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Homecoming Season 2 Attacks the Myth of the Girlboss

Janelle Monáe replaces Julia Roberts in the story's unsettling new chapter.
  • Janelle Monáe in Homecoming. (Amazon)
    Janelle Monáe in Homecoming. (Amazon)

    Originally a narrative podcast, Gimlet Media's Homecoming made the jump to TV in 2018 with an adaptation headlined by Oscar winner Julia Roberts (whose Red Om Productions is one of the companies that produces the show). Roberts played Heidi Bergman in two timelines: as a driven social worker counseling recently returned military service members in Homecoming, a program run by Geist Emergent Group; and, several years later, as a restaurant server with only very vague recollections of her work with veterans. When Gloria Morisseau (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), mother to Homecoming participant Walter Cruz (Stephan James), lodges a complaint that triggers an investigation, both auditor Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) and Heidi's former boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale) close in on her to determine what she knows, reviving her memories of what Homecoming's treatment program actually entailed: secretly feeding enrollees meals laced with the extract of a mysterious berry that causes amnesia, thus "deleting" their traumatic memories of combat so that they can be redeployed. Horrified by this revelation, Heidi broke the rules: she took a plateful of heavily dosed food from the mess to eat herself, and convinced favorite client Walter, who'd just eaten one, to take a second helping and join her. After recovering her own memories, Heidi tracks Walter to the remote forest town where he's relocated, and while he doesn't show any signs of consciously remembering who she is, some muscle memory remains, as we see when he leaves a fork at an angle on her table the way he used to do with items on her desk. Nevertheless, Heidi seems satisfied that Walter is doing well, and while the viewer might have agreed with her, here comes Season 2 to let us all know that, actually, no he's not, and he's not alone.

    The second season of Homecoming returns to the same concerns as its first. Obviously, there's the failure of the U.S. government to provide anything like sufficient care to the people fighting its apparently endless wars, and its willingness to subcontract what services do exist to private entities, which supply them with little official oversight or accountability. As the season premiere introduces us to a disheveled and roughed-up woman (Janelle Monáe), who has no idea who she is but who does have a VA ID and a tattoo on her arm indicating that she was an Airborne Ranger in the army, it seems as though she's another one of Geist's victims. In a way, she is. But also, she isn't.

    That's about all I can say about Monáe's character without ruining the mystery that unfolds around her over the season's seven episodes. But if you thought it was strange in the first season that an actor of Hong Chau's stature was cast in a role as small as Audrey, the Geist receptionist-turned-Colin deposer: good call! Audrey has much more to do in Season 2, and making her character and Monáe's co-leads really sharpens the show's moral clarity, placing it among the growing number of TV shows problematizing the idea of women as the gentler sex.

    I can't be the only feminist who rolled my eyes when, last December, former president Barack Obama stated at an event in Singapore that if women headed more governments, "[t]here would be less war, kids would be better taken care of and there would be a general improvement in living standards and outcomes." While I'm not going to sit here and say that men haven't caused most of the world's problems simply by being in charge of more governments and corporations (and everything else, not like I need to explain to anyone what patriarchy is), the idea that women are naturally more empathetic, progressive, and peaceable can be disproven by the records of any number of conservative politicians. (Ask a laid-off miner how empathetic he thinks Margaret Thatcher was.) Fortunately, increasing the numbers of women in writers' rooms has meant we are in a golden age of TV gorgons: BoJack Horseman's manipulative network president Angela Diaz (Anjelica Huston); Shrill's out-of-touch Gwyneth Paltrow/Sheryl Sandberg hybrid Justine (Vanessa Bayer); Succession's cruise crisis manager Shiv (Sarah Snook); Money Heist's gleeful cop/torturer Alicia (Najwa Nimri). The "girlboss" concept rests on the premise that a woman can do whatever she thinks she needs to do to get ahead in her career, including exploiting, abusing, or trampling anyone who gets in her way, regardless of sex; nothing is more important than her own self-actualization.

    Audrey — partly through circumstance, partly through luck (bad luck, for Colin; good luck for her) — suddenly finds herself on a fast track to real power at Geist. While Colin and his boss, Ron (Fran Kranz), were aware of the experimental berry extract use at Homecoming, the Mr. Geist we only heard tell of in the first season — Leonard (Chris Cooper) — definitely was not, and he's only too happy to turn the extract department over to Audrey. The transdermal roller we saw her use on her wrist is, in fact, Geist's new product, about to be hawked on billboards exhorting consumers to GET OVER IT; since she so strongly believes in it herself, she has a lot of ideas for marketing it, and she's eager to deal with the Homecoming scandal so she can start helping more people like herself. Unfortunately, Pentagon official Francine Bunda (Joan Cusack) is convinced by Audrey's testimony that no Homecoming clients have come forward with problems, and thus wants to invest heavily in the berry business, despite Leonard's vehement objections. Audrey knows quite well what the right thing to do is — and, unlike Heidi in the first season, is fully aware of all the facts as soon as she takes up her new position. But having found herself there, doesn't she owe it to herself to do what it takes to advance her career, particularly when such a powerful ally is so strongly encouraging her? (Kyle Patrick Alvarez takes over from Mr. Robot's Sam Esmail in directing all of Season 2's episodes, and since Alvarez also directed the feature-film docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment, he knows how to tell a story about people abandoning their native decency when they think they can get away with it.)

    I loved pretty much everything about the season: the way the enervating score closes in on you; how the rot at Geist even seems to have taken hold on its farms, stretching for acres under queasy yellow skies; the construction of the mystery so that it kept even me, a firm hater of mystery-box shows, absolutely riveted; how each episode's roughly half-hour runtime leaves no room for a single wasted word or shot. But above all, I was gripped as its female leads experienced the consequences of their "self-actualized" selfishness, and Homecoming became the latest show to expose the fallacy of the "girlboss" mystique. A few more good stabs and we can bury the girlboss for good.

    All seven episodes of Homecoming Season 2 drop today on Amazon.

    People are talking about Homecoming in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Homecoming, Amazon Prime Video, Bobby Cannavale, Chris Cooper, Fran Kranz, Hong Chau, Janelle Monáe, Joan Cusack, Julia Roberts, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Shea Whigham, Stephan James