If you’ve seen a thing, you’ve seen Shea Whigham. The character actor has the kind of tough-grimace face that invites law-enforcement typecasting, a cop here, a government agent there. But there’s a wounded quality to Whigham’s performance style, a pathos that can be poignant or hilarious.
He was a bit of both on Boardwalk Empire, where he played ever-embattled younger brother Eli Thompson. Initially a corrupt joke, Eli became one of the most fascinating characters on the mob series, growing more paradoxically endearing as his sins rabbitholed him toward lonely melancholy. His brilliance there made Whigham a constant presence on television in the last few years. He had a devastating scene in the first True Detective, was a preening gasbag on the third Fargo, was somehow also the sweetest dope ever on Vice Principals. He’s worked with Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, David O. Russell, Terrence Malick. He’s in the Marvel Universe, the Furious universe, the Kongzilla universe, and the very fun film where Liam Neeson punched that plane.
The first time Whigham appears in Homecoming, the great new mystery series on Amazon Prime, he seems to be playing a familiar role. His Thomas Carrasco is from the Department of Defense, has been tasked with investigating the strange circumstances involving Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) and the Homecoming facility. Heidi seems nervous about talking to him, and you can’t blame her. There are malevolent forces swirling through Homecoming‘s world. What’s Carrasco all about?
The truth comes quickly, and it’s the first essential revelation in a season full of unexpected turns. Carrasco’s not a conspiracy shadowman, some villain pulling omniscient government-y strings. He’s a box-checker in an investigative bureaucracy, working with zero resources, granted no power by a government that seems fearful of taking too much responsibility. Director Sam Esmail’s camera finds Carrasco amidst endless rows of cubicles. Creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz craft his narrative with clever attention to banal detail. Hunting for important records, Carrasco discovers that the requisite documents are slated for digitalization in a few presidential terms. So he has to find the documents himself, in a Raiders of the Lost Arky warehouse whose filling system would baffle Borges.
I’ve felt for a long time now that television has lost track of how to portray crimesolving onscreen. The average network procedural grants swaggering detective squads infinite resources and computerized data screens full of helpful plot points. Even brilliant crime dramas like Hannibal or early seasons of Sherlock or the recent Mindhunter have their own odd tic, pathologizing the act of investigation into an all-encompassing character trait, half tragic flaw and half superpower. (To say nothing of Fargo or True Detective, where policemen get Arthurized into cosmic hero-hood.) We’re missing the awareness that detective work is work: Challenging, rewarding, perplexing, requiring patience and diligence.
Homecoming goes in a lot of directions, and past a certain point even talking about the plot is a spoiler. But Whigham’s Carrasco is the steadiest presence on the series. He’s drawn to the case for reasons even he can’t quite explain. You feel he knows that something has happened — something bad, even something terrible. His boss seems disinterested, reminds him he has a lot of other work to do. There’s a sense that he’s incentivized not to care too much — and so the fact that he does start to care counts as a mythic triumph. Whigham sells all this with deadpan charisma, and there’s an electric thrill watching him dig deeper into the mystery of the Homecoming Facility. (His final sequence is one of the very best character exits in recent TV history.)
Will Whigham be recognized for his great turn? The role’s not showy, and Homecoming is very new. With the Golden Globe nominations coming next week, this could be the prime moment for his star to rise. The Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor is a crowded TV category, covering all ten thousand scripted dramas, comedies, and miniseries.
But the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has revealed a liking for rookie Amazon Prime series in the past — and they’ve nominated fellow Esmail favorite Christian Slater for the Supporting Actor prize every year of Mr. Robot‘s eligibility. The fact that Roberts gives such a dynamite performance (or three!) in the series will certainly bring some HFPA eyeballs in Homecoming‘s direction. I hope they’ll take notice of Whigham. The show’s twisty narrative takes wild turns toward sky-high surrealism, and it wouldn’t work without Whigham’s quiet no-bull humanity. Homecoming is lucky to have him, just like pretty much every other TV show and movie this decade.