The now-classic strategy of long thriller series – Breaking Bad, Ozark – is to place characters in crisis and show them sinking ever deeper from season to season. The ploy of Amazon’s conspiracy/mystery drama Homecoming is to place its characters in crisis, then gradually reveal how they got there and exactly what kind of crisis it really is. This is done over a brief span of short, to-the-point episodes – a mere seven for Season 2, averaging roughly 30 minutes. Within that short space, Season 2 takes its time to work up steam, making us wonder, ‘Where is this going?’ – but once the stakes become apparent, the real question is ‘How did we get here?’

The question structures a flashback-based reverse narrative like Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) – and like that film, Homecoming involves amnesiac protagonists. Season 1, based on a podcast written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, starred Julia Roberts as Heidi, a counsellor at Homecoming, a centre supposedly helping US soldiers adjust to civilian life; but it also showed Heidi working as a waitress, with no memory of her job at Homecoming. The series alternated the two stages of Heidi’s life, interspersed with a defence official’s investigation of Homecoming and Geist, the company that ran it.

Less intricate in structure, Season 2 retains some characters, but introduces Janelle Monáe as a new heroine, a woman who finds herself adrift in a boat on a lake, with no idea how she got there or who she is. Identity documents establish that she is a military veteran named Jackie Calico; but after a sluggish start there is a spectacular switcheroo, explored in flashback from Episode 3 on. Rather than a victim, Jackie is really an amoral villain who has already had her comeuppance, and now awaits a spectacular act of redemption.

Meanwhile, another twist reveals that the payoff of Season 1 was misleading. We saw conniving Geist executive Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale) ousted by his put-upon assistant Audrey Temple (Hong Chau); but in this season’s replay of that scene, it emerges that Audrey was simply playacting in a desperate but inspired power-grab. What enabled meek Audrey to do that? Partly the love of a ruthless woman, partly her regular use of a miraculous elixir extracted from a berry grown by company founder Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper). Applied to the skin in a roll-on tube, the stuff can numb pain, reduce stress, turn anxious underlings into hard-nosed players; but it can also induce amnesia. The berries have become “critical military technology”, in the words of defence official Francine Bunda (Joan Cusack, playing it malign and razor-like) – and therefore government property, she declares, taking control of the corporation, which started out as a humble, eco-friendly soap company.

Cooper’s denim-clad, shack-dwelling Leonard appears to be a rare good guy in a world dominated by the unprincipled – except that he’s ineffectual, self-absorbed and callously autocratic. This dusty, cranky old-timer may not be the most plausible image of tarnished 60s idealism, yet Cooper gives him a pithy, leathery edge. He has a wonderful two-handed coda with Cusack’s Bunda: they’re like God and Satan, but both battle-weary, drained of will. The one character that we consistently feel sympathy for is ex-soldier Walter Cruz, determined to unearth his lost history – just as Jackie seeks to unearth hers – but who is cruelly gaslighted by Jackie herself in her pre-amnesiac incarnation. As Walter, Stephan James gives a contained, determined performance, in a more sombre mode than the quizzical, trusting charmer of Season 1.

With its concise episodes, and signature device of end credits over a single sustained image (the berry harvesters, Geist workers dancing in the company atrium), this season retains the dreamlike feel of the first; it also plays some elegant, if arbitrary, stylistic riffs, like a sequence with the camera fixed on a melon that Jackie buys, or Episode 2’s long take, weaving in and out of Audrey’s house while Jackie cases the joint. The director this time is Kyle Patrick Alvarez (13 Reasons Why), taking over from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail (still on board, with Julia Roberts, as executive producer). Season 2 may not have the novelty or complexity of the first, but in its crafty way of establishing an enigma, twisting it smartly then unravelling it at leisure, all in a neat three-and-a-half-hours, it’s still a stylish feat.

It’s also sharply acted, with some players’ manic edge (Hong Chao’s pent-up nerviness, Alex Karpovsky’s comic agitation, Cusack’s supercilious menace and flamboyantly odd hand gestures) working as a foil to Janelle Monáe, the series’ perplexing quiet centre. Her hard, glassy reserve seems frustratingly blank – until we realise that a slate newly wiped blank is precisely what Jackie is.