End of Season Report: The Returned

28 Feb

The Returned

I’m about to say something I don’t say particularly often about a season of television.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything remotely like the first season of The Returned. Different aspects of the show do resemble other pieces of culture, but all put together, I can’t put a finger on anything that similar. It took me several episodes before I could even attempt at all to pin down the show’s mood and genre – it was a horror show, then it wasn’t, then it was, then it wasn’t, until, well, very clearly at the end it was.

That being said, I’m not sure how much of a boon its level of uniqueness was, and how much of it was a show that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and maybe lost something because of it. I do like the show, and I do think there’s a lot worth watching for, and especially in the first few episodes, I started to really want to dig further and further into the world.

However, as the show went further on, I wasn’t sure whether I liked the direction it was going in – I liked some decisions, not as much others. The final episode that put me back as unsure of how much I like the show as I was after the first episode, as the events of that episode totally reset the calculus for what to expect going forward. The first season finale could be a completely mysterious stand alone ending, but as there seems to be a second season, I have absolutely no idea where exactly this show is going.

Let’s take a step back. The Returned is about a small French town in which dead locals start coming back to life. The primary “returned’ we see are Camille, a teenager who died in a bus crash, Simon, a depressed man who killed himself on his wedding day, Victor, a little boy, and Serge, a serial killer, who was buried alive by his brother after the brother found out what Serge did.

The four come back, and reengage with their former families with varied results. A lot has changed since each of them has gone, and there’s a lot of old wounds reopened. It’s equally difficult for both the returned and those who remained alive the entire time;. It’s certainly not the fault of the the returned that they’re coming back, and that they’re made to feel like they’re now screwing up everybody’s lives which have finally moved past their tragic deaths seems overly cruel. At the same time, the return is difficult to grapple with for the living. On top of simply making peace with the supernatural angle and lack of science behind the dead returning, the living are afraid to get too close, because they don’t know what’s going on or how long it will last. In the case of Simon, his ex-fiance only learns for the first time that he killed himself, changing the entire way she views his death, which she had thought of merely as an awful tragedy rather than him leaving her in the lurch. In Serge’s case, his brother Toni feels horrible for killing him, even knowing what he’d done, and views his return as some sort of payback/chance to make amends.

On top of this emotional reconnection and family drama, there’s plenty psychological trauma, which is tense and thriller-esque but not necessarily straight out horror. Camille tells parents whose children died as part of the same crash that their children are well and looking forward to seeing them in the afterlife, which leads two of the parents to hang themselves, hoping to reunite with their child. A recent addition to the town, Lucy Clarkson, who came out of nowhere and worked at the local bar (the delightfully named Lake Pub – two of the only English words spoken in the series), communications with men’s dead relatives while having sex with them (that that premise doesn’t come off as as goofy as it sounds is a tribute to the sedate and ominous mood of the show – humor is not an element even in the slightest in The Returned). Hundreds of dead animals have turned up, drowned, after running away from something unidentified, but scarier than the possibility of drowning.

And then, well, there’s the straight out horror. Victor, the little boy, has some sort of ability to make people see visions and inflict pain upon themselves – he’s a version of the horror trope of the creepy kid with powers. Most importantly, the final episode ends with the returned, led by Lucy Clarkson, possibly now a returned herself, after being attacked early in the series by the Returned Serge. The power’s gone out in the town, and the townsfolk, along with Camille and Victor, are gathered in the local shelter for those in need. The returned demand that the townspeople hand over  Camille and Victor. The townspeople, disappointingly comply, without a fight, led by police officer Thomas, my least favorite character in the show who I was constantly rooting against. After they’ve handed them over, the townspeople buckle down inside the shelter, while policemen guard on the outside. When they open the door after a tumultuous night, they find the policemen all gone and the town entirely flooded. Season over.

I repeat, I have absolutely no fucking idea what to make of this series. I am pretty sure I prefer the first two dynamics I mentioned to the out and out horror – the ending is creepy as all fuck, but less satisfying to me, though admittedly I’m not a horror junkie. I like the show best when it’s playing on the deeper emotional themes stirred by the returned. I did enjoy the first leap towards darkness – the parents’ hanging themselves gave me exactly the sort of chills which I was looking for here, which was a horrific image rooted in a somewhat understandable reaction. The supernatural mingles with the real, and there’s an affecting punch that really resonates. The horde of dead come to claim their brethren from the living? It’s terrifying but it doesn’t really work with those themes I enjoyed from the early episodes about the powers of time and loss..

I’ll be watching the second season, if only to know where this is going and what’s coming next. Less so directly next, in a cliffhanger fashion, and more in, just what direction is all of this headed in. The Returned was interesting, very original, and very ominous; I just wish it had held back one degree from going full horror, which I would think would have made for more nuanced and ambiguous place for the show to live.

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