In the end, The Returned refuses to offer any easy answers. Beyond the portentous, 35-year-old words of Mrs. Costa—“They’ll get their revenge one day”—we don’t know why The Returned came back. We don’t know what the floating animal corpses had to do with The Returned. (But it’s likely they were drowned when the dam burst for the first time.) We don’t know why some of The Returned began to show their “age” through some of the most unsettling TV makeup effects in recent memory. After eight episodes of reanimating corpses and unusual phenomena, what the viewer is left with is something strange and remarkable, but beyond explanation. And in many ways, that mirrors the conclusion of “The Horde.”
The answers simply don’t matter. This isn’t an “answer” show, and that was made abundantly clear early on. In “Julie,” the third episode of season one, the titular character is attacked in the lobby of her apartment building—but when the attack comes to an end, it’s shown that she’s holding the weapon, and the person by her side is not Serge the serial killer but “Victor,” the mysterious boy who may or may not have caused the bus crash depict in the series’ very first scene. For as many times as a character within The Returned insists that there’s a reason, explanation, or cause for one occurrence or another, it’s likely that there isn’t. Because of this, The Returned mirrors real life more accurately than some shows that don’t depict the dead returning to life by the dozens. In this world, strange, unfortunate things happen all the time, and it’s rare for any of them to be followed by a satisfying answer.
The A.V. Club wrote about this a lot this year, but Sundance Channel made tremendous strides toward loosening the confines of TV narrative in 2013. Everyone knows that things are supposed to happen within the half-hour or hour-long timeframe of a TV show. What The Returned (like its network companion Rectify) presupposes is… maybe they don’t? Sundance is making an opening for this kind of television within the United States, doing so with a spectacular crop of original and acquired programming. Story isn’t the end all, be all in a visual medium—as The Returned illustrates at every turn, there’s mood, emotion, performance, and cinematography to take into account, too. For all its startling elements, “The Horde,” is also one of the most visually stunning episodes of this first season. On scales epic as well as intimate: The fog-shrouded silhouettes of The Horde won’t soon be forgotten, but neither will the image of Lucy illuminated by spotlight/searchlight.
The episode packs an emotional wallop, too—and being stingy with the answers goes a long way toward increasing that impact. There are moments between mother and daughter, sister and sister, and surrogate mother and surrogate son that mean more because there’s an unknown on the other end of that showdown at The Helping Hand. Much of the first season is wrapped up in feeling the loss of The Returned through subtle changes in the village—here it’s projected through big, messy feelings. Major kudos to series MVP Anne Consigny, who once more displays the raw vulnerability of Claire’s situation (while peeling potatoes, nonetheless) before arming herself in such bravery and resolve during that Close Encounters Of The Third Kind climax.
In particular, that grand finale is a culmination of so much of what The Returned does right in these first eight episodes. I could go on and on about the blocking alone—the same goes for the scene before, when the camera does a long take along the bank of windows in the Helping Hand cafeteria, scanning across tableaus within a tableau as it does so. Like Rectify, I just want to soak in The Returned every time I turn it on—even if its content is less than inviting. But the concepts expressed within the show make those bitter pills more palatable. There’s an idea that incubates throughout the first season of the show and finally hatches in “The Horde,” one that revolves valuing life; file it as a rejoinder under the “decay” heading from last week. In a place so marked by tragedy, it would be tempting to give up. Many have, either through self-medication, suicide, or the more hopeful methods undertaken by Pierre—giving up on corporeal life secure in the knowledge of a glorious, post-apocalyptic ascension. If there’s any sort of conclusion drawn by The Returned’s first season, it’s one about savoring each and every day. Death is more than eager to claim what you have here on this Earth; the Earth is even more willing to take what originally belonged to it, too. The show wants its viewers to value those who give life, too. There’s something to be said for three of the five who leave The Helping Hand being a biological mother and two maternal figures. There’s something further to be said that what The Returned ultimately wanted was Adele and the child she’s now carrying.
This first season of The Returned isn’t perfect: Some characters (like Mrs. Costa) are underserved; some relationships (like Toni and Serge’s) don’t merit the amount of screentime they earn. The show can also be relentlessly grim, rarely leavening the heaviness of its thematic material and narrative content with anything approaching humor. But these eight episodes are as close to perfection as anything I’ve seen on American television this year, and I eagerly await the second season, whenever it arrives Stateside. Because the other thing about not providing all the answers is that it leaves the viewer wanting more—and I’d like more of The Returned, please.
What’s going on with the reservoir?: Oh, that’s going on with the reservoir. Hope the village had a good insurance agency with a range of homeowner’s policies.
This week’s zombie that’s not a zombie: Let’s shuffle into Christmas and New Year’s like Bernie Lomax, the good-time corpse at the center of the Weekend At Bernie’s franchise. Bernie: Sorta dead, sorta animated, but definitely not a zombie.
And, finally, a heartfelt thank you to the small band of you who’ve followed along with these reviews. Perhaps our enthusiasm for the first season can turn this small following into a horde by the time the second season arrives in the United States.