‘Homecoming’: Why the Amazon Series Abandons Its Source Material Halfway Through Season 1

“We got together and sort of invented this new back half of the storyline,” Sam Esmail tells TheWrap

Julia Roberts Homecoming

(Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first season of Amazon’s “Homecoming”)

Amazon’s adaption of Gimlet Media’s “Homecoming” podcast remains pretty faithful to its source material — until about halfway through. From there, it goes in a completely different direction, completely abandoning the second half of the podcast’s narrative.

“We wanted to intentionally sort of deviate from the podcast at that point,” Sam Esmail, who executive produced the series alongside the podcast’s creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, and directed all 10 episodes, tells TheWrap.

“Homecoming” is based on Bloomberg and Horowitz’s two-season (12 episodes total) podcast for Gimlet Media, which centers on Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center — a facility helping soldiers transition back to civilian life — and her work with one of those soldiers, Walter Cruz (Stephan James). Amazon picked up the show for two seasons, but whatever the second season looks like, it will be different from the podcast’s sophomore campaign.

The “Mr. Robot” creator explains that, since Bloomberg and Horowitz were still working on the second season of their podcast while he was directing the Amazon version, they decided to come up with a completely different version of how the story ends for Bergman. “We got together and sort of invented this new back half of the storyline and new ending for Heidi.”

The series is told over two separate timelines: one in 2018 with Heidi and Walter at Homecoming, and another one in 2022 following a Department of Defense official investigating an incident at the facility involving the two. In the latter, Heidi is now a waitress who has seemingly forgotten everything about her work at Homecoming.

And it’s where that latter timeline ends that Esmail veers off in his own direction, and it’s quite the departure. Amazon’s version ends with Heidi managing to track down Walter, which has yet to happen in the podcast.

“I had only listened to the first six episodes, which sort of end in the middle of the Walter-Heidi story,” says Esmail. “I really wanted to come to some sort of satisfying conclusion of Walter and Heidi’s journey together.”

On the podcast version, Heidi spends the second season reluctantly teaming with the Geist Group to find Walter. Geist is the shadowy conglomerate backing the Homecoming project, which is working to cure military veterans of PTSD by physically erasing painful memories with an experimental drug. While Heidi is initially led to believe this is to help the veterans transition back to civilian life, the twist is that Geist is doing this so they can actually be sent back out into the field.

Once Heidi realizes what Geist’s true motivation is, she drugs herself and Walter, which is why in the future timeline she can’t remember anything about her work at the facility. “To make a straight adaption would sort of defeat the purpose,” said Esmail. “I really wanted it to be its own creature.”

Moving from an audio medium to a visual medium also gave the “Homecoming” team the chance to play around with some of the other elements from the podcast. “Eli, Micah and I really talked surgically on when to expand it in a more cinematic way and when to retain what they did so well in the podcast,” said Esmail.

He pointed to a specific example in the show’s “Optics” episode.

That episode features a subplot where Shrier (Jeremy Allen White), a fellow patient at Homecoming, coerces Walter into a stealing a van with him so they can leave because he’s convinced they’re being lied to about the facility’s location — they’re told it’s in Florida but Shrier doesn’t believe it. When they stumble upon a retirement community located near the facility, they realize that are, in fact, in Florida. In the podcast, this whole sequence is relayed after-the-fact by Walter to Heidi during one of their sessions, but Esmail decided to give viewers of the Amazon series a first-hand account of the failed escape.

“That was a sequence I thought especially would work better if you could actually be with the characters,” Esmail explained, arguing that “tension of all that was gone” when you’re just hearing it explained by Walter. “In adapting it, we were able to expand and dive into that sequence with those characters, and have that kind of suspense and tension throughout of whether Shrier is on to something.”

But there were other instances where Esmail kept things exactly the same as the podcast, including the “Titanic” sequel joke that ends up turning what is initially a fun anecdote into a major plot twist. And as Esmail explains, the TV show plays out that plot thread in the exact same way as the podcast: via the sessions between Heidi and Walter.

In one of the early sessions, Walter is recounting a joke he plays on one of his fellow soldiers about a fake “Titanic” sequel called “Titanic Rising,” but when he’s asked to relay the story again in a later episode, he can’t remember it, proving the drugs are working.

“You listen to a little anecdote a character gives at the beginning of the season, and you take it in as just a little bit of an insight into who this character is,” said Esmail. “Then later, it becomes a huge twist that actually spins the plot in an interesting way. That was something we definitely wanted to retain in the TV show.”