In its exploration of grief, The Returned has reached the bargaining stage. It might be reductive to apply something as rigid as the Kübler-Ross model to the show’s murky mythology, or the flexible “rules” of its living dead—after all, The Returned’s emotional baseline is depression, the Kübler-Ross stage that follows bargaining, and if the show was really working through all five stages, it only has one more episode to reach the final two. (And nearly every preceding episode argues that no one here will ever be ready for acceptance.) But the story of “Etienne” is that of a community seeking extreme measures to avoid further grieving. They make the ultimate sacrifice to compensate for the loss of their loved ones, with one individual in particular leading the charge.
The seventh episode of The Returned’s second season finally introduces the engineer of the show’s damned dam. There’s no detailed analysis of how his design failed; the incorrect calculation that doomed the people of town below isn’t depicted onscreen. The dramatic irony in Etienne’s story is tied up in something he doesn’t do. On the night when Victor strolled into the Lewansky’s dining room, he also appeared on the engineer’s doorstep. (Etienne asks his son, Berg, if he knows the stranger; Berg does not.) The young boy tells Etienne to halt construction on the dam, but Etienne pays him no mind. The regret the engineer feels for not listening to Victor will haunt him to the end of his days, and the boy is present (or his presence can be felt, at least) when Etienne essentially finishes what he started, participating in a murder-suicide cult organized by Milan. Etienne designed the dam, Milan organized the cult, and Pierre refused to complete its mission. But the architect of season two’s climax? That’s all Victor.
In true prestige-drama fashion, the best episode of season two is its penultimate episode, which pays off season-long threads and solves enough mysteries to maintain the momentum leading to the finale. The cold open offers a chilling conclusion to all this talk about “The Circle,” depicts the most disturbing of Victor’s illustrations (the ring of people firing guns at one another), and clears up Simon’s vision of his trigger-happy parents: 35 years ago, the people of the town answered tragedy with tragedy, building a horrific legacy for the children who were supposed to come along with them. But the authorities arrive before the sleeping pills could be administered, and the kids that were left behind would follow in their parents’ footsteps. Berg took up the family trade, solving and preventing the sorts of misfortunes his father caused 35 years ago. Simon killed himself; Serge killed others. Out of love and concern for his brother and their fellow citizens, Toni killed Serge. Poor Victor: Try as he might, he couldn’t prevent any of it.
Such a major revelation, coming so late in a season, begs the devil’s advocates to come crawling out of the woodwork: If there were survivors, why is this the first time we’re hearing anything concrete about The Circle? There was enough information to prompt the police investigation that halted some of Milan’s plans—why hasn’t it come up in discussions of past tragedies in the town? Wouldn’t Victor or Pierre or Etienne (who’s appeared in previous episodes) at least mentioned a dozen or so adults willingly following Milan to their deaths?
But those types of questions ignore clues that have been dropped along the way (Victor’s drawings, for example) while also neglecting a very basic fact about The Returned’s setting: This isn’t a place where people talk about this sort of thing. Sure, they formed a support group following the bus accident, and planned a memorial for the victims, but this is otherwise a culture of repressed emotions. Pierre keeps his involvement in the Lewansky murders and The Circle to himself, secretly atoning through his work with The Helping Hand. (In another example of history repeating itself on The Returned, the guy who couldn’t do the old cult’s bidding has now started a cult himself.) Julie’s silence about her attack led to the end of her relationship with Laure, an inability to open up that ends things with Ophélie before they can even get started. The Guilty Remnant would have a field day with these people.
And then there’s Etienne’s situation, a brilliant application of the show’s fluid rules and a potent symbol of the characters’ willingness to forget. After tracking his father during the revenant exodus, Berg discovers that, unlike most of the previously dead people we’ve met, Etienne remembers nothing about his life. He’s caught somewhere between Camille, Simon, or Milan (who return with full faculties and don’t recall dying) and The Others (it’s late enough in season two that we should just accept this as the name for the zonked-out, stare-and-glare revenants who had no one waiting for their return). Like Esther last week, Etienne’s state doesn’t give us much insight into how the revenants “work,” per se, but it enriches the “anything can happen” sense of the whole series. There’s no one way to die, there’s no one way to grive, and there’s no one way to come back, either. Aurélien Recoing captures Etienne’s neither here nor there status with much poignancy, playing the character as a warm presence and a blank slate, which also gives Laurent Lucas the chance to display different shades of Berg.
Doubt, confusion, and bargaining all go hand in hand in “Etienne,” creating the atmosphere of suspense necessary for the crackerjack escape sequence at the episode’s end. The scene plays out in darkened hallways full of flash light beams and unnerving shadows, and the mounting dread elsewhere coats the episode in a film of gunk and grime. All of season two has a washed-out look (I mean, the valley just flooded, so…), but it’s especially apparent in “Etienne,” which juxtaposes its boarded-up apartment buildings and drab wardrobes with the gleamingly white exam room in Julie’s dream and the sun-and-fun postscript to Victor’s nightmare. Each setting sends a clear signal that the characters are lost in a fantasy: It’s shocking to see Julie on the slab, but the shock is intensified by the sterility of her surroundings. With its empty vending machines and emptier hallways, the hospital hasn’t exactly been a picture of medical spotlessness this season. The same goes for seeing Victor in front of a sky that’s anything but gray.
That relative sense of security is part of why “Etienne” works so well. When you’ve spent 14 episodes in a TV world as immersive as The Returned, you start taking certain things for granted: That The Others will prevent the Ségurets from returning to town, for instance, or that the season’s overriding conflict is between Milan and Lucy—not Milan and Victor, as tonight’s big confrontation scene implies. That feeling is articulated by Milan in flashback and in the present day, as he promises answers to the flood survivors’ questions, then taunts his captors for thinking that they’ve got everything figured out. It’s The Returned’s aversion to simple explanations writ large.
To focus so tightly on The Circle’s bargaining or “the rules” of the revenants is to lose the forest of “Etienne” for the trees, though. This is a spectacular climax to season two, which provides a hint of release while preserving some secrets for the season finale. It’s still unclear what’s to become of baby Nathan, and we’re really no closer to figuring out why some revenants (like Camille last season, and Audrey this season) wind up with those nasty-looking skin abrasions. And what about the mention of “the ones hiding in the caves”? Still plenty of things to go bump in the night out there.
All of the main players are now in position to make the final push into the season finale. The Ségurets have returned to town, The Helping Hand has taken a crucial captive in Julie, Simon and Adèle are on the hunt for their son, and Madame Costa’s resurrection exposed the revenants to the disbelievers. But “Etienne” is about more than setting up fireworks: Milan promised us that we would get answers to our questions, and now we know what The Circle was and what it did. In turn, Berg learns what his father did, providing the type of emotional payoff that’s been on the back burner for much of season two. With everyone returned to their hometown (in one way or another), they’re prepared to confront the truth of what’s been happening here. They might get more than they bargained for.