‘Homecoming’s’ Timely Return: Hitchcockian Anxiety, Big-Pharma Paranoia, and Janelle Monáe
Supernova singer-actress Janelle Monáe fills in for Julia Roberts in Amazon’s psychological thriller. The new season’s cast outlines all the way it aims to blow your mind...again.
You wake up and you don’t recognize the world around you. It’s like you’re in a parallel universe. You don’t understand your place in it, or who you even are anymore. Each moment brings a new revelation about the insidious nature of the people in control, the callousness of those with money and power, the disrespect for those who serve, and how they view the individual as insignificant—just a number in a math equation calculating a bottom line.
That disoriented, horrified feeling is just one of the aspects of Homecoming’s second season that should resonate with viewers consuming the series in uncertain, unfamiliar, and often unsettling times.
The Hitchockian psychological thriller, which returns to Amazon on Friday, seems to have a pulse on our anxieties and, maybe more, our suspicions: of our government, of conglomerates, and, perhaps most controversially, of pharmaceuticals.
Based on the popular fiction podcast, the series centers on a private treatment facility meant to welcome home soldiers and reacclimate them to civilian life. The actual treatment was far darker than what was being sold: it erased memories of trauma so that the soldiers could be redeployed.
We follow former patients, employees at the facility, employees for the Geist corporation that developed a drug used at the facility, and, in season two, a mysterious new character played by music icon-turned-actress Janelle Monáe.
“I was a huge fan of the podcast and season one of the series, so when I had the opportunity to be a part of this show, I said ‘Hell yeah!’ and moved my schedule around,” Monáe said in a statement through Amazon.
The first season of Homecoming in 2018 was celebrated for many things. For the ways in which it engaged in conversations about PTSD and memory. For capturing the spirit of the podcast it was based on in long, uninterrupted scenes of dialogue of the kind rarely seen on TV. With Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail at the helm, for a visually arresting and ambitious psychological drama. Mostly, however, it made headlines for its casting.
Season 1 starred Julia Roberts, perhaps the biggest movie star of her generation, in her first regular TV series role. This was a Very Big Deal.
People wouldn’t stop talking about it. Roberts would joke about the conspicuousness of her transition from movies—hey, TVs are pretty big these days—and then toss off that famous movie star laugh of hers. It also happened that she was quite good in the series, which had her playing two versions of a damaged, confused character in different timelines, deliver 11-page scenes of dialogue in one take, and anchor a chaotic, intense thriller with a heartbreaking humanity.
The series also perfectly timed the elevation of breakout star Stephan James to leading man, coming when the actor, who played an Army veteran at the treatment facility, was also seizing the zeitgeist with a starring role in Barry Jenkins’ critical darling If Beale Street Could Talk.
This time Monáe is the unexpected, massive get as the lead, alongside Hong Chau, whose small arc and pivotal scene in the season-one finale is blown out into a co-starring role in season two. Like with James, the spotlight is coming when the actress, whose remarkable work in projects like Downsizing, Forever, and Watchmen has earned rave critical notices, is poised for a breakout moment.
Add scene-stealing turns from Joan Cusack and Chris Cooper to the mix, and season two solidifies Homecoming’s status as one of the most excitingly cast shows on television.
Considering that the crux of the season exists in a state of startled confusion—What the hell is going on here? Who are these people?—it helps when “these people” are being played by the likes of Janelle Monáe, Hong Chau, and Stephan James.
Who Is Jacqueline?
Monáe’s casting came as a surprise even to those involved in the show.
She wakes up alone in a rowboat in the middle of a lake. She doesn’t remember how she got there or, to her horror, who she is. She flees for help and in due time finds an identification card that says she’s a veteran named Jacqueline, as well as a photo of her with a group of soldiers with X’s marked over their faces—making her suspect she’s being hunted.
