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A Gay Director Helps Homecoming Season 2 Find Its Queer Lens

Homecoming

The star power of gay icon Julia Roberts aside, LGBTQ+ audience members did not see themselves reflected in season 1 of Homecoming, the Amazon thriller series centered on players within the shady Geist Group corporation and its attempts to exploit a memory-erasing substance for profit. 

Or so they thought. Warning, light Homecoming season 2 spoilers ahead.

The thrill of season 1 was watching the mystery unfold, as Heidi Bergman, suffering from memory loss, puts together the pieces of her former position as a social worker ostensibly helping veterans transition back to civilian life at the Geist-run Homecoming Transitional Support Center. The series, directed by Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) and adapted from the podcast by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, worked within two timelines: Bergman in the present, with a clipped screen ratio visually telegraphing her impaired memory, and wide-screen Bergman in the not-too-distant past as she worked in therapy with the soldiers at the center.

Bergman may be gone in season 2, but the mystery is still unfolding, which in part involves the revelation of LGBTQ+ identities. This time, it's through the eyes of a character portrayed by a queer actor, Janelle Monáe, who in the first episode awakens in a boat with no memory and a military ID in her pocket. Monáe, joining returning cast members Stephan James and Hong Chau, is one of the exciting new additions to the Homecoming world, along with Chris Cooper as Geist's farmer founder Leonard Geist and Joan Cusack as a devious general from the Department of Defense. 

Another exciting addition is Kyle Patrick Alvarez, a gay Latinx director known for films like C.O.G. and The Stanford Prison Experiment; he also holds TV credits with Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. For Alvarez, these were great expectations of steering the second season of Homecoming after its acclaimed debut in 2018. “You want to live up to people's expectations,” said Alvarez, who said his goal was to create a “digestible and fun season that moves quick and surprises you [and] keeps you really engaged throughout.

This is the first time Alvarez has helmed an entire season of television. Since The Stanford Prison Experiment, the director has worked in TV to direct episodes of various shows, but nothing of this scope. He landed the job the old-fashioned way, through lobbying a producer. “I was a massive fan of season 1,” he said.  He then “fought really hard” for the position; he pitched creators Horowitz and Bloomberg with specifics on how he would film the entire season. His pitch worked. “I'm grateful that they certainly took a chance on me,” he said. “I’m not quite sure how I got that lucky.”

One of the challenges for Alvarez was making the show his own following Esmail, who directed the first season with the distinctive visual style of aspect ratio changes, an “inspired move,” said Alvarez. Alvarez said he had an “open-door policy” in his own artistic choices. While he did not “want to rewrite the book on how this show is shot,” he also did not want to establish Homecoming as “that show where the bars change.”

Thus, the bars no longer change in season 2 — although split screens between characters provide their own moments of dramatic tension and revelation that reference the techniques of the first season while also expanding their meaning. “I was trying to stay in the spirit of it while following my own intuitions,” Alvarez said.

Additionally, Homecoming brought in a composer for the music of its second season; the first used classical scores. Alvarez characterized season 2 as more of a “traditional thriller,” with chase and suspense scenes that require customized sound. Thriller titans Alan J. Pakula and Alfred Hitchcock were clear artistic influences in season 1. And while Alvarez also channeled these filmmakers, he additionally “leaned into” the “grandiose style” of Brian de Palma, especially in the split-screen sequences.

There’s also the cast itself. Notably, Roberts does not appear in season 2. While Alvarez did “love” her performance, he would have been “wary” of including her character with the way her storyline ended. “It was a relief to say hey we're going to start at a different place with a different person,” said Alvarez. That person is Monáe, who Alvarez was “thrilled” to have on. “PrimeTime,” from her work as a musician, is the most played song in his iTunes library, he admitted.

Cooper and Cusack were also “dream” additions for the director. "These actors are legends for reasons, yes, because they're insanely talented but also because they're so professional and they're a joy to work with,” he said.

“I could have only dreamed of getting to work [with Cusack], which I would like to imagine nearly every gay director under 40 would say the same,” Alvarez added. He noted how, when Cusack had scenes, crew members would linger and visitors would drop by the set to watch. It was “genuinely thrilling” to see her improvise, ask questions of the writers to delve deeper into her character, and to do so in her military garb, said Alvarez, who was struck by the visual’s queer appeal. “This is gonna make this be the gayest show and it's not gonna have to do with the fact that it has LGBT characters. It has Joan Cusack in military clothes sitting in a pile of dirt," he said.

But about those LGBTQ+ characters. Actual spoilers ahead. It is revealed at the end of the first episode that Monáe's character is in a relationship with Chau's (Audrey)  — news to the character as well as the viewer. Alvarez found that the conceit of the memory loss opened interesting new doors to exploring queer themes. “You can play with gender and expectations of the audience in new ways that you wouldn't have been able to otherwise,” he said. Queerness is important to the story, he asserted, but it’s also “lateral” to it.

“Queer characters can bring depth to something by their nature that otherwise might not be there," he said. "And gender works the same way too. Now, we have this story about these two women, basically pulling off a grand con, and it sort of takes on a new shape of wish fulfillment,” he said.

