If there’s a thematic constant running through “Milan,” the even darker second episode of The Returned’s sophomore season, it’s the idea that we all have cages and prisons—self-imposed or otherwise. Nearly everyone is trapped, for one reason or another, and not simply in the geographical sense of the town. Most of the residents, living or dead, have stepped into a confinement of some kind. Jérôme has boarded himself up within a house, the better to traverse the wormhole of his own obsessive investigation. Camille and her mother both leave the safety of their home, only to return to it after receiving a warning and a beating, respectively. Toni accepts Pierre’s invitation to the Helping Hand, entering a space that seems far more concerned with keeping him in than keeping others away. Serge is trapped by blood—and blood, this show suggests, might be the most traumatic trap of all.
For the blood connection in question is that of Milan, Serge’s father and the character who gives this episode its title, and whose return signals a dangerous and unknown shift in the dynamics of the living dead. Through flashbacks, we learn that Milan was a figure of significant authority in town 35 years prior, and was the one who gave the order that led to Victor (sorry, “Louis”) and his mother’s death. Not only that, but Serge seems absolutely terrified of him, as does Lucy. And when your resident psychic and unofficial leader of the recently returned gets freaked out by a menacing and imposing man, that’s probably not a good sign.
But nearly every mystery is deepened this week, starting with that flashback. It turns out Victor’s death was meant to only be a warning, but panicked decisions led to both the shootings and Pierre killing his fellow intruder, rather than let him finish off the father. As a result, Dad is still alive, surviving in a hospital room—the very room Adèle stumbles upon during her wanderings. It’s unclear the ramifications this will have, now that Victor/Louis’ mother is back, beyond giving Julie additional concerns about the family to which her charge belongs. But all of that pales when compared to the most intriguing development of all in this storyline: The knowledge that Victor’s mother forbids him to draw is a genuinely chilling moment, and the “You mustn’t draw” command implies a clear connection between the events that led to his death 35 years prior and the injunction which, as she tells Julie, is necessary for all of them. The effect of Julie’s ignorance has never been put in such stark terms.
Meanwhile, back in the land of the (mostly) living, Lena’s confrontation with her father gives the audience an allegory for watching the show as a whole. Despite her anger at the way her father has again shut her out of his life thanks to his “work,” Jérôme’s persistent obsessiveness renders, in the clearest terms yet, just what makes the show so compelling. “I’m looking for some meaning,” he says, indicating the bizarre circumstances that have led to the world they inhabit. “An explanation, a reason.” He wants everything to make sense, to assign order to a universe that has dumped the seemingly inexplicable into all of their laps. And regardless of his excellent impression of a cross between Homeland’s Carrie Mathison and The X-Files’ Fox Mulder (Jérôme builds crazy-looking poster board conspiracy patterns with the best of them), it’s not clear all his suspicions amount to anything beyond a desperate wish to make something stable from randomness. His desire for predictability, for coherence, reveals his complete lack of acceptance. He can’t come to terms with the tragedies that have happened, and it’s driving him into self-imposed exile.
Camille and her young compatriots, on the other hand, are driven into retreat by a much more tangible threat. When Esteban joins Audrey in the land of the undead, their attempt to cross the lake is thwarted by the specter of silent beings, the denizens of that twilight town and its benighted existence keeping guard to prevent such escapes. It also offers Camille a learning moment, as her ill-considered plan to cut her own throat as proof of their post-mortem state is stopped by the unknown teen who scorns her idea. “You think you know the rules?”, he scoffs, before leading them to the site of the bus crash, where they each confront the memory of their lives, as conveyed by the tokens left behind by those who mourn them. Audrey has no idea Sandrine and Yan Sabatini are back and looking for her, but she knows life will no longer be as it was.
This episode was packed to the water-damaged rafters with such plot points, so many that, by episode’s end, it’s almost an overwhelming onslaught of clues and changes. Simon takes the raft across the river, not only to find out what’s going on with Adèle and his child (Chloé is quite the source of information), but because Lucy fears more returned are coming, every day. And it seems they’re getting past the defenses she has installed to return them to her side of town, because Toni isn’t the only one running around on the other side. And Berg gets a big moment this week, discovering a deep hole in the ground that might hold answers as to how the water managed to flood the town. He’s not getting answers from Jérôme or anyone else—especially not the people of the Helping Hand, whom, as Erik Adams noted last week, are getting awfully creepy—but Berg’s actions are getting somewhere, even if we don’t yet know his story.
Answers on this show have always been difficult to come by, because they aren’t ultimately the point. Grief, sadness, the burdens of the past… these are the trials that drive The Returned, and characters like Pierre, who think they know what it all means, only end up causing more pain and problems. There are some things that can’t be fought, only embraced, or at the very least, accepted. And there’s no bigger warning of that reality than the lifeless bodies of the town’s former police force, bound to the trees of the forest, like sentinels of the dead. Try to fight the effects of the dead, and you will lose.
- The only good thing to come of the awful violence done to Claire Seguret is that her daughter finally embraces her. I get that she’s a sullen rebellious teen, forced to remain stuck in a house with her mother, but slapping that plate out of Claire’s hand was really mean.
- This week in Simon and Adèle’s creepy baby: He died, only to be brought back by his mother’s touch. This child is part-living, part-dead, and all worrisome.
- Does anyone think Jérôme’s actually on to something? His circle of returns seems a little too neat, but I’m curious if others think the show is pointing to his investigation as possibly holding real clues.
- Pierre is really upping the megalomania factor. He’s apparently convinced the dead are no longer even the people they were: “That’s not Toni.”
- The lack of food is causing even bigger problems. That dead stag? Ripped apart by a human, not an animal.
- Thanks to Erik Adams for letting me share my thoughts on this installment. He’ll be back next week with more excellent pasta metaphors.