It’s not often that we get a chance to see a podcast adapted for television—especially one like Homecoming. Homecoming recently finished its first season on Amazon Prime, and as a fan of the Gimlet Media production from which it was adapted, I couldn’t stay away. Most podcasts consist of talking heads going on about something or other—paranormal phenomena, comedy, film—but Homecoming was a full dramatic production, having more in common with the radio plays of old than with Serial or This American Life. Beginning in November of 2016 and running for two seasons, Homecoming immediately set itself apart by employing top-flight voice talent like Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, Oscar Isaac, and David Cross. The story was gripping—built around recorded therapy sessions and tantalizing voicemails and telephone conversations between principle figures.
One of the first things I noticed about the new series is that the episodes are pleasantly short. Each one is roughly 30 minutes—which packs a punch when no room is left for commercial interruptions. One can make one’s entire way through the season in about five hours, and for this sort of prestige streaming television, that’s a rare treat. After four consecutive combat tours full of blood and tragedy, Walter Cruz has left the Army ridden with PTSD. Enrolled in an inpatient therapeutic program he expects to transition him back into a productive civilian life—except that program seems to have ulterior motives of which Cruz is unaware. Heidi Bergman is his therapist/social worker, and it seems she knows less about the program than she should.
It’s fascinating to see the story make its way to the screen. Instead of leaving the story open for continuation, Amazon opted for a full arc in its first season. Julia Roberts takes over the lead from Catherine Keener, and her performance as Heidi Bergman deserves all the praise it gets. The real surprise is Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) as Walter Cruz. For both seasons of the podcast, Walter Cruz was portrayed by Oscar Isaac. While the surname was Hispanic, Oscar seemed obviously White—or White enough. I don’t remember him ever slipping into Spanish or making much of cultural differences. Not so with James, and the shift brings a fascinating extra dimension to the story. Walter Cruz is clearly Black/Latinx with a Black/Latinx family (his mother and aunt are played by screen veterans Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies) and Michael Hyatt (The Wire, Snowfall) respectively. The age difference between him and his therapist is also much more pronounced, lending an extra layer of discomfort to any hints of romance.
Hyatt’s appearance is so brief, that it at first seems like a crime that she only appears once. Still, the work she does with Jean-Baptiste to flesh out Cruz’s relationship with his distrustful and domineering mother would never have been so effective without her. The nuance Jean-Baptiste brings to her role makes her another standout—she’s distrustful and domineering, yes, but the moment she expresses her worries, the viewer suspects that her worries are entirely justified. While it is true that in the black community mental healthcare is often associated with malingering and bullshit-artistry, it’s often overlooked that the suspicion comes from a very real place. After all, it was not so long ago that psychoanalysis and psychiatry were used to label many of our people insane and make sure they were locked away permanently.
The new racial dynamic also casts Heidi Bergman’s actions in a different light this time around. She takes a drastic action toward the end of the story, making a decision for herself—and for Walter—that has deep lasting ramifications, and she never openly consults him. Her decision was the same in the podcast, but something about the on-screen portrayal makes it sharper and more believable—and in our current cultural climate, it makes her character’s moral compromise hit a lot closer to home.
I’d be a little remiss if I didn’t mention that Homecoming isn’t just a Noirish tale of suspense—it also verges on science fiction, and the SFnal element and its application are both chillingly plausible. If you’ve been on the fence about giving Homecoming a look—do yourself a favor and check it out.