The Returned displays a healthy skepticism toward easy answers. All along, it insists that there’s a reason that the dead are returning to life in this mountainside village, but the brewing conflicts and snarling relationships won’t be waved away by answering the show’s big “how?”s and “why?”s. “Lucy” puts a new spin on this wariness by applying it to the show’s notions of fact and fiction. Is Camille telling the truth to the parents of her late classmates, or is she just talking about bright lights and peaceful souls in order to appease them? Is Julie truly the “fairy” protector Victor’s mother foretold, or has he convinced himself it’s so? Both of these characters are still young enough that we can’t accurately describe their mind games as “delusions.” They’re two sides of the same coin of trust: The parents and Victor accept these “truths” with minimal evidence because they want to believe in them. Whether the show makes a ruling one way or the other is immaterial.
It’s an intriguing obsession for a television show to tackle—intriguing on both sides of the screen. The Returned withholds information from its characters, but never out of a sense that these secrets are powering the narrative. The narrative is powered by people, the people are informed by whip-smart writing, confident direction, and dynamic performances—mystery is merely an added texture on top of on-point creative decisions like Camille and Lucy’s parallel-yet-diverging methods of consoling the grieving. In the process, that gives the viewer plenty to chew on: How is what Lucy related to Jerome in the back room of the Lake Pub any more trustworthy than what Camille tells Mr. and Mrs. Koretsky at the Helping Hand? Unreliable narration is afoot, promising a great deal of consequence. And because of that questionable reliability, when The Returned starts doling out its answers, they don’t wash away the foundation of what makes the show so great.
Case in point: The way it applies questions of fact and fiction to the memories of its characters. Death is a subject inextricably tied to memory, and The Returned are themselves memories made flesh and bone. It’s not entirely fear that flashes across the faces of the bus-crash victims’ parents when Camille descends that staircase. It’s also envy, a sickly green hue given voice by Sandrine’s “Why you?” All she has is memory—Claire and Jerome have their daughter.
But it’s not the daughter who left them, not really—this experience has changed Camille. Similarly, the kid who exists only in Sandrine’s head isn’t the person that boarded that ill-fated bus. Memory can be reshaped, and The Returned doesn’t shy away from that malleability. When Thomas returns from the morgue for some good old-fashioned family time alibi corroboration (but does it really count as a murder if the victim is already dead?), he attempts to rejigger his future stepdaughter’s memory with some bullpucky about self-defense. Chloe’s too precocious for such shenanigans—“Why do I have to lie?” she responds—but the point is made. Any unpleasantness in this world can be recalled as pleasantness; anything conveniently forgotten can be remembered for you wholesale. The citizens’ everyday activities are being stored on a computer in Thomas’ office, after all.
It might appear that Lucy puts the lie to that notion in her eponymous episode, but the fact that she so accurately recalls Serge’s face is more about delineating her genuine clairvoyance from the Crossing Over With John Edwards routine Camille is pedaling. (At the insistence of Pierre—one more kick to the patriarchy’s ribs courtesy of The Returned.) After lying motionless in a hospital bed for the past four episodes, it’s bracing to hear so much from Ana Girardot in “Lucy,” and she imbues her character with an otherworldly sense of knowledge and purpose. On a show where the genuine protectors are never those who anoint themselves—something about Pierre’s zeal for gathering The Returned just doesn’t sit right with me—Girardot projects enough self-assurance to back up that “guardian angel” claim. It’s possible that Victor’s memory is playing tricks on him, putting him in allegiance with the wrong victim of Serge’s blade, but Julie’s instincts are treating him just fine (where apparently rotting arm skin isn’t concerned, at least). And besides: Celine Sallette has never once flashed the kind of devilish look Lucy gives Simon when she encounters him in the hospital corridor.
The upturned corners of Girardot’s mouth help make “Lucy” the most straightforwardly scary episode of The Returned to date—though scary is always relative here. More accurately, “Lucy” is suspenseful, it’s eerie, and it draws from a reliable stable of horror tropes: flickering lights, POV shots, empty tombs, bodies rising from metal lockers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the manner in which determination gives way to delight in that scene between Girardot and Pierre Perrier really sells “Lucy”’s aim of soothing and unsettling its characters’ nerves. “The Monkey’s Paw” set the gold standard for suggesting that what’s dead ought to stay dead, an idea American Horror Story: Coven is currently toying with by killing and reviving its entire cast at random intervals. But The Returned zigs where those works—and, by extension, Pet Sematary—zag by presenting walking corpses that aren’t outwardly horrifying. They’re just unnerving in theory, as attested by the alternating labels that are applied to Lucy, Camille, Simon, et al. in “Lucy”: monster or miracle, ghost or angel. That true nature remains up in the air, though the mob Lena encounters in the woods threatens to push the conclusion one way or the other.
Until then, what The Returned remains most assured of are the basics of human nature: People get desperate for an answer. That’s why there’s a security camera hanging from every available surface in the village. The search for the ultimate answer, as seen in the example of the Koretsky’s, leads to tragedy. Suspense is wonderful for those of us on this side of the TV screen; for our counterparts on the other side, it makes room that jealousies and suspicions can crawl into. As Toni says at the beginning of “Lucy,” “If you like tragedy, you’re in the right place.” If the last five minutes of this week’s episode are any indication, The Returned has a few jaw-dropping tragedies left in it—and even the most clear-eyed of the show’s characters can be responsible for dropping those jaws.
- The number of sex scenes in “Lucy” pushes toward Game Of Thrones levels, with only a dash of gratuitousness. Compared to an American series, The Returned treats a lot of topics matter-of-factly, coitus included. It’s never eventful in TV terms—even the coupling of Lena and Serge refrains from screaming “Hey! Two characters having sex over here!”—but it still means something on a character level. But that’s easy to say when people are hearing from their dead loved ones in the middle of the act.
- What’s going on with the reservoir?: That flooded power station is one explanation for the blackout, but so are the flickering lights that seem to follow The Returned everywhere they go. And there’s a bunch of dirty water in Camille’s casket—these mysteries are starting to collide at just the right time.
- What’s going on with Victor’s arm?: Victor would prefer if you don’t look at the rotting, scabby mess on the underside of his left forearm. There’s an implication here that The Returned might not be totally impervious, but the shape of the wound draws a connection between Victor and Lena.
- This week’s zombie who’s not a zombie: The kid at the center of Resurrection, the forthcoming ABC series that isn’t the American remake of Les Revenants/The Returned. To make matters more confusing, Resurrection is based on a novel titled The Returned… and now blood is running out of my ears and I need to lie down.