"The first season of Amazon's Homecoming was a stylish pastiche of '70s conspiracy thriller elements," says Daniel Fienberg. "As entertaining as it was — and as great as Julia Roberts and Stephan James were in the lead roles — the result still felt like a bit of a disappointment; every time the show appeared poised to open up or dig deeper, it instead retreated into a mystery that initially seemed complex but ultimately dodged nuances related to PTSD and memory. The second Homecoming season — entirely Julia Roberts-free and reducing Stephan James to a prominent supporting role — might have been an opportunity to expand the world of the story (adapted from a podcast), to delve more substantially into character and conspiracy. Instead, it makes the first season look expansive by comparison. With an episode count trimmed to only seven half-hours, Homecoming returns as a tiny, almost ephemeral, mystery, a set of very simple puzzle pieces that need to be put together with almost no related emotional component. There's some minor elegance to how small creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg keep this chapter, which can be viewed as a curious checklist decently executed and finally nothing more." Fienberg adds: "The writing is spare, the directing bland, but at least there's pleasure in watching the actors. Roberts gave an excellent performance in the first season, one that ended up being almost inexplicably under-recognized. (Janelle) Monáe is an interesting non-replacement, a performer of both tremendous presence and deceptive stillness, which works well as her character's disorientation increases."
The most crucial difference between the two seasons of Homecoming is the way they function as thrillers: "The first was a conspiracy thriller down to its marrow, both in its visual aesthetic, which borrowed heavily from ’70s films of the genre, and in its revelation of a corporate and government cover-up regarding the treatment of the soldiers at the Homecoming facility, sent there ostensibly to help them reacclimate to civilian life. By season two, we already know what the conspiracy is," says Jen Chaney, adding: "Part two, then, is less a conspiracy thriller and more of a psychological one, the main mystery being who is Jackie, what happened to her, and how is she linked to the events and people from season one? It’s less The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor and more Memento, but with fewer tattoos. Season two is more straightforward than season one, but also not as dense or provocative."
Homecoming Season 2 misuses Janelle Monáe and Hong Chau: "The problem is that her journey, and the show’s other 'new' riddles and subplots, seem designed to drive viewers back to the central story of last season," says Lorraine Ali of Monáe's character. "Things feel mechanical rather than risky and clandestine, serviceable rather than seductive. But such shortfalls may not be a problem for all viewers. Fans of last season might welcome an addendum to the mind-bending mystery they consumed in 2018, even if it’s just to remind them why the show was so good in the first place."
It’s refreshing to visit a reality where Janelle Monáe is the new Julia Roberts: "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," says Kevin Fallon. "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."
It's not Monáe's fault Season 2 is a letdown from Season 1: "Following (Julia) Roberts at the peak of her powers is a hard ask, made more complicated by the fact that the scenario is so similar," says Daniel D'Addario. "Monáe, like Roberts, plays a person whose eroded memory conceals an involvement at the goings-on of the cryptic Geist corporation. To say more would, perhaps, give away twists and turns, but those plot movements are of more purely academic interest than emotional involvement. The genius of the Roberts performance came in the way she supplied familiar warm gestures to cover over all she didn’t know. Monáe, whose character wakes up in a rowboat with no idea how she got there, is all action by contrast, and is given little time to let moments breathe."
Homecoming’s got style for days, but there’s substance here, too: "Monáe, in common with first-season star Stephan James, has a face that can flicker between strength and vulnerability in an instant," says Ellen E. Jones, adding: "So often, us viewers unpack a mystery box TV show like this one, only to find it empty inside. Homecoming manages to add layers of meaning and complexity even as its secrets are revealed. It’s the carefully wrapped TV gift that keeps on giving."
Season 2 was designed to be more pulpy: “That was always my joke to Amazon: ‘There’s going to be chases this year.’ It’s more outwardly thriller-y as opposed to Season 1, which was toying with you," says director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, adding: “One of the producers called me and was like, ‘What do you think about Janelle Monáe?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely, 100%.’ And it wasn’t just because I wanted the job. I was incredibly excited to hear her name for it. It felt like a light bulb went off. I always try to look at casting announcements from a distance. If I saw that and I wasn’t involved with it, would I think that was cool? And I was immediately like, ‘Oh yes.’ Because what is Janelle Monáe in Homecoming going to be like? I didn’t know the answer to that.”
Casting Hong Chau in Season 1 was always a longer play for Homecoming: "We were lucky about the moment in her career that we got her because, for practical reasons, it was important that that character not be some megastar,” says co-creator Eli Horowitz. “She’s supposed to be overlooked, not just by the characters but by the viewer. Two years ago, she was still someone who, if you paid attention, you were keeping your eye on, but she was also able to disappear into a role. Her arc over the two seasons of Homecoming has paralleled her rise as a performer.”
Janelle Monáe says this is her first role that wasn't written specifically for a black actress: "Well, I don't think anybody could've played the role like me, but it wasn't specifically written for a black woman," she says. "For the first time, I got a script and it didn't say 'African American' or 'black.' So I got an opportunity – because I am black – to bring my experience to the role, and I got an opportunity to play around. I watched a lot of films (and TV) to get prepared: Olivia Pope in Scandal, Memento, The Bourne Identity, Before I Go to Sleep with Nicole Kidman. A lot of those films dealt with memory loss and I needed to decide how I was going to play Jackie."
Monáe on filming her first TV series: "I took a lot more risks," she says. "I’m the type of artist where I need to see a few takes of work, because that actually helps enhance the work that I do, and Kyle was so relieved and happy. He was like, 'Most actors don’t want to see themselves,' and he just kept saying how he noticed better takes after I had watched that first take. So it was great that we rehearsed, which I love doing. I love talking through the scenes with the director and the rest of the cast, troubleshooting things. I just felt in good hands the whole way, and it felt like family. For that to be my first experience, it’s going to be one that I’ll never forget. I’ll always remember my days shooting Homecoming."