, although it is one small drop at a time, Tom’s awkward and self-effacing doggedness breaks through the labyrinthine years of obfuscation and denial, and blunders into an understanding of the secret agenda. But his discovery is only an arrival at a new turning of the convolutions of the labyrinth. The possible meaninglessness of the big reveal is devastatingly presented in a wonderfully appalling climactic encounter among Tom, Heidi, and Colin, in which everything tumbles out into the open. Tom is cowed by Colin’s venomous taunt that he is so low on the governmental totem pole that his report will be swallowed up by the bureaucratic process. Tom despairingly knows it might be true and so do we. So does Heidi, who is filled with a horror that whether or not Tom’s report is dismissed, because she too is low down on the totem pole, it is likely that no one will hold her personally responsible for her actions. This ethical vacuum opens an abyss at her feet.

Equally shattering is that in the aftermath of this moment, when Colin unexpectedly has his feet held to the fire, it feels worse than if he had gotten away with his villainy. Colin’s comeuppance is another form of denial. The corporation for which Colin works really doesn’t care what he has done at their behest, nor does it take responsibility. Colin is being demoted, but only to simplify corporate operations. Consumed by the importance of profits, his masters can’t be bothered with mere human rights violations. Colin is being disappeared as a pre-emptive strike against any possible government oversight, no matter how remote the possibility. And who are those masters anyhow? The executioner is none other than Audrey Temple (Hong Chau), the petite Asian receptionist with a squeaky voice whom Colin has been bullying throughout the previous episodes. Who? The receptionist who barely showed up on the narrative radar until this moment. Yup. At the end of the season, a very peripheral characters pops up to take control. And we were looking elsewhere! Clearly there are more revelations to come in the second season about Audrey. And Tom’s boss. Was Audrey the unidentified person on the other end of a phone call, when Tom’s obstructive superior at the Department of Defense warned someone about impending trouble, in the light of Tom’s discovery?

What’s that? Oh, yes, Walter. Walter, at present, is off the grid in a small town in the great Northwest. Walter, still amnesiac and unable to recall the trauma of his departure from the “safe space,” is blissfully making a simple life for himself in a cabin by a little stream. Seemingly, as an act of contrition, once Heidi remembers, she takes that road trip she and Walter used to talk about, hoping it will be the key to locating him, and it is, but he does not recognize her at all. We cannot tell from her reaction whether this is the happy ending Heidi hoped he would have. Is forgetting the only possible solution to what happened to him? Or is he in a fool’s paradise? And why is Heidi really there? Where is the seat of power in this horrible game of exploitation we have witnessed? What are the mechanisms for justice? The characters have come home, so to speak, to find that, in Gertrude Stein’s words, in America, when you get there, there is no there there. What now?

Quel labyrinth! And how familiar to those of us agonizing about the current state of moral amnesia in the United States and the pathetically resultless investigations which turn up crime after crime for which there are no meaningful consequences. What more will there be to say in the second season about balances of power and the duty of a society toward its citizens? Wither Heidi? Tom? Walter? Colin? Wither our own lives? To be continued.

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