Entertainment

'Homecoming' Director Sam Esmail Wants You to Sort Out That Ending for Yourself

homecoming
Amazon

There's a moment as the credits roll on the final episode of the first season of Amazon's Homecoming that's undeniably poignant. Even though it certainly provokes more questions than answers, it's less cynical than the rest of the series and, surprisingly, almost hopeful. Of course, if you stay tuned, the pessimism that seeps through the rest of this series from director Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot and writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg makes its way back in. But for a brief second, there's a respite.

Homecoming, based on the fictional podcast of the same name, brings Julia Roberts to TV as Heidi Bergman, who we first meet as a therapist working at Homecoming, a facility for returning soldiers with PTSD. The 10 episodes -- each around a half-hour long -- jump back and forth between 2018 when Heidi is working at the center and 2022 when the program is being investigated by a diligent Department of Defense cog (Shea Whigham). The aspect ratio shifts between the time periods, closing in during the future sequences; soon, it's evident that's not just a stylistic choice. Heidi, at that moment in time, doesn't remember everything that happened. There are holes. Homecoming's strategy of healing is to medicate the former soldiers with a plant-based drug that solves their trauma by ripping away their memories. This happens to Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a patient with whom Heidi has developed a kindly, flirtatious relationship. And when she discovers that he, now free of his pain, is being redeployed, she aims to save him and herself by ingesting the medication and doubling his dose.

After Heidi's own past begins to come back to her, she seeks out Walter, eventually finding him in a small California town. They meet in a café, and she doesn't let on she knows who he is. He doesn't either -- or does he? When he leaves, she looks down and sees a fork slightly askew. If he did indeed place it like that, it's a callback to a moment in her office during the previous episode when he adjusts a pen. If he didn't, it's a strange coincidence. But Esmail doesn't want to tell you what really happens. That's up for debate, and probably relevant to the in-the-works Season 2. He did speak to Thrillist about that moment -- and the post credits scene in which a character hovering on the sidelines gets her big moment.

Thrillist: The use of different aspect ratios stands out initially. But as the series goes on, you realize the shifts are about how we see memory. Can you talk about that a bit?
Esmail: Well, actually you kind of answered it in your question. Basically, when we started thinking about how to visualize the 2022 storyline, it always starts with our main character Heidi and her point of view and the fact that she doesn't remember everything. It kind of made sense to limit her scope and limit her world because she's not seeing the full picture. That's sort of why we did that box ratio. Also there's this weird claustrophobia and boxed-in feel that we put Heidi in by shooting that aspect ratio because she's being pursued by Carrasco and Colin later on. So, for all those reasons, and of course obviously in episode eight -- and we didn't know this at the time when we made this decision -- but as we progressed and made that decision, in that moment when Heidi does remember everything, for us as storytellers it paid off really well because that was such a great way to now tell the audience that Heidi's memories were now coming back.

And then you repeat that in the past timeline when it closes in.
Esmail: Where we show where she lost all her memories.

There are images that pop up throughout the series: geometric images, forks in the road, the vending machines. What was your thinking behind that?
Esmail: There are a couple things. One, the tone of the entire show has this sort of lingering effect. I think that helps a lot when you have these geometric images that also double as hypnotic images. You can't quite look away from it, and that's a lot of the reason why we do long takes, too. It almost feels like you're not blinking, that you're constantly leaning in.

Part of the reason we do rolling credits at the end over visuals is, it's not a bombastic moment -- it's a slow, hypnotic, almost meditative state we want to put the audience in. And then the other sort of side to all of that is, I had this idea thematically for the show that this is about the boxes we live in, the boxes we know we are in, and then we realize that box is actually in a bigger box. And that box is in a bigger box. We can keep pulling out and reframing what we thought we knew the more information that we got. That actually drove the aspect ratio conversation a lot because that's also kind of a box.

