The Returned takes place in something of a dream state, which is a difficult tone for a television narrative to sustain. Dreams shift, they have no internal logic, and any fiction hoping to be dreamlike must give itself up to these qualities. As such, there’s a tension for TV shows that aim for that kind of mood and atmosphere, because a compelling series can’t entirely drift into the ether—there has to be something grounding the stories, the characters, and the emotional through lines.
Predecessors to The Returned like Twin Peaks have found their grounding in dense mythologies. I’d be hard-pressed to lay out a detailed account of how BOB, Mike, The Man From The Other Place, and The Black and White Lodges relate to one another, but I can say that knowing of their existence makes sense of the more outlandish happenings within the Twin Peaks city limits. But The Returned is more evasive than all that. When Pierre is visited by Victor in his sleep at the top of “Adele,” the boy doesn’t drop anything like Twin Peaks’ “convenience store” monologue on his supposed protector. The boy just takes the man by the hand, leads him out to the lake, and says “Isn’t it pretty?” But what’s pretty? The notion of life after death? The sparkles reflecting off the lake shore? Or is it the slow-dawning fact that the water now covers what used to be Victor and Pierre’s hometown? The dream isn’t saying, just as it’s not letting on if it’s a prophetic vision or a nocturnal fluke.
So if there’s no mythology to cling to as the tides of The Returned grow ever higher, what can the viewer rely on? In my experience with the first seven episodes, three thematic constants recur—all three of which play a huge role in “Adele.” In addition to ever-present ideas about maternity (which only play into the bookends of tonight’s episode), here are some thoughts on three of the four constants of The Returned.
There are so many heartbreaking shots of The Returned alone in the frame in “Adele”; Victor and Camille’s turns in the 16:9 cell arrive in back-to-back camera setups. This is The Returned at its most literal, but it’s not as if these isolated states are an invention of “Adele.” Many of this first season’s most poignant passages have hinged on the ways in which people set themselves off from the rest of humanity, the petty divisions and insurmountable differences that leave so many in this mountain town lonely. For evidence that this extends beyond The Returned, check out the way that Jerome appears locked out of The Helping Hand before Claire goes to retrieve him. Or better yet, set your sights on the vertical line falling between Camille and Claire during their scene in the dormitory.
When it comes to the series’ living characters, “Adele” is crammed with deeply gutting confessions of loneliness as well. Describing an existential crisis whose answer becomes more concrete with every piece of skin that The Returned shed, Julie details the separation she’s felt since her attack: “For years, I’ve felt incapable of living.” That’s rough stuff, but that feeling doesn’t set Julie off from her friends and neighbors quite how she thinks it does. For in isolation, there’s a togetherness as well. Without Laure, Julie may have considered herself an island, but she’s been living the same sort of existence as Toni. The Lake Pub bartender had to bury his brother and his mother, and over the course of “Adele,” both leave him behind all over again.
And the town itself is geographically isolated—and it’s only growing more so if “Adele’s” climactic road trip is any indication. That isolation is an old horror trick with which The Returned has done wonders, heightening the general sense of dread and driving home the impression that these strange events are exclusively affecting this one community. And while some pieces of that community have been involuntarily detached from one another, there’s now a growing movement, led by Pierre and his supposed prophecy, to hole up in The Helping Hand. If only everyone at the Koretskys’ funeral knew what awaits them below ground.
Dreams don’t let the dreamer settle in for very long. They’re a series of rugs being pulled out from under your feet, and The Returned absolutely nails that sensation. I feel like I’ve written a half-dozen variations on this observation throughout the show’s first season, but it strikes me that The Returned rewrites its rulebook with every new episode. The show is heavily serialized, but you can delineate each individual hour with the way it disproves some previously held belief or notion. It’s a sort of “If this is true, then what else is true?” method of writing television, a domino effect that begins the moment the first body emerges from a tomb.
But while the rules change and the nature of The Returned’s supernatural elements shift every week, many of the characters stay resolute. Pierre is the most extreme version of this, but it’s part of Simon, too. In bullheaded insistence and a shared love interest, Simon and Thomas are set up to be mirror images of one another—but I wonder now if Simon isn’t meant to reflect a little bit of Pierre as well. Simon keeps putting himself in harm’s way because he wants to understand why he came back, and he does so with the understanding that the answer is out there. Pierre exudes certainty—“I’m sure Lena is safe,” he tells a worried Claire early in the episode, and it’s hard to find comfort there because he’s about talk about Armageddon with the same conviction—but The Returned keeps arguing against him. Sure, there are answers, but they can’t be so simple.
Uncertainty is scary, but the sort of certainty that Pierre expresses is even scarier. This is the source of The Returned’s most unsettling juke. The characters do some Spielberg-level staring into the distance in “Adele,” but whatever they come across when the camera changes perspectives can never quite match the pronouncements of Pierre or Mrs. Costa. Or the assuredness that once more flashes across Lucy’s face, this time happy to have found her calling as a guardian angel to a crowd of people just like her. Didn’t we already cross that dam? We won’t know for sure until we cross it again.
This is a new one, relatively speaking, but it finally hits with full force in “Adele.” And it may be the one thing holding true from the Time Before The Returned: Everything breaks down eventually. Systems of belief, families, the concrete keeping the reservoir in check: Nothing lasts forever. Not even the seemingly invulnerable walking corpses we’ve been following the past two months. Whatever was happening to Victor’s arm last week is now having an effect on Camille’s face and Simon’s abdomen—and everything around them as well.
There’s some real nasty body horror material introduced in “Adele,” taking the form of rotting flesh, internal bleeding, and bodies otherwise revolting against their owners. It starts with the animal corpses Toni and Serge find in the woods and ends with Simon snacking on a piece of his own belly bacon, and it’s all The Returned’s most visceral representation of things falling apart. If Pierre turns out to be on the right path, these wounds—and Sandrine and Chloe suffering attacks from within—will be symbolic of that decline.
For now, however, I’m taking them as an illustration of a painful truth related by this episode’s eponymous character. “Angels can’t stay on Earth,” Adele tells Chloe, and for once, the show looks to prove one of its characters right. An ending will come to all things, as the first season of The Returned will see next week.
- What’s going on with the reservoir?: Oh, you know—it’s probably going to swallow the town whole. And maybe it’s just the differing camera angles, but the water level looks much, much lower when Laure’s car makes its second pass over the dam.
- This week’s zombie who’s not a zombie: Imhotep, the fictional undead Egyptian priest who’s terrorized the protagonists of Universal horror films for more than 80 years. Imhotep: Once dead, not a zombie—but probably in possession of some dressings for those festering sores that are popping up all over The Returned.