Homecoming and the Trauma of War

Veterans like myself have firsthand knowledge of how wars can outpace our ability to give them artistic expression. Between an actual explosion and its representation, the heat of the event dissipates. The reality of war, the substance and heft of it, often feels untouched by our songs and poems. The subject itself is so deep, we’re only able to ever penetrate it obliquely through metaphor and myth. War also being so vast, encompassing everything from psychology to thermodynamics, we’re only able to ever focus on a few aspects of it at a time. What this means is that every piece of art about war is forced to sacrifice something in order to remain intelligible.

To complicate things even more, the nature of war is in constant flux. The ancient Greeks experienced wars differently than we did because their wars weren’t fought in the same way and under the same conditions as ours. War means something different to a charioteer at the gates of Troy than it does to a drone operator in a trailer in the Nevada desert. And so artistic representation of war depends in large part on the nature of the war it means to depict. Think here of David Jones and his modernist literature of the First World War, layering vast seams of historical meaning on top of one another like a palimpsest: Welsh poetry, Homer, adventure novels, etc. His methods struggled against the unprecedented vastness and anonymity of the war, which seemed to cut off the soldier from history and isolate him in the technological hellscape of a permanent present. Or consider Thomas Pynchon’s complex and darkly humorous send ups of the Second World War and the Cold War, with events always seeming to spin out in a nihilistic paranoia where individual intention means little within vast and occluded systems.

In order for art about war to be effective, it needs to hone in on the particular spirit of the war that it depicts. In this sense, Amazon’s new series Homecoming is fighting the good fight. Focusing on a few of the traits which differentiate our current and recent wars from others—the anarchic, above the law feel of authority being shared with private military contractors, the attendant paranoia of not knowing who is really in charge, and our collective sense of amnesia when it comes to the wars themselves—guarantees that Homecoming is relevant. Homecoming is a perceptive piece of television which unfortunately renders itself less so by trying too hard for a kind of lukewarm emotional accessibility.  

Homecoming is based on a podcast of the same name from Gimlet Media, producers of conceptually ambitious podcasts like The Habitat and Sandra. In 2017 Amazon purchased the rights to produce two seasons of the show and, in a wise move, tapped Sam Esmail to direct. Homecoming, being a psychologically tense rumination on the relationship between our current wars and the home front, relies more on memories of trauma and threats of impending violence than straight-up action. This is the perfect pocket for Esmail to work within. His last major project, Mr. Robot, is another paranoid-thriller which casts a cynical eye towards the powers that be (in the case of Mr. Robot, it’s tech companies and government regulators) while resisting the boring predictability of out and out didacticism. Homecoming is the perfect project for Esmail because it works in such a moody register, casting a cold eye at familiar American institutions like the military while simultaneously making them seem new and darkly surreal.

Despite the complex moodiness of the show, the general premise of Homecoming is simple. A woman named Heidi Bergman, played to an intense and erratic T by Julia Roberts, is surviving day to day working as a waitress in Florida. Setting the action off is the unexpected appearance of a Department of Defense auditor asking her about a job with something called the Homecoming Transitional Support Center which she disturbingly finds that she doesn’t have any memories of. The structure of the show works at the mystery from both ends chronologically, showing Bergman in the past (which is 2018 in the show), beginning her job at the Homecoming facility, and in the present (the year 2022) trying to solve the mystery of her lost memories. The crescendo that’s being worked towards is, of course, the events that lead up to Bergman’s memory loss and her dismissal from the facility.

The plot is already inherently tense, and lesser actors could have sleep-walked through the script and still have conveyed drama, but the acting is quite good. Roberts is canny and emotionally intense. Bobby Cannavale as Colin Belfast, Bergman’s boss, is appropriately detestable. And Stephan James shines as the genial, sympathetic veteran Walter Cruz. The leading roles are well-cast, but it’s Sissy Spacek, Alex Karpovsky, and Shea Whigham in their supporting roles that really make the casting stand out as commendable. This is a veteran crew of talented actors who give an extra flash of ingenuity to an already well-written script.

Calling Homecoming “well-written” shouldn’t be taken to mean that the dialogue is realistic. Here and there are nods to the juvenile playfulness of the enlisted man, but rare is the soldier (or anyone, for that matter) who can so clearly and with so much self-awareness articulate an experience such as Cruz does when he tells Bergman during a counseling session: “But it’s that moment, that boredom. That’s when you really get to know a person, you know? You’re forced to be yourself or as close to your real self as you can be in front of another person.” Or when he concludes on the experience of war: “That was the scariest part of it all: just the pointlessness.” It isn’t realistic—at least not for the average soldier’s ability to put the experience into words—but it works, because actually realistic dialogue wouldn’t so efficiently convey the heart of the matter. So the writing is tense and hyper-aware. In cutting away the cant that attends the anodyne, we’re left with dialogue so taut that nearly every utterance feels like it conveys symbolic meaning in that rich Coleridgean sense: every word is part of the unity which it also represents.

