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‘Homecoming’ Season 2 Review: Janelle Monáe Leads Amazon’s Mystery Down Some Bad Paths

A slighter season in almost every regard, "Homecoming" takes a circuitous route to a new, lesser ending.

Homecoming Season 2 Janelle Monáe Amazon Prime

Janelle Monáe in “Homecoming”

There’s very little that can be said about “Homecoming” Season 2 without venturing into spoiler territory, so let’s start with this: Anyone who loved the ambiguous ending of Amazon Prime’s first season, especially if you were taken by the profound connection between Walter Cruz (Stephan James) and Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), should enter into Season 2 with caution. It’s not that podcast creators and series showrunners Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg provide a definitive answer as to what or who Walter remembers after his “treatment” at the Homecoming facility (though they kinda do), or even that they’re dismissive toward that poignant final moment so beautifully composed by Season 1 director Sam Esmail — far from it.

Everyone involved in crafting Season 2, including new full-time director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”), seems hellbent on telling a story that exists on the periphery of what came before. That helps distance the new episodes from a set that already nailed its ending, but the remaining ties create nagging questions that threaten pristine memories of the O.G. “H.C.” Worse still, too many aspects of Season 2 suffer by comparison, leaving audiences with as many questions about why this new story had to be told as what the story itself has to say.

“Homecoming” Season 2 opens with Janelle Monáe in a boat — so far so good! Confused, alone, and too overwhelmed to keep her phone from falling in the water, Monáe’s unnamed character (that’s a spoiler!) looks around and sees a man on the shore. But when she yells for help, instead of saying anything back, he flees. From there, Monáe has to hand-paddle her way to shore, then hike to a remote road, and finally hitch a ride to the “People” who inspire the episode’s title. After a stop at the hospital can’t explain why she lost her memories, Monáe befriends a divorcee named Buddy (John Billingsley) who helps her follow what few clues she has to a bar, a hotel room, and a car.

Episode 1 spends its full 30 minutes with Monáe, and not knowing who she is or how she ended up stranded in a canoe makes for an engaging early mystery. Still, this is the second season of “Homecoming,” and considering the first season focused on a drug that erased people’s memories, it’s a bit silly to spend any time questioning why Monáe doesn’t know her name. Episode 2 starts to expose similar flaws as it shifts perspective to Audrey (Hong Chau), who you may remember from Season 1’s post-credits scene when she fired Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), the man behind the Homecoming initiative. Now, she appears to be running things at The Geist Corporation, alongside company founder and avid gardener Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper). While there’s a nice surprise at the end of the second half-hour, the weakening structure foretells problems before Episode 3 jumps back in time to explain exactly who everyone is.

Here’s where spoilers become necessary to discuss what goes wrong with Season 2, so if you haven’t yet watched or don’t want to know what happens anyway, here are a few last broad thoughts on what’s lost in “Homecoming” Season 2: The direction mirrors the moody contrast between hazy mysteries and sharp revelations, but minus the stylistic flourishes in movement, blocking, and homage; the writing invites questions with concrete answers, but there are lots of problems with where things end up; and the performances are solid, but boxed in by a story that limits any intensity, let alone affinity, for these new characters. So just remember: Not having answers isn’t the same as needing them.

Homecoming Season 2 Stephan James Janelle Monáe Amazon Prime

Stephan James and Janelle Monáe in “Homecoming”

Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios

[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the review contains spoilers for “Homecoming” Season 2, including the ending.]

OK, answer time: So it turns out Monáe is a fixer named Alex. When we’re introduced to her pre-amnesia life at the start of Episode 3, a few days before she ends up on the boat, Alex is listening to an employee’s sexual harassment complaint and secretly dissuading her from pressing charges. That’s right: She’s basically fighting the #MeToo movement, helping companies cover up any bad behavior that could prove costly or embarrassing, and that’s her full-time job: When a company gets in trouble, she steps in to protect the company and get rid of the victim, even if her methods aren’t 100 percent legal.

Alex is also living with Audrey, and though they refer to each other as girlfriends, they’re serious enough to be talking about kids and serious enough for Alex to use her skills to help Audrey at work. You see, Audrey didn’t exactly earn her promotion; following Alex’s guidance, she took it — first, by conning Colin into signing that confession, then getting him ousted for what he confessed to, then sliding in to take over his leadership position after starting as the company secretary. She did this, in part, because she’s been overlooked for too long, as evidenced by a scene when she asks a colleague if she can pitch ideas in the morning meeting, only to be shut down and see her ideas stolen.

But after Audrey takes control, she soon encounters a problem: The Homecoming program, which she just tried to bury, has a loose end in Walter Cruz. Following his diner conversation with Heidi, Walter suffers some upsetting flashbacks and gets into a car accident. When he tries to pass off the memory attack as an after-effect of his brain surgery, the doctor tells Walter he never had surgery. So Walter goes hunting for his medical records, which leads him back to Geist, which leads Audrey to worry, which leads Alex to step in and say she’ll “fix” things with Walter.

