Kyle Patrick Alvarez was a big Homecoming fan. Like many of us, he’d been won over by the twisty thriller about a private veteran program dabbling into memory loss territory to help treat PTSD, a waitress who may have had something to do with it and a government conspiracy to keep the program’s failure from going public. Starring Julia Roberts and If Beale Street Could Talk‘s Stephan James, the show was in itself an adaptation of an Oscar Isaac-starring podcast by the same name. Which is to say, there were many big names looming over the project when Alvarez signed on to direct all seven episodes of the show’s second season. But the C.O.G. and The Stanford Experiment filmmaker was more than up for the challenge. It helped knowing the season would be anchored by none other than Janelle Monáe herself.
Homecoming marks the Moonlight actress’s first foray into television. And it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold as we follow her journey after she wakes up alone, cell phone in hand on an empty boat in the middle of a lake with no memory of how she got there or who she is. Slowly we get clued into how she ties into the world of Geist industries and Hong Chau’s ambitious receptionist-turned-executive Audrey Temple; how she found herself connecting with James’ Walter Cruz; and why her memory loss may yet lead to yet another disaster for the “Homecoming” program season one introduced audiences to.
For Alvarez, broadening the scope and tenor of the show was as much a storytelling as an aesthetic choice. “So much of what season one looked and felt like was defined by how close everyone is and how tight those spaces are,” he tells Remezcla. “As opposed to this year which has been a little bit more defined by the exteriors. We had probably more than twice as much exterior shooting, and so on.” Long gone are the claustrophobic spaces that cornered Cruz into a violent altercation that kicked off Homecoming‘s season one plot: here those open spaces that first greet Monáe’s character stand in for the wilder turns the story takes as it balloons into its climactic ending.
For Alvarez, working with Monáe was nerve-wracking in the best way. “It was a bit tough with Janelle,” he remembers. “Like I told myself every day, ‘I’m going into work with the actress Janelle Monáe,’ though at one point I sort of betrayed that and went off on my rant of how much I love ‘Primetime’ and how it’s my most listened to song on my iTunes — like it’s the song I’ve listened to more than literally any other song in existence. I would go home and pinch myself, but for those 12 to 14 hours you’re on set you kind of have to pretend like it isn’t as surreal for yourself as it is.”
Having an openly queer black woman as the face of the show, as well as a gay filmmaker behind the camera, was bound to color a drama that was, in its first season, an unlikely relationship between Roberts’s Heidi and James’ Walter. Indeed, while it’s best to go into the second season cold, know that there’s a fascinating way in which a queer couple stands front and center in a story that is, for all intents and purposes, not really about queerness at all.
“First of all, I just love powerful women taking down powerful men. So all that stuff was a blast. And then you throw into it that they are a couple and you throw in like a little bit of noir eroticism into it and then you — slightly spoiler territory here — you have a queer character who is having to sort of maybe not tell all the details of herself to make an impression onto a straight man in order to manipulate him. You’re just dealing with a lot of subtext that I think is really interesting.”
For Alvarez that subtext added necessary texture to a drama that’s squarely about government conspiracy theories and the greed-driven work of for-profit companies. This is a story, after all, about secret identities and erased memories, shameful decisions and illicit compromises. But it’s also, as Alvarez notes, just a wild ride of a thriller he hopes people will binge-watch and re-watch endlessly, finding joy in the many Easter eggs littered throughout and finding ever more surprises the more you revisit it.
Season 2 of Homecoming is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.