Even the way the show opens, where you start on a palm tree and then a goldfish comes out and then you pull out and you're in an office with an aquarium and then the office isn't really what it seems. Even in episode six, we push in on Heidi and Colin and they are in the Chinese restaurant, but the camera is outside looking through a window, which is another box. We constantly do that to put the audience in this position of, is this the world [around] them and around us as a viewer, is it what it seems or is there something that's right around the corner that's going to change what we thought we understood?

homecoming
Stephan James | Amazon

The recurring images made me think of the final scene with Heidi and Walter, where it appears that he has moved a fork. I looked back to find the moment when he moves the pen in her office as they are discussing redeployment. Are those two moments connected?
Esmail: It's weird because this is one of those questions where it's not a spoiler because you've seen the show and obviously hopefully everyone who is reading this right now has seen the show, but it's a spoiler in the sense that I don't want to ruin anyone's experience. In a lot of ways, those two moments are connected, but the meaning of that depends on how you read that last scene and how you read what Walter is or is not trying to say to Heidi. I kind of want to leave it up to the imagination of the audience.

You don't have to say so, but do you have a read on that?
Esmail: Yes.

But you want to leave it up to the audience to debate. Why?
Esmail: You know, to me, I love endings that are not answers, are not the definitive conclusions. I'm always disappointed with that. I love endings that let you engage and let you get involved in how you want to feel. And I love people that come away with it with wildly different interpretations. That's sort of the beauty of storytelling is that you can inspire great conversation even if two people have walked away from the same thing. That's part of the reason why I love the way the ending is and I love that we're even having this conversation. The fact that there isn't a one word answer, to me that's a plus.

Hong Chau is amazing. When I saw her in the background of scenes, I kept waiting for her to do more, and then it happened in the post credits scene when her character, Audrey, turns the tables on Bobby Cannavale's Colin. Can you talk about casting that role?
Esmail: Look, I don't want to spoil anything for Season 2, but we knew that that character was going to play a critical role. I think at the time I had seen Downsizing. I think it had just come out, and I was blown away by her performance. I just thought there was something about her -- kind of the way you described it -- even though she's in the background and not foregrounded as much, you are going to pay attention to her. You are going to keep your eye on her. And that's exactly what we wanted to do with that character. So, we reached out to Hong and luckily for us she was into the character and into the show that she wanted to come on and do it.

homecoming
Hong Chau and Bobby Cannavale | Amazon

How did you think about the story for television versus the original podcast?
Esmail: The sequence that probably convinced me that there is something here that could be a TV show that could stand out on its own separate from the podcast is in episode three when Shrier and Walter steal the van and escape the facility because Shrier has this theory that they're not really in Florida. So they take off and they find this odd little town and they think it's part of this military exercise. And lo and behold, you realize you are in Florida and that was just a retirement village.

In the podcast, that whole sequence is told to you by Walter to Heidi and he's laughing as he's saying it because he knows the ending. And so it really kind of ruined the suspense and tension of that sequence because you know the answer before you even are told story. It was kind of a Eureka moment where I realized, wow, we could film that we could actually kind of have some suspension of whether or not Shrier's theory is actually true. We can be connected with Walter and Shrier and also be on the ride with them and create this tension as we build up to the reveal that no, it's all for not, they really are in Florida. That's kind of the best example I can think of early on in the season where the podcast had to deviate, kind of do it in this way because it was the only way they could fit it in this format, but in television we could go in a more thriller suspenseful sequence.

How deep are you as you prep for season two into the backstory of the Geist corporation and what this plant-based drug that they are working with is?
Esmail: We're in the writers' room working all of it out and we're definitely knee deep in it. So, yeah, everything you're talking about in terms of the backstory of Geist and what's going on with the medication is all under construction in the writers' room as we speak.

Is that something you're inventing anew for the show?
Esmail: Again, I think we've deviated a lot from the podcast that it's kind of its own thing right now, the show.

The music of the show is so specific, but in that final scene you use the Iron & Wine song "The Trapeze Swinger." Why did you go for that?
Esmail: It's a big one and music is obviously so critical and so important to me. With a moment like that I wanted a song that felt like, a) it was real to the scene and real to the environment and would be playing in that diner, and then, b) is it going to hit me in the gut and in the heart at the end? Is it going to land that moment? Because I want music to be reflective of what's going on with our characters, especially with this moment with Heidi. The way you do it is you try a bunch of different songs. I think we were trying songs up until the day of the mix where we had to make our final call. That song, I think that was my first pick weeks prior. We threw it in there. Then we had music supervisors coming up with ideas and editors coming up with other ideas and then I canvassed out to other producers and even the writers came up with ideas. We just always did the Coke-Pepsi challenge. We put them up side by side and the Iron & Wine song just kept knocking them all down. We just go with our emotions and if it hits us in the gut, then we know we've got the right song.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.