These kind of cover-ups and connections are exactly what conspiracy thrillers depend on, and they’re part of what made Season 1 so compelling. But the initial “Homecoming” focused on Heidi and Walter, the latter an innocent veteran who was experimented on by a greedy corporation as well as an uncaring government, and the former a woman who’s trying to make up for past mistakes she can’t even remember. Relying on empathetic, engaging characters (who also happen to have great chemistry) to unravel a horrifying mystery is one thing, but Season 2 relies on Alex and Audrey to usurp expectations before revealing their noxious backstories. Alex can’t remember her past mistakes, but she’s not exactly trying to make up for them. Audrey knows full well what she’s doing, and she doesn’t care. Both of them are effectively antiheroes, and they suck up a lot of the narrative, even though Walter remains at the core of Season 2’s arc.

Homecoming Season 2 Chris Cooper Hong Chau Amazon Prime

Chris Cooper and Hong Chau in “Homecoming”

Ali Goldstein/Amazon

“Homecoming” ends with Walter and Mr. Geist conspiring to drug everyone at The Geist Corporation so the government can’t use its special berries for nefarious purposes. Mr. Geist concocts a big dose of memory-wiping drugs, and Walter spikes the punch at a company party with it. Their plan works, and everyone from General Bunda (Joan Cusack, who seems ported over from a completely different show) and Audrey, to the mail room workers and supply clerks, will have a hard time staying in business without any memory of what their business does.

Once Alex puts all the pieces together and reaches the end of the season, she’s become, at best, a slightly more compassionate person. Where once stood a woman who would throw victims under the bus for a quick buck stands someone who will sit with her manipulative ex-girlfriend so she doesn’t have to wake up alone. Is that reason enough to devote three hours to her story? And what about Audrey? Her last words before losing her memory express regret over not committing to having a baby with Alex — so she learned to put people first and pay attention to what’s so special about what’s already in front of her… right before she loses it forever. Even Monáe and Chau, two talented actors, are hamstrung by the limitations of their characters; Monáe spends most of the season either blank-faced and baffled, or blank-faced and hellbent on stopping Walter. Chau can only exude any real emotion when she leans into Audrey’s vindictive side, and yet this is the couple we’re meant to care about.

The ending doesn’t work on a number of levels — how do Walter and Mr. Geist know everyone who knew about the berries had their memories wiped? There are definitely people not in the office who knew, from Colin to the D.O.D. to everyone working for General Bunda — but what really irks me is its conflicting messages: If Season 2 is about identity, recognizing the humanity all around us, and making people take stock of how their actions effect others (especially anyone “beneath” them), why is it OK for Walter to overlook the innocent Geist employees he drugs for “the greater good”?

Similar oversights hamper other interpretations of Season 2, like when we’re asked to forgive The Geist Corporation and be satisfied with their downfall. It’s made clear Mr. Geist didn’t know about the Homecoming program, and he’s soon turned into a benevolent savior who helps Walter when no one else will. Seeing Chris Cooper watch “Airwolf” and kick butt is always a pleasure, but it’s a bit odd in today’s day-and-age, when private billionaires are profiting off a global pandemic, to believe a corporate boss whose underlings conducted illicit experiments on veterans was completely in the dark about any bad behavior. “Homecoming” points the finger at the government instead of Geist, but in Season 1, it felt like both parties were in cahoots for the wrong reasons, so why is it just the government who’s the bad guy now? (Also, not for nothing, but why did an again, white, rich guy have to be the hero of a season led by two women of color? Was Amazon getting skittish about its originals painting corporations in a suspicious light?)

The last shot of “Homecoming” sees Walter looking over his personal file from the war, rediscovering the memories that were taken from him as well as the men and women with whom he served. Looking over a list of his fellow soldiers, he closes the file and drives off, leaving the Geist corporation and all its drugged employees behind — presumably to go help any survivors who are facing the same fuzzy past he once did. But right at the top of that list is Heidi’s name. So, she either wrote the list or had access to it, which means either way, she could’ve given him that file. It could’ve been waiting in his truck when he left the diner at the end of Season 1, and he could have drove off to help those soldiers right there and then — maybe with Heidi by his side. Alex could’ve stopped General Bunda and Audrey, as well as any other misguided Geist employees, and there would’ve been a new hero to this new story. Instead, “Homecoming” Season 2 created two bad women, one white savior, and turned its innocent hero into someone willing to sacrifice innocents. What a weird way to go.

Grade: C-

“Homecoming” Season 2 is streaming now via Amazon Prime.

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