Monáe and Chau portray partners who seek to ascend the power structures they’re working in; Chau's Audrey is a striver at Geist, while Monáe's character is a contractor who, through deceitful means, averts lawsuits for clients. Bobby Cannavale, as the power-hungry Colin Belfast, had a similar drive in season 1. But this drive takes on new meaning when given to queer women of color. “Hong's character is about this woman taking down powerful white men in her favor, and in Janelle’s side, it’s needing to deceive this man to help her lover. All of that feels so much more subversive," Alvarez said.

In this lens, ordinary lines of dialogue take on added meaning. For example, even when Monáe's character copes with memory loss, she still feels her identity at a basic level. When someone suggests a boyfriend may have given her an injury, she says that “doesn’t sound right.”

“Even though she's lost her memory, I don't think she lost her sexuality,” Alvarez said, which indicates that being queer is in her "core." He added that these characters “don't just happen to be gay. It definitely defines them,” although it is up to audiences to fill in their backstories as the details of their lives unfold.

It's a refreshing expansion of the Homecoming universe, in which Audrey appeared, but this information was not known. As a result, queerness just “wasn't an element in season 1,” said Alvarez, which saw that arc as tackling “some subtle racial issues” through Stephan James’s Walter Cruz as the soldier and guinea pig of a medical trial, one evoking the horrors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

And Alvarez noted the significance of recentering this storyline through a queer perspective on a platform like Amazon, particularly when the material aligns with his passions. “I'm always trying to find ways to connect to material,” he said. “I've always wanted to try to find a way to make films that are LGBT or LGBT stories, but it may be in unexpected ways. And so getting to make a thriller that at some point becomes a little bit like a lesbian neo-noir thriller, those are the most exciting days on set because it's like, oh, this is a mass consumption global Amazon show with movie stars but we have this really important LGBT thread in the middle of it. But that that I think will be exciting to people.”

Alvarez also sees some DNA shared with Patricia Highsmith, the lesbian novelist who wove queerness into popular thrillers like 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. The director remembered the significance of the 1999 adaptation starring Matt Damon as the queer outsider who mimics his way into the white straight elite.

“Seeing gay erotica on-screen in a studio movie completely changed me. But it also was inspiring," he said. "Hopefully, the way I've succeeded in talking about the characters is similar to how you would talk about Tom Ripley which is, obviously he's queer, that sort of defines everything he does, but at the same time … the A to B to C to D plot isn't necessarily informed by that. But the characters' emotions are, and that's really exciting to me because I think you unlock new potential in genre. You unlock new character motivations and all of these things that start to feel fresh because 60 years ago, they couldn't quite do it as blatantly as we can now.”

And, bucking modern tropes, the queer women are no angels — rather, they are antiheroes who, in toppling the patriarchy, become as bad as the men, Cooper’s character remarks. That line referenced "the wish fulfillment of seeing a woman succeed, but also the dangers of ambition,” Alvarez said. In Homecoming, the specter of the mythic character of Icarus flying too close to the sun is evoked early on, as is Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

Paradoxically, there is a lot to root for, at least initially, in Chau’s Audrey, who begins as a doormat-secretary surrounded by threshold guardians keeping her from corporate ascent. But as she gains power, she only doubles down on the track of exploitative capitalism that propelled her there in the first place. Judging her, though, is complicated.

“There are some times that LGBT characters are unsavory, but they're also women who are struggling to have a more-than-earned place in their own worlds. And that's something that like Janelle’s character understands that Hong’s doesn't right away,” Alvarez said. “So in a lot of ways, it's about Janelle’s character coaching Hong's to be this more powerful woman to understand it, and then accidentally creating a monster. That was thrilling to me — she becomes the engineer of her own demise. She accidentally turns her lover into a villain.”

Alvarez also recognized the potential implications of a male director, paired with male writers, portraying power-hungry women. He deferred here to his actors, Monáe and Chau, “smart and thoughtful people who are going to have a point of view of what these characters represent so I can also rely on them to make sure that that gender was being treated correctly and portrayed right.”

As a filmmaker — one now in the employ of a large corporation — Alvarez also understands how the need for profit can conflict with the artistic and ethical aspirations of those who work inside of it. “How do you work within that machinery to make something that can transcend it in a way?” Alvarez said. And “how can you show a corporation is just a little bit of like a messy machine that's too big for its own good?” To this end, season 2 shows a lot of the inner workings and characters of the Geist Group; many, like Cooper’s Leonard, are well-meaning players who get caught up in the spokes of growth.

There is also the product itself: a potion of forgetting, which is forced upon some characters but also willingly taken by others. (Its powers are also being marketed to consumers on billboards.) Alvarez recognizes the allure of wanting to forget — especially for people coming from marginalized communities, who may have undergone pain and hardship in ways most have not. As a creative person, there are also projects he’s made that he is tempted to change or wipe clean. But ultimately, he would not drink the juice. "The power of getting older for me is about understanding that those things are reflections of who you are in that time and that’s special," he said.

However, “I also am very privileged and lucky. I say that from a comfortable place. I have never suffered compared to what others have," he added. "So all I can do is, in turn, take pride and appreciate that I can be an out professional in this world. It took a lot of hard work of other people in previous generations to do that. For me, I see it as a privilege, being gay, and also getting to be gay in an industry that … sees the value in creative people.

“Sure, I live in this little Eden mystic beautiful bubble of Los Angeles. But I try to never take that for granted. I try to always be gracious and excited that I get to have a voice as a queer man who gets to make things that get exposed to the whole world. That’s the dream.”

Homecoming is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer below.

Tags: television

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