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‘Homecoming’: A Masterful Ending Makes Julia Roberts and Sam Esmail’s Amazon Series Twice as Powerful

The ambiguous ending to Sam Esmail's first season of "Homecoming" is great no matter what you believe because no one gets left behind.

Homecoming Season 1 Stephan James Julia Roberts Amazon

Stephan James and Julia Roberts in “Homecoming”

Jessica Brooks / Amazon

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Homecoming” Season 1, including the ending.]

Some connections can’t be forgotten. In lesser hands, that sentiment recalls Nicholas Sparks romance movies; with “Homecoming,” it becomes the muscular force of an immersive Hitchcockian thriller with an emotional ending fit for Douglas Sirk. Even after the jaw-dropping, heart-swooning, sure-to-be-debated final shot, memories are what matter in Sam Esmail’s brilliant series. Two distinct experiences — a moving character drama and a veteran’s cautionary tale — reveal why our cherished connections are just as vital as our painful ones.

Throughout most of “Homecoming,” memories are presented as a painful mystery. The first episode introduces two Heidis, played with stunning precision by Julia Roberts: One is happy and successful, but that’s the old Heidi. The current Heidi is punching a clock as a waitress and living with her mother (Sissy Spacek, a role made sizable by her very presence).

Enter Thomas Carrasco (a never-better Shea Whigham — OK, maybe he was better once.) Looking over the case file from his cubicle (which is apparently located above the box depository from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), Carrasco is driven by a sense of duty. He isolates the words on his computer screen asking him to verify that he’s done all he can to substantiate his report, and he repeatedly comes to the conclusion, “No. That’s not enough. I can do more.”

His thread-pulling untangles a sweater shared by Heidi and Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale, as a well-dressed fraternity pledge paddle). As the former boss tries to stitch it back together, Heidi can’t stop yanking. As the past and present Heidis come closer together, she remembers what the Homecoming initiative was: secretly feeding soldiers “medicine” that erased their wartime memories. Heidi knew as much when she signed up, but what she didn’t realize tipped the work into a dangerous ethical violation. The drugs not only erase the veterans’ traumatic memories, they erase all memories of their time at war, the better for them to be sent back to the front.

Homecoming Season 1 Shea Whigham

Shea Whigham in “Homecoming”

Hilary B Gayle/SMPSP

The ultimate victim here is Walter, the returning soldier who believes the Homecoming program is meant to help him (Stephan James, who also stars in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk”). As Walter tells Heidi about a fallen friend, Lesky: “I’m responsible [for] the memories. They’re keeping him alive. I can’t leave him.” By forcing Walter to forget Lesky, the Homecoming initiative kills him all over again. Ignoring a veteran’s painful experience by wiping it from his mind is portrayed as the ultimate ethical violation.

It also motivates Carrasco to find the truth and hold the perpetrators responsible. His quest (infuriatingly mocked by Belfast in Episode 8, “Protocol”) is one of a cog fighting the machine. He embodies the classic conspiracy thriller archetype utilized in classics from “Blow Out” to “Marathon Man,” in which the protagonist just wants liars to be held responsible for their actions.

Carrasco’s fight to hold the guilty culpable mirrors real-world scenarios like the Mueller investigation, but above all “Homecoming” argues for the value of memory, however painful. Those memories can lead to restitution for victims, or for the guilty to learn from their mistakes — but if memories are wiped, so is the conscience.

Homecoming Season 1 Stephan James Amazon

Stephan James in “Homecoming”

Jessica Brooks / Amazon

If Walter’s experience highlights the memories shouldn’t be left behind, Heidi’s is all about connections that can’t be broken. Sitting in the diner, her eyes meet Walter’s before the audience even knows she’s there. Depending on your interpretation, Walter either plays it off like he doesn’t remember Heidi or has flat-out forgotten who she is. They chat about his house and his deck while Heidi clutches the map he once gave her, deciding in the moment not to show him or tell him who she is and how they know each other.

And then, as Walter walks back to his truck, Heidi looks down at her table’s carefully laid-out setting — the fork is turned just out of place, just like her pencil back at the Homecoming facility. Does he remember her? Is that a signal? For all the chatter about Esmail’s brilliant shot in Episode 8 (the vertical frame expands as Heidi remembers what happened, her two selves merging into one), the shot of Walter walking to his car and Heidi watching him go is just as gorgeous. Her face tells the whole story, but as soon as the fork is revealed, the question becomes: Is he leaving her to go home, or leading her to their home?

Viewers will certainly interpret the ending differently. Walter could have moved the fork out of habit. He may not know her at all, and contorted memories of their conversations led him to live in a town along the path of their planned road trip. But no matter what you choose to believe, the shot of the shifted fork reinforces the depth of their connection. Their time together mattered to Walter, whether it’s locked in the deep recesses of his altered mind or still at the very tip of his thoughts.

The ending isn’t just ambiguous, it’s egalitarian. Walter’s experience is valued as much as Heidi’s, if not more so, and even Carrasco gets his moment to elevate his complaint to the proper authorities. His job, her quest, and Walter’s desires are all on equal footing, treated with the utmost humanity by a team of writers willing to look for the value in every experience. Some connections can’t be forgotten, but others shouldn’t be — even if it’s easier.

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