It’s a bold move to get halfway through your show’s season and then let the audience know the person they’ve been following since the beginning is actually sort of the bad guy. That’s the clever twist unveiled in the fourth episode of Homecoming, and it’s executed with enough interpersonal drama between the narrative’s two major players that it never feels facile or hackneyed. Both Alex and Audrey are complicated characters with multiple layers to their personalities, and in showing the strain on their relationship caused by the increasing overlap of their work lives, the series creates an understanding of Alex’s behavior that prevents her from tipping into cartoonish villain territory.
…But yeah, she’s a bad guy.
To be fair, almost no one’s ethics seem fully unimpeachable. (Well, maybe except for Leonard. He may be cantankerous, but he’s the only one here whose north star is trying to put an end to any potential harm caused by his company and its invention.) The episode title is “Soap,” and it’s no coincidence that’s the product Geist used to make before embroiling itself in this new web of complications with the memory drug. Soap symbolizes cleanliness, a chance to wash off whatever dirt has accumulated and start fresh. Leonard wants the company to get back to basics, to wash away the stain on its actions caused by the Homecoming project. Audrey has the best of intentions—she thinks the drug has helped her, and wants to help others—but it’s clear that nothing the Department of Defense will do with it is going to be good in the long run. She’s letting herself be talked into seeing only the personal benefits that will come with going along to get along. She just wanted Colin’s office, but has no idea how messy it’s about to get. She’ll be wishing they had stuck with soap, after all.
“Soap” continues the flashback that began in the last episode, as Audrey begins the responsibility of running Geist’s cooperation with the government’s investigation into Homecoming. It turns out to be far easier than anyone anticipated: After hearing that none of the men in the project have subsequently complained or had issues with anything that happened to them, Joan Cusack’s mysterious military official, Bunda, pulls a plug on the hearing, wrapping it up just as it’s beginning. It all seems too good to be true, and it is: Bunda shows up at Geist and announces her intent to have the government effectively take control of the resources Geist used to develop its serum. “We need it, which means it’s ours,” she says, a my-way-or-the-highway announcement that shows the Pentagon’s “partnership” with Geist will be anything but. Cusack is perfectly cast here, off-putting but with just the right amount of brittle authority to convey a warped sense of intimidation, which drives Geist away but preys on Audrey’s insecurity in order to facilitate a takeover that might otherwise have been resisted by Leonard. Because her analogy is imperfect: You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube, but this tube is still full, and it’s sitting right in front of them—they don’t have to take off the cap. As we know from the present-day scenario, Leonard loses this fight.
But the heart of this episode belongs to the conversations between Alex and Audrey, highlighting their tense relationship. Hong Chau and Janelle Monáe both shine in these scenes, letting ever so slight amounts of tension linger in the words and gestures they use with each other—just enough to show that these characters are trying to paper over some fault lines in their romance that are bigger than either one wants to admit. It’s one thing when Alex keeps pushing Audrey to channel her professional ambition and allow some moral grey area into her actions; that aligns with Audrey’s desire for workplace success and authority, a compromise she’s willing to make in the name of succeeding in the corporate environment she’s convinced she can conquer. But it’s quite another when Alex tries to steamroll over her partner in their personal life as well, attempting to gloss over Audrey’s concerns about having a baby with blanket assurances that it will all be fine. Chau smartly underplays the force of Audrey’s personal concerns, such that Alex is blind to the depth of her partner’s reservations, but the audience sees them clearly.
This is best represented in Alex’s monologue about how she deals with the worst of humanity in her job, that she swims in the “lowest of low behavior” on a daily basis. She thinks she’s making a point that she knows how to take care of them no matter what. But Audrey’s reaction shows that a different sort of point is being made: Alex doesn’t care enough about Audrey’s feelings. And Alex thinks that she can swim in this terrible behavior without it affecting her at home, that she’s a different person in her relationship, that she doesn’t carry the stain of her immoral work behavior into her private life. (Again, “soap” is a telling title.) By the time Audrey learns that Walter Cruz is trying to find out what was done to him, we know where this is heading. Alex tells her partner that Bunda wants her to make this problem disappear—“She needs the past to go away,” as Alex puts it—and the crisis manager decides to take care of Walter for both of them. She uses all sorts of language to try and make Audrey feel okay about it, saying they’re actually giving Walter aid, helping him to have an out before he gets in too deep and causes problems, but we’ve seen Alex at work before. She’s the bad guy here, trying to stop an innocent man from learning the truth for purely selfish reasons.
Alvarez’s direction showcases this in all the right ways, including that slow pull into the motel window, as Alex finishes putting on her fake tattoo and readies her phony narrative. All this falsehood in service of what she thinks is the right thing to do, but her years of working for the worst of the worst have blinded her to her own complicity in evil acts. And now the false narrative is about to overtake her real one, as the outcome of this meeting with Walter will strip her of the knowledge of her own identity—in some ways, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Walter’s story accelerates here, too. Stephan James is keeping a tight lid on his character’s internal concerns, or at least he was until that scene at the VA office. It’s such a simple issue—there’s a screen that can tell him exactly what he wants to know, but he’s not allowed to look at it—and Walter’s frustration is so understandable, the viewer can even relate to his impulsive decision to yank the monitor out from the clerk, though it gets him jailed. The unjust nature of the situation is stark, and yet here comes Alex, ready to bail him out and make everything more complicated. Homecoming is finally about to bring the past up to date with the present, and it’s like watching a car accident in slow motion—you know the outcome’s not going to be good, but it’s so compelling, you can’t look away.
- Alex not only went ahead and picked out a sperm donor without letting Audrey be part of the process, she’s got a name picked out, too.
- This really is an excellent depiction of an unhealthy relationship, both in Chau and Monae’s performances and in some nice scripting by writer Casallina Kisake. Audrey: “But what if—” Alex: “But what if what.”
- Chris Cooper gets some of the best lines, though, especially when Leonard is refuting Audrey’s plans. “Man, you need to learn to read a room.” I also like that he serves her a “9-grain mush—it’s not good or anything, but you won’t be hungry again for days.”
- Joan Cusack really reminding everyone why she’s a national treasure: “You’d be compensated. Like, out the ass.”
- In case you were wondering, goat nuts are nicknamed that because they look like goat testicles. And Leonard would know.
- Baseless speculation corner: We’re pretty much up to date on things now, so my only question is, what do you think is gonna clue Walter in to the fact that Alex isn’t who she says she is? I think she’s gonna screw up some odd detail about military life, which leads to him dosing her drink with the serum.