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How ‘Homecoming’ uses real events to heighten its horror

Spoilers for Homecoming: Season 1 lie ahead.

Very few Americans serve in the United States Armed Forces. 

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, approximately 1.2 million citizens—less than 0.5% of the U.S. population—were recorded as active military personnel in 2016. At present, that relatively high number reflects the world’s third largest armed force. But it could be dropping fast.

Lacking motivation, obesity rates, and a competitive civilian job market are among many factors that have contributed to what military experts are forecasting to be a recruitment crisis for the United States military. With fewer young men and women voluntarily enlisting, our defense forces could soon be facing, as retired Major General Dennis Laich calls it, a war for which “no one showed up on our side.”

Homecoming, Prime Video’s new thriller series, proposes a nightmarish “solution” to this complicated and alarming human resources issue—painting a portrait that, when put in the context of recent events, seems almost too real.

Julia Roberts heads up the series as Heidi Bergman, a counselor to male veterans at “Homecoming Transitional Support Center.” On the surface, her job is to help service members who are returning to the States as they develop PTSD coping mechanisms.

Deeper down, the series soon reveals, is a plot to “recycle” soldiers by permanently altering their memories. Rather than addressing the horrors these men have seen through talk therapy, the treatment center and a complicit Bergman dose the men under facility care with high levels of a dangerous, experimental drug. 

As a result, particularly stressful recollections are entirely erased from the patients’ memories, leaving large holes in their accounts of active military service. The complicated emotional narratives that accompany the tense drama can be likened to those of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Netflix’s Maniac.

Homecoming’s mastermind, Colin Belfast (played by Bobby Cannavale) pitches this “PTSD cure” to the Department of Defense as a means for getting servicemen through more tours. Belfast’s proposal hides the unethical, horrific realities of the treatment and is subsequently applauded by bureaucrats and veterans alike. 

Veterans’ services have a history of sorely lacking accountability and disturbing, inhumane standards of care. 

Trivialization and mistreatment of military members is not unexplored territory for science fiction writers. Black Mirror‘s “Men Against Fire” and Edward Neumeier’s 1997 film Starship Troopers are just two of many narratives that have handled the topic well. 

But Homecoming‘s grounded depiction and true-to-life conclusion elevates the storyline to an eerily realistic and familiar place.

As the appalling cover-up begins to unravel, Belfast confronts and belittles an investigator.

“You’re the important man here. Do you want to arrest me?” he goads. “You’re gonna go back to your desk and file it, like a good little clerk. It’s gonna be the greatest moment of your life. You know how fucking pathetic that is? You’re so eager to forget the truth—that you’re that insignificant. You work. You talk. Nothing happens and nobody listens.”

More than a few killer lines for Cannavale, this venomous monologue highlights a sickening reality many veterans know all too well: Veterans’ services have a history of lack of accountability and disturbing, inhumane standards of care. And when it comes to addressing these horrible wrongdoings, justice can come at a bafflingly slow pace.

The Veterans Health Administration scandal of 2014 is an incident of recent memory which effectively exemplifies this bureaucratic nightmare. Falsified records by Veterans Affairs officials concealed excessively long wait times for disabled veterans seeking medical attention. CNN reported that 40 U.S. veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, a startling fact many advocates used to lay blame at the steps of the VHA. 

Following the scandal, then Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned and former President Obama shepherded in legislative reform for the department. But the consequence remained; justice simply took too long. Homecoming uses that haunting reality to drive its upsettingly underwhelming conclusion home. 

Homecoming uses that haunting reality to drive its upsettingly underwhelming conclusion home. 

Just as Belfast’s snide remarks foreshadowed, the resolution of Homecoming‘s events is notably dissatisfying. While Belfast, a private industry player, is penalized by his company, the show’s finale reveals very little consolation for the men harmed by his actions. Wrapped in a tapestry of red tape and clouded by an opaque assignment of responsibility, the ambiguous end of this saga indicates that PR damage control will be plenty, but direct reparations will be sparing. 

Homecoming‘s Twilight Zone-esque visit to this real-life nightmare is an upsetting, but effective case of art imitating life. As was the case with the 2014 VHA scandal, the civilians surrounding Homecoming’s veteran mistreatment seem all too willing and ready to move on when faced with an issue that does not directly impact their safety or happiness.

What are we to make of the cynical statement? With a Season 2 in the works, Homecoming is sure to continue its reflection on inhumane treatment and may even champion the victims of its freshman season with some delayed justice. 

But in the meantime, as the fledgling series gains more attention and viewers, those who truly appreciate its message can turn their eyes towards the news. As President Trump continues to  make changes within the VA, Homecoming is asking us to pay attention—and protect those who have protected us. 



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