As the season’s seven episodes unfurl, more breadcrumbs lead to her true identity and her connections to James’ character Walter Cruz, an alum of the Homecoming treatment facility who has no memory of being there, and Chau’s character Audrey Temple, who receives a major promotion at Geist.
Revealing anything else about those connections is a major spoiler. But, Chau tells The Daily Beast with a laugh, “I will talk in general about how cool Janelle Monáe is.”
Monáe has spent a career exploring the interplay of dichotomies—the android and the soul, the significance and the meaninglessness of gender and sexual binaries, the vitality of nostalgia for the past and the vibrancy of an Afro-futuristic revolution—and their role in creating the human, specifically herself.
Homecoming explores technology, conspiracy, and dystopia in relation to a new reality. Monáe is stripped out of her splashy costumes and poignant stagecraft for her role, but the themes fit how we’ve come to know her persona perfectly.
That she would be ruled a surprising choice for a show like Homecoming is part of why she wanted to do it. “That’s where I find my freedom,” Monáe told the New York Times. “No matter where you put me, I’m going to figure out how to survive in that environment.”
Chau had seen and loved Monáe in her supporting roles in Hidden Figures and Moonlight. “But I don’t know if they really indicated that she would be an obvious choice for this role in Homecoming,” she says. “She’s not at all somebody who I think would be on the typical list, in terms of who studios would come up with for this.”
But it’s refreshing to visit a reality where Janelle Monáe is the new Julia Roberts. As executive producer of the series, Roberts was pivotal in casting the star in season two, personally approving the selection. “I was really impressed with how nimble her performance is,” the Oscar-winner said. “This kind of show is not for the faint of heart, and the workload is Herculean. I know that firsthand.”
“There are certain qualities or assumptions that you have about a pop star because you see them in these really fabulous costumes,” Chau says. “Her stage shows are so wild and the character is just so sensitive that it just is very, very surprising to me.”
The first time the two performers met was when they came in for wardrobe fittings. Afterwards they had lunch together at the production office.
“One of the things I remember her saying was just feeling a sense of responsibility in taking on a role like this because it doesn’t come around often for people like us,” Chau says. “And I knew what she meant by that. It’s not a conversation I have with my white co-stars.”
Monáe said as much, too, telling Vanity Fair, “I could see a lot of great actors playing this [role]. But I love the fact that I am black and that I get to bring that to the table.” She said she studied thrillers that center around memory, like Memento and The Bourne Identity to prepare for the role, as well as several performances from Kerry Washington for inspiration.
The rarity of a casting situation like this isn’t lost on James: an award-nominated, prestige drama that became a crucial element in the Julia Roberts career comeback, now counting three people of color as its main stars.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing that these characters really could have looked like anybody, but they look like a Stephan, a Janelle, and a Hong,” he says.
He remembers that after the first season, black veterans came up to him and talked about what it meant to see the story of the reacclimation process told through someone who looks like him. “It’s a very, very, very powerful thing I think that we’ve been able to accomplish with this show to not hit anyone over the head with this idea of race. You know, to put these characters, these people of color in these roles and to not make a big deal out of it.”
Who Is Audrey?
For those who had been fans of Hong Chau’s work in projects like Downsizing, which scored her a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nomination, it was thrilling to see the actress in a buzzy drama series that starred Julia Roberts. But then she spent most of the season showing up only sporadically in the background and in short exchanges with Bobby Cannavale’s character, Colin, the in-over-his-head executive for whom she was a receptionist, named Audrey Temple.
The little moments built up to a single monumental scene in the finale, in which Audrey mounts a power move to ruin Colin’s career and take control of the controversial Homecoming project. Still, there was a jilted feeling. That was it?
“No, I definitely did not sign up just to be Bobby Cannavale's receptionist,” Chau laughs.
Before she joined the series, its creators explained to her that, while she would primarily be in the background of season one, she should not be turned off by that. The minimal presence was purposeful. They wanted to surprise viewers with the big finale scene, and then with her starring role in the season-two narrative.
