In the small town that serves as The Returned’s setting, the soil is crumbling beneath the population’s feet. Not literally, of course. This is not a series that does symbolism sloppily—with the exception of the gash in Lena’s back. Because, c’mon: It’s obviously a manifestation of family secrets rising to the surface. Or it’s a sympathy wound inflicted during the bus crash. One additional theory: It’s a biotechnological method of brainwashing her into destroying Videodrome. Even when The Returned appears like it’s being overly literal, there’s a lot of surface to scrape away.
The stress fractures forming in this universe’s reality turn into full-on cracks in “Victor,” and it’s an alternately fascinating and unsettling sight. The episode doesn’t play cheap “Gotcha!” games with its characters or its viewers—every little accepted truth that gets turned on its head has a cause or a purpose, be it narrative tension or a strong character beat. Besides, as the townsfolk go deeper through the looking glass, it gets difficult to pass something like the circumstances of Ms. Payet’s death (set up as a murder, revealed to be a suicide) or the turn of phrase shared by a masked robber and Pierre (“What about a song you could sing in your head? A song from school”) off as a cheap shock. For confirmation of the seismic shift that’s occurring within this community, look no further than the way the gendarmerie shrug off the reason for Lucy’s popularity with the locals. As far as the list of weird shit the cops have heard in the last few days, tales of a sexual clairvoyant working out of the Lake Pub’s back room ranks low.
This isn’t a tragedy on the scale of the bus accident. This isn’t a serial killer holding an entire town hostage. What’s happening here defies easy explanation—and for that it’s far more terrifying and far more reality-rending.
When it’s not ripping a long, weeping eyelid of remorse up Lena’s back—oh, there’s The Returned showing its stripes as a work of contemporary French horror—“Victor” takes a lighter hand in tearing at the fabrics of its civilization. It’s an attack on multiple fronts—a big, big positive, considering how some of the episode’s victims could be read as The Returned stirring up moral panic. Family is the first to fall, with an upbeat Jerome-and-Claire scene foreshadowing domestic doom like the bloody handkerchief in the hand of a soon-to-be victim of tuberculosis. Things have been far from rosy in the Seguret household, but the implication that Jerome played some part in Lena’s injury is too much for their fragile truce. This motif is echoed over at Julie’s flat, where the tiny family unit she’s built with Victor gets torn up—but at least it meets a less violent end than Victor’s biological family.
It’s all part of this sense that no pre-Returned institution can be trusted. “Julie” put the dramatic irony of Thomas’ surveillance activity in place; in “Victor,” it becomes ironic irony when Adele and her daughter end up looking right back at him. The town Thomas oversees is full of men like him, guys who insist that they know what’s right and what’s best for their fellow citizens—but each passing episode of The Returned illustrates that they’re full of shit. It’s for that reason that I’m not prepared to swallow Thomas’ line on Simon’s death, even with the chilling sketch that accompanies it. Town officials insist the answers they seek are out there: For the reservoir, for Lucy’s attack. Unfortunately, they’re focused on finding the answer that’s the most convenient to their purposes. That puts Thomas in contention with Jean-Francois, whose faith tells him that answers don’t behave this way. The Returned aren’t angels, and they’re not ghosts either. We haven’t dreamed up the box in which to put these creatures. They’re beyond our comprehension.
This would all be a lot of ponderous mumbo jumbo if there wasn’t such a talented cast on hand to channel all the emotional complexities. The big argument between Jerome and Claire forms the centerpiece of “Victor,” with Anne Consigny’s gut-wrenching reactions clearing away the paranormal activity to remind us there’s a human core to this story. She’s proving more and more to be the keystone of The Returned, the important grounding force within a series that’s so frequently ethereal. Lending her a hand in that duty is Clotilde Hesme, who has a more restrained break when Thomas tells her about the little white lie from her wedding day. The Returned wouldn’t work half as well as it does if these shell-shocked people weren’t being so convincingly shaken up again.
At the midpoint of the first season, this is The Returned fully embracing its nightmare status. (And that cold open is framed like a bad dream itself, so we can’t even take it as a legitimate telling of Victor’s death just yet.) It works by dream logic, the rules of which shift, change or adapt with every episode. If you want answers, you’ll find The Returned incredibly frustrating; I think that’s why the show has such sympathy with the philosophies of Jean-Francois. There are an infinite number of mysteries out there, the series argues, and we must find comfort in our limited ability to solve them. It’s good for the viewer and bone-chilling for the characters, upon whom the unknown is descending at a rapid clip. They should sing a song in their head. Maybe something from school.
- What’s happening to the reservoir? It appears to be draining into the local power plant, and those robots that were mentioned last week couldn’t do a goddamn thing about it.
- This week’s zombie that’s not a zombie: 1979’s Zombie. Not a zombie, but a film—and not a film originally titled Zombie, either. In its native Italy, Lucio Fulci’s splatter classic is Zombi 2, an unofficial sequel to Dawn Of The Dead, which was marketed international as Zombi. Confusing? Yes. Disgusting? Most certainly. The source of cinema’s finest zombie versus shark battle? You better believe it. (Link NSFW.)