Things used to be permanent in the world of The Returned. If a dam was un-compromised, it held back the flood waters. If someone became a parent, they stuck around to watch over their children. If someone died, they stayed dead. But then Camille Seguret came home one day, years after she and her classmates perished in a bus accident, and permanence was called into question. Bedroom altars to the dead were deconstructed. Broken vows made between two lovers were no longer beyond repair. Despite an apparent lack of leaks, the dam failed and the town flooded.
The Returned is a chronicle of aftermath, but that’s never been so acutely felt as it is in this second-season premiere. Picking up six months after that fateful night at The Helping Hand, “L’enfant” takes place within a totally altered landscape. The episode sets this up early, harkening back to familiar locations that are either deserted or in some state of disrepair. Tasked with investigating the dam failure—a mystery that stumped his predecessor right out of a job—newcomer Berg (Laurent Lucas) gets the story from one of the military officials who’ve set up shop around town: The flood drove most of the townsfolk away. There’s no mention of the other reason they might’ve left; to get that, you’d need to head over to The Helping Hand, which looks to have mutated into some sort of cult, with Pierre at its head. That’s a conclusion “L’enfant” leaves us to draw ourselves—there’s clearly something up with Pierre’s expanding, “I wear black on the outside ’cause black is how I feel on the inside” flock, but nobody comes out and says it. They’re just a group united in a belief, a belief that Pierre is reluctant to share with the new Agent Dale Cooper in town.
The safety, comfort, and community provided by The Helping Hand are one of several strands in season two’s thematic pasta. (Thematic pasta being one of the few foodstuffs that isn’t having a hard time making it into town—the American Diner is down to just serving hamburgers and hot dogs.) And you can tell how well those strands are cooked, because when “L’enfant” throws them at the wall, almost all of them stick. Maintaining the high standards of The Returned’s first season, there’s something to unpack in every frame of the premiere, be it the headlights of Berg’s SUV, the maternal anxiety of Adele’s pregnancy, or something more on-the-nose, like the River Styx analogy in young Audrey’s journey across the water. After winding each of its first eight episodes around a single character, the show isn’t at liberty to be so focused in this go-round. There’s a cliffhanger to follow up on, and a lot of people to check in with, and new mysteries to unravel. (Is that you feasting on the creatures of the forest, Lord Voldemort?)
The show carries this heavy load with characteristic flair. There’s always enough air around the characters, storylines, and set pieces to keep “L’enfant” from suffocating, moments like Simon wading into the water or Adele inching toward that nightmare incubator. Early in the episode, when Berg visits military HQ, the episode establishes a clever pattern that repeats through the end of the episode: Berg and the lieutenant enter the reclaimed gymnasium, but then Lena streams by, and the scene passes its baton to her. Later, when Berg’s car accident and Adele’s contractions take the action back to the hospital, Lena does the passing—giving the focus back to Berg, who’s fielding Pierre’s questions about Toni. Then, in the episode’s showiest use of the technique, the camera daisy chains through Lucy’s little Subdivision of the Damned, confirming that Simon, Serge, Milan (Serge and Toni’s mother), Victor, Julie, and Mrs. Costa are there with her. It’s an elegant way of covering all the ground that needs to be covered without leaving the audience’s heads spinning.
Because let’s be honest: Even if you watched the first season, really, really closely, “L’Enfant” hinges on things that you might not remember. And even then, it’s been nearly two years since “The Horde” aired stateside, and things tend to slip from the mind across spans of time like that. The disappearance of the police force, for example, or the death of Toni. Amid all the intimate, emotional storytelling of The Returned’s first season, there’s a dense web of stuff season two has to deal with, consequences and portents and a massive fucking flood that more or less calls for a narrative reset. The smart thing that Fabrice Gobert and the writers did at the end of season one involved giving themselves a cataclysm as far reaching (and possibly farther reaching) than that of the bus accident that kicks the series off. People like Lena and Jerome already know loss—how did the brief return of Camille and the minor reconciliation of their family compound the loss they now feel? And what happens when the people who came back left something behind—like the Cronenberg baby that’s trying to punch its way out of Adele’s abdomen?
Throughout “L’enfant,” my mind was on entrances and exits, comings and goings—and it really started racing once those in-camera transitions started occurring. A baby’s birth is typically seen as a blessed event, an arrival to be anticipated, but Adele doesn’t seem to keen on the thing growing inside of her. She confides in Jean-Francois that she attempted to terminate the pregnancy “several times,” the latest of which, it’s implied, was her tumble down the stairs. Adele might not want the baby, but the way Lucy talks at the end of the episode—after she notes the arrival of the freshly returned folks downstairs—the erstwhile Lake Pub waitress has big plans for the child. This is Body Horror/Supernatural Prophecy 101, but there’s still a chill to it thanks to the performances of Clotilde Hesme and Ana Girardot, who are mirror images of one another in this episode. Hesme, haunted and trepidatious; Girardot composed and unflinching. One hope to usher a new child into life-after-death, while the other would prefer to keep her kid from ever being born.
Adele and Simon’s baby has a potential link to the mysterious Berg, who enters the town with a note of positivity—a smile on his face, the hope that he can succeed where the previous investigator failed. But there’s something a little off and vaguely sinister about him. Because he’s “from around here,” he’s not quite a fish-out-of-water, but he’s still an outsider. Like the stag that chooses the library plaza as its final resting place, there’s a sense that Berg doesn’t necessarily belong. And then he hits Toni with his car.
All these new arrivals pouring into town—and no one seems to know the way out anymore. The driving scenes in “L’Enfant” are shrouded in darkness, the automobiles perforating the void with beady little headlights. Multiple times, a driver reaches what he thought was a familiar stretch of road, but it’s actually a dead end. It’s traditionally spooky stuff, in line with the jump scare that punctuates Adele’s nightmare in the cold open. (And as ever with this show, there’s a whiff of David Lynch, the road disappearing beneath the highbeams reminiscent of Lost Highway.) It’s unsettling, nonetheless, for the lack of escape it implies. The water appears to be the only route out of town, and the methods of traversing it are straight out of Oregon Trail: Take the ferry like Audrey (who’s Sandrine’s daughter—remember Sandrine?) or Victor’s mother, or ford the river like Simon.
So maybe permanence isn’t dead in this place. Those who have stayed have their reasons for staying: Lena has faith that her mother and sister will return; Pierre is amassing a following in what he believes to be a miraculous town; Adele is maintaining a vigil. But from what we see in the season premiere, they might not have a choice in the matter. And from what I saw in “L’Enfant,” I have no complaints about being stuck there with them.
- The diner scene introduces the idea that food supplies are running low in the town, and the hospital scenes follow that up: The vending machines are practically empty. Maybe this is why ashen ghouls are chowing down on woodland creatures.
- As my colleague Alex McCown noted in his review, its hard to deny the parallels between the second seasons of The Returned and The Leftovers—especially when Adele and Chloe are walking home, and Mogwai’s piano tug of war almost sounds like it’s going to break into the arpeggios of “The Departure,” from Max Richter’s Leftovers score.
- It appears that Jerome has spent the last six months starring in a one-man show: Mandy Patinkin, Mandy Patinkin, Mandy Patinkin.