By Tim Winterstein –
I don’t know if the current cultural moment is producing a thematic bounty of what it means to deal with pain and guilt or if it was always equally present. Either way, the idea of what to do with guilt we can’t erase—because we can’t go back and undo it—seems to run through a lot of the films and shows that I’ve written about here. Or maybe those are just the themes that are most fertile for theological reflection, especially when they’re being explored by those who most likely wouldn’t give the answers that Christians would give.
I haven’t gotten to season 2 (or 3) of Mr. Robot, but I wasn’t surprised to see that Sam Esmail was also behind Homecoming (streaming on Amazon Prime). It explores some of the same technocratic themes of surveillance, paranoia, and who has the will and means to control information. Homecoming (at least—again—as far as Mr. Robot‘s first season is concerned) tends to focus in on the more personal and individual fallout from mass-produced lies, rather than the wider societal damage.
Graphically, Homecoming is great. The opening and closing scenes to each (short) episode are unnerving, often because there’s no music, only the sounds of whatever’s going on during the credits. It’s got a nice twist highlighting the fact that however much we often want to blame other people for the situations in which we find ourselves, we’ve contributed much more than we think we have.
The idea that people are doing evil things “for the greater good” isn’t a new one. Neither is the idea that often people would rather have the choice of being worse off mentally, than have the choice about their good made for them. The recent documentary Three Identical Strangers explores that in depth through events that actually happened. Both that documentary and Homecoming make us question assumptions about what is good and what is good for us, in light of how much we know about what control we have over our own choices.
Would we always choose the truth over not knowing, especially if knowing brings greater pain and guilt? That’s the question that Heidi Bergman explores throughout Homecoming. First, is it better or worse for soldiers with horrible memories to have their minds scrubbed of those memories? And then, does the reason for such scrubbing matter? And if she knows the real reason and goal of the work in which she’s engaged—in spite of her truly good intentions—what responsibility does she have? Are her actions cowardly or heroic?
The last scene asks, what if we could go beyond the numbing qualities of drugs and alcohol? What if we could simply erase our bad feelings by erasing the memories that cause them? What would it mean if we were actually able to forget what we’ve done, rather than putting them off for a while until they come roaring back with a vengeance? There are a lot of stories of addiction as the response when we don’t want to deal with what we’ve done or what’s happened to us. But Homecoming asks what it would mean to go one step further.
Finally, if happiness is the ultimate goal of our lives (which many people assume unquestioningly), what if something outside of your control and knowledge seems to make you happier? Wouldn’t that be better? Homecoming suggests not.
There are other themes of bureaucracy and government overreach here, as well as what it actually means to “do good.” But the largest questions seem to be: how much do you want to know? And what will (can) you do with what you know? Those are questions that implicate everything from the most personal to the widest societal relationships. The answers have far-reaching consequences not only for how we act in our own vocations, but also for the roles we assign and assume for government and other institutions.