Let’s get this out of the way at the start: It would have been amazing to see what Julia Roberts continued to do in the role of Heidi Bergman, the caseworker at the heart of the Amazon series “Homecoming.” There aren’t many 2018 acting moments better than Roberts behind a desk at the end of the season’s ultra-pivotal Episode 8.
But news broke Wednesday morning that Roberts would not be returning to the show, leaving the existing ten episodes as the sole chronicle of her contributions. Perhaps this is an attempt to head off a flurry of Season 2 speculation at the Emmys FYC tour that is almost certainly still coming later in the spring. But given the foundation the show has laid down in its freshman season, there’s still reason to believe the show can succeed in Roberts’ absence.
Series director Sam Esmail has been open about the idea that the TV version of “Homecoming” would exist as a separate entity from its podcast predecessor. Even though Heidi returns in Season 2 of the Gimlet Media series of the same name, there was never a guarantee that the Amazon show would follow that precedent. Instead, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who created both incarnations of “Homecoming,” guided the TV adaptation to incorporate elements of both podcast seasons into the 10 chapters that dropped on Amazon Prime back in November.
In fact, it’s some of those deviations from the source material that may help keep “Homecoming” on solid footing. Whether or not the perpetually reliable Shea Whigham returns for Season 2, his character Thomas Carrasco is one of the main ways that the show found added depth beyond what existed in the podcast. There’s a humor and a specificity that comes with this screen translation that can elevate the importance of some of the peripheral characters. Season 2 may not have Roberts’ calculated gaze an as easy billboard selling point, but if the supporting players brought in to bolster her share of the story bring the same focused character work that Whigham did, the show can withstand her departure.
The evolving relationship between Heidi and Walter Cruz (Stephan James) formed the emotional core of the series, but it was the mystery outside Heidi’s quest for self-discovery that helped to propel the story forward. (Well, that and the expertly chosen handful of Vangelis tracks carefully scoring the show’s best moments.) The Heidi/Walter dynamic will certainly leave a gap, but the visual storytelling tools at the show’s disposal that helped make that central partnership so valuable can help fill that void. Esmail’s direction was as much a selling point for “Homecoming” as those performances. As long as he’s in the director’s chair, that still counts for a lot.
This news is also a much-needed win for ambiguity in TV stories. Even though Esmail will be asked about the true meaning of the tilted piece of cutlery in every Reddit AMA he does for the rest of his life, there’s something comforting in knowing that the show’s goodbye to Heidi will live in that subtlety. In an age when open-ended endings like those in “The End of the F***ing World” are called to be clarified and settled with their respective second seasons, this is an ideal way for Amazon to have its cake and renew it too.
Perhaps most encouraging in this outcome is that it paves the way for the Hong Chau leading role that’s been a long time coming. After the credits of “Homecoming” Episode 10, the show strongly hinted at a much more significant part for her to play in this in-show Geist Group world. If Audrey Temple is indeed the focus of “Homecoming” going forward, it’ll finally give Chau a chance to bring the same presence to a story that made her “Forever” episode and impressive collection of supporting roles from the past half-decade so compelling.
As the first season creeped onto Prime Video watchers’ radars, the show was already deep into its Season 2 writers room. Regardless of whether any of these hypotheticals come to pass, at least fans won’t have to endure the four-year wait its departing character did.