That means Chau was one of the first people clued into season-two plans. Audrey nervously navigates her new position of power and performs damage control on the horrific missteps made with the memory drug that the Geist company used to treat war veterans’ PTSD and prep them for return to battle.
There were interesting, unmissable parallels to the character she played in HBO’s Watchmen last fall. Lady Trieu was a confident, enigmatic billionaire using her wealth and scientific power to attain societal control. Among her pivotal inventions was a memory drug that, while different in application from the one at the center of Homecoming, was similarly dangerous and ultimately nefarious—a sci-fi siren warning against putting trust in pharmaceuticals to manipulate memory.
“There are big, heavy themes about corporate mistrust, institutional mistrust, science and technology versus humanity,” Chau says. “There was a huge shift for me in terms of having a go from Lady Trieu to Audrey Temple because Lady Trieu was this really ruthless, confident, and industrious character in Watchmen. And then shifting to Homecoming, where all of a sudden I found myself having to play a corporate drone, a person who is very passive by nature and gentle, and has a lot of self-doubt and is looking for somebody to guide her.”
“I was also a little bit hung up on the character of Audrey from the original podcast, who was very different,” she adds. “She was brash and bossy and spoke in a very demeaning way , which I thought was really fun. I thought maybe that would be the direction that the character would go in season two, especially with the way that things ended in season one. I thought we were going to continue to see Audrey Temple just chopping heads. But that wasn't the case.”
Who Is Walter?
Season one of Homecoming ended with one of those great finale moments ripe for interpretation.
We learn that the therapist played by Roberts, Heidi, saw the writing on the wall working for Geist at the Homecoming facility. She had developed a close relationship with James’ Walter Cruz and didn’t want him to be sent back to active duty. So she overdosed him on Geist’s memory drug and did the same to herself, so that neither would have recollection of what happened at Homecoming or of their relationship.
The season’s main arc followed Heidi as she slowly remembered, in horror, what she had been a part of. It ended with her seeking out Walter to make sure he is still OK. She found him in a remote town at a diner. They shared a meal together, with him believing her to be just a kind stranger. Satisfied that he didn’t remember her, she let him leave, only to notice when he was gone that he tidied up the silverware at her place setting—just as he would to mock her when they were together at Homecoming.
Was this his way of saying he remembers her? Was it his subconscious remembering their connection, even if he didn’t realize it? Or was it just an expression of an OCD tick?
Looking back on it now, James settles on a version of option two.
“If I’m being completely honest with you, I never understood what that was in the moment,” he says. “After I look back on it, I thought that the easiest way I could describe that moment is that there'’ something about Walter and Heidi’s spirits that connect in that moment, that he recognizes about her soul. For whatever reason that prompted that move. I don’t think he really fully understood who she was.”
He originally signed on for one season of the show, along with Roberts. When talk of season two started, which Roberts was not going to appear in, he wasn’t sure if he’d be back or not. He knew there were loose ends in terms of Walter not remembering what went down at Homecoming to explore. But it wasn’t clear if that would be a part of the direction the narrative was going in.
The creative team brought him in early on in the process, before anyone was cast, to show him “a big board of gibberish,” he laughs. It broadly outlined how Walter’s arc would factor into the new storyline.
When the show was renewed, the natural thought would be to provide answers about what Walter really remembered in that interaction with Heidi. But Roberts wasn’t going to be back, and neither was Heidi. Pivoting to focus on Audrey, who played such a small role in the first season, was clever in how unexpected was—something James was impressed by, even if it meant sizing down his role when Walter does reenter the narrative. (We won’t spoil how.)
“Look, I would have obviously enjoyed spending another few months with Julia to make a second season,” he says. “But when I was pitched the concept for season two, I just thought it was brilliant.”
And when it comes to a scene partner to replace Julia Roberts, having it be Janelle Monáe ain’t too shabby.