At its most mundane, Homecoming is a workplace drama. We’re shown the daily indignities of working as waitstaff in Florida. Shea Whigham’s disrespected but dogged governmental employee character, mistrusted by everyone, is the very model of stoicism. And, of course, it can’t be forgotten that the Homecoming facility was created to treat professional soldiers who, although their work is categorically different from a normal nine-to-five, are still subject to bureaucratic hassles and office politics. But we see this theme play out most strongly in the relationship between Bergman and her boss, Belfast. Belfast is a an overbearing, emotionally abusive brute who basically lets Bergman take on all of the risk of the Homecoming project while getting none of the professional reward. In order to maintain a kind of plausible deniability should things go wrong, he doesn’t ever go to the actual facility. He uses people, both his employees and the veterans themselves, for cheap professional gain. It’s a small albeit cynical victory when towards the end of the season Belfast’s secretary leapfrogs him in the corporate hierarchy.

But this rendering of the contemporary American workplace would just be an exercise in cynicism did it not serve to illustrate a larger point: the Homecoming facility is meant to heal soldiers in order that they are whole enough to return to society. But this is the society that they’re forced to return to. Often the soldiers seem saner and healthier than the professionals tasked to treat them. They certainly seem morally superior to them. And so the bottom line seems to be that the society the soldiers are being prepared to return to is unworthy of them.

This unworthiness is most clearly articulated not in nihilistic careerism but in the duplicity that lies at the heart of the show. The Homecoming facility is fake. Or, at least its intentions are misleading. The goal there isn’t psychological and career therapy. What’s really happening is that the soldiers are being used as Guinea pigs to test out a new medication that will theoretically dull traumatic memories, not in order for veterans to reintegrate into society, but so that they can continue to redeploy to combat zones without incident. Bergman seems accepting but ambivalent at first, until she discovers that the new drug, administered in the facility’s food, erases all sorts of memories wholesale. Drawing a line in the sand, she eats a high dose of the food herself to catastrophic effect. But no one else seems to really care. When Belfast hears the news, in fact, he’s elated. And so, we’re left with the sense that the soldiers’ having their memories erased in a strange way allows the civilians to ease their own consciences towards the war. If the soldiers don’t remember the war, then it’s ok for the civilians not to. If the soldiers no longer incur painful psychological wounds, then the collective guilt of the civilians for failing the soldiers in so many ways over the past decade are erased as well. If they no longer care, then it’s ok if we don’t either.

The sense of complete erasure, or occluded loss, is the most haunting aspect of the show. “I think I did something wrong, and I don’t know what it is,” Bergman says towards the beginning of the season. It could be the show’s motto. Some people don’t know what they did wrong because they don’t recognize a difference between right and wrong, like Belfast. Some people don’t know what they did wrong because they simply can’t remember, like Bergman. The years of the war, from when it started to 2018, then beyond to the show’s imagined 2022, all meld together in an undifferentiated blur. An amnesiac whirl. Our ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan make it the longest running war in American history. And yet, according to a poll conducted last year, 21% of Americans say that we’re not at war. Another 21% aren’t sure. And of course just knowing that we’re still at war is a pathetically low bar. The experiences of veterans and how those experiences relate to larger American culture, often go unacknowledged and unexplored. As Jennifer Steinhauer recently wrote in the New York Times,

How was it that I had never heard of burn pits? Certainly these open-air trash fires, which were everywhere in Iraq and Afghanistan during the conflicts in those countries, had been written about, been the subject of lawsuits and been blamed for sickening scores, if not hundreds of veterans of those wars. Yet somehow, I had managed to miss the story—like much of the nation, I suspect . . . . So it often goes with veterans, a population our nation reveres but often forgets. We understand that they have high rates of suicide, post-traumatic stress and opioid use. But we are less aware of their daily challenges, including predatory lenders and for-profit colleges, that target them specifically.

Homecoming plays off of this unreconciled relationship the nation has with its veterans. In the show, the wars seem not to have touched larger society, which goes on about its business (and at least some of its business are the wars themselves) untouched and unconcerned. But not totally. People seem haunted. The landscape appears to be touched by a mysterious force, almost as if the characters are living in an enchanted kingdom under the spell of an evil witch. To my mind, the pivotal scene of the show is when Cruz and an Army buddy decide to make an escape from the facility, just to prove that they’re really in Florida as they’ve been told. The first place they arrive is tiny Anytown, USA main street that seems as if it were fabricated overnight. It’s desolate and seems like a movie set. They wonder if it’s a Potemkin village being built by the facility in order to convince the soldiers that they’re really in America. A guard confronts them and in a moment of panic they attack him.

But the town is real. Or as real as any ahistorical, prefabricated, American village. And the scene is a perfect synecdoche for the show’s message. In America, we’ve blurred the line between real and fake in order to facilitate a sense of liberation. From pain. From history. From our own moral failures. And the memory-erasing drug given to the soldiers is, in a sense, meant to make them more like their civilian counterparts, trapped as they are in a placeless void untethered from memory and obligation. Sure, the show could occasionally make its concerns more explicit. It does sometimes let the characters slip out of pocket and meander a bit from the symbolic roles they’re supposed to be playing. But hopefully that’s just praising with faint damnation, because the show is high quality and carries an important message: Moral obligation begins with memory. And as long as we still have boots on the ground in the Middle East and veterans back home, that’s a message that will remain relevant.