It’s hard to praise The Returned without instantly alienating potential converts.
The French series may technically be a zombie show, but it features few special effects and hardly any gore. It airs on Sundance, a channel many viewers either don’t have in their cable packages or don’t know they do (though the eight-episode first season is available on Netflix). Its closest analogue may be The Leftovers, a show so divisive even a comparison meant as a compliment, like this one, can read as a dis. And, oh yeah, the entire thing is subtitled!
But make no mistake: The Returned is one of the most engrossing, gorgeously told stories on television, and those who waited two full years for a second installment, as I did, will find it was well worth the wait, as I did. Those who haven’t seen the first season yet, meanwhile, still have plenty of time to binge through it before the premiere goes live on Halloween night.
Like The Leftovers, The Returned tracks the aftermath of a supernatural event in terms of its characters’ emotional lives, not an investigation into what caused said event in the first place. In fact, The Returned is an almost perfect inverse of its American cousin. On The Leftovers, people disappear into thin air; on The Returned, people reappear out of it. While The Departure is a global event, however, the events of The Returned are limited to a small town in the French Alps, lending the series a claustrophobia that’s one of the many horror elements the series incorporates without ever quite becoming a horror show. It’s certainly as far from Ryan Murphy as it’s possible to get.
At the start of Season 1, people who died unnatural deaths — suicide in one case, live burial and a bus crash in others — start to “return,” with no memory of dying in the first place. Slowly, both the living and the dead begin to realize what’s happened, and the plot crystallizes around several families, both traditional and makeshift. Twin sisters Léna (Jenna Thiam) and Camille (Yara Pilartz), now four years apart, negotiate their new relationship; Adéle (Clotilde Hesme) embraces, then rejects, the musician ex-fiancé (Pierre Perrier) she lost to suicide; nurse Julie (Céline Sallette) adopts an eerie young boy (Swann Nambotin) — again with the horror tropes — who appears to have powers beyond coming back to life.
Now, however, the unnamed town’s new status quo has become institutionalized. After the sudden flood that capped off last season, the returned have officially seceded, forming a village across the newly formed lake under the leadership of the mysterious Lucy Clarsen (Ana Girardot). The emphasis on individual pain still remains, but with the makeshift community on one side of the floodwaters and a military investigation on the other, the town has started to react on a collective level as well.
That’s mostly it for overarching plot, because The Returned, like an increasing number of series (including, you guessed it, The Leftovers), is more than anything an atmosphere. A collection of stories, like Camille’s growing tension with her mother or another returned’s attempt to overcome his violent past, play out on a hyper-specific level, but they’re tied together by Mogwai’s custom-made, melancholy score and increasingly eerie visuals.
Co-directors Fabrice Gobert, who created the series and also co-wrote every episode, and Frédéric Goupi are experts at setting a mood that’s unsettling without being suspenseful, and aware of its influences without copying them. The classic abandoned cityscape of every post-apocalypse ever made is interrupted by a gorgeous, lumbering stag, and Adéle’s relationship with her newborn son is illustrated with a series of indirect shots straight out of the Rosemary’s Baby reveal — except the child is perfectly normal, making the scenes an illustration of Adéle’s psychological state rather than her baby’s deformity. The flooded town, in particular, proves fertile ground for loaded, evocative imagery: in one scene, the newly returned are ferried across the lake on a makeshift barge, River Styx-style, passing through street lamps that stick out just above the water’s surface on the way.
It’s stylistic touches like these that make The Returned so hypnotic, and it’s the absence of them that doomed A&E’s short-lived American remake to failure. More akin to Top of the Lake, its Sundance sibling, than The Walking Dead, The Returned remains focused on its broader themes, including motherhood, grief, and the enduring hold of the past even as it ratchets up the genre elements. There’s no moment that captures this approach better than the one where we finally learn why some of the returned really do look and act like zombies, even as others seem to be normal, if undead, people. “It’s because no one was waiting for them,” a new friend tells Camille. “No one was expecting them to return.” On The Returned, even the world-building hinges on the characters’ feelings.