From Twin Peaks to Uzumaki or any number of Stephen King miniseries, dysfunctional remote towns and unexplained, sinister occurrences are as iconic a duo as you’ll find anywhere in horror. Following a whole community through the events of their private horror stories generally demands a serialised or anthological incarnation and that’s what The Returned did. The French psychological horror serial based on Robin Campillo’s 2004 film Les Revenants was remade for U.S. audiences, but unless you’re particularly subtitle-phobic, there was nothing wrong with the Francophone treatment originally offered.
The first season of The Returned is a thorough masterpiece of horror drama. Although it was the tantalising slow-burn mystery that kept viewers returning for the next installment, it was the series’ mesmerisingly dramatic denouement that lingers longest in the memory. A show that had drip-fed viewers exposition and that frequently asked more questions than it answered, The Returned concluded its first season with a banger of an episode that constructed one of the best, most haunting cliffhangers in television history.
The Returned follows a small mountain town that seems to have been touched by tragedy more than is fair, with the preceding decades having brought a serial killer, a home invasion, a school bus crash straight out of The Sweet Hereafter, and a burst dam that flooded the old town, killing an untold number. Without explanation though, in what strikes some as a miraculous reprieve, others as a cruel joke, and yet more as a foretelling of the apocalypse, those that died in these tragedies begin returning, turning up on their families’ doorsteps with no idea they’ve been dead for many years.
Throughout the season, numerous dramas play out surrounding each of these ‘returned’ characters, often dredging up trauma and dysfunction as well as reopening scars of grief, but there’s also a growing sense of dread that gathers pace going into the final episodes. Pierre (Jean-Francois Sivadier), a religious local community leader, believes that their return is a sign of apocalyptic upheaval and is stockpiling guns, supplies, and medical equipment in the basement of his community centre, The Helping Hand. The water levels in the new reservoir are dropping, uncovering the old town buried by the floodwaters all those years ago as well as the bodies of animals that apparently drowned while fleeing from ‘something’. Hysteria is gripping the residents as more of the returned keep coming, these seemingly with little of their former selves and operating more like a hive mind. In the penultimate episode “Adele,” characters try to flee the town and find themselves physically unable to, their paths taking them in circles, just like in the final chapters of Uzumaki, as the town contorts itself into a gargantuan spiral.
“Adele” ends with this moment of realisation, as nurse Julie (Celine Sciamma), her police officer old flame Laure (Alix Poisson), and then returned 8-year-old Victor (Swann Nambotin), for whom Julie has been caring all season, find themselves driving over the bridge across the dam for a third consecutive time, always heading in the same direction. The episode that follows sees simmering subplots start to boil and intersect, with characters previously kept apart beginning to cross over as the storylines converge on a single location throughout the episode. It’s a superb way to structure a final episode, and the way The Returned brings the different stories together is simply masterful. Never for a moment does it feel contrived, incomplete, or inorganic.
Like the preceding installments, the final episode of series one, “The Horde,” begins with a flashback, this time to the fateful day 35 years earlier when the town’s old dam burst. Victor is there with his family—we learn his real name was Louis—as was another of the returned, Viviane Costa (Laetitia de Fombelle). The modern-day resurrected Madame Costa seems unnaturally calm about what is happening and seems to know more about the situation than she’s letting on. In the flashback to the dam bursting, she cryptically predicts that the drowned dead will one day have their revenge.
Back in the present, Julie and Laure have spent the night on the dam in the car with Victor and awaken to find hand-prints all over the car. Upon questioning, Victor says that the Horde came for him in the night. The Horde, it seems, is gathering under the leadership of Lucy (Ana Girardot), a medium who was murdered by Serge (Guillaume Gouix), a serial killer who resumed his activities immediately upon his resurrection. It’s then that Laure and Julie spot Toni (Gregory Gadebois) about to jump off the dam.
Toni Garrel was Serge’s brother. After discovering his crimes, he was forced to kill him to save Julie, who Serge nearly killed seven years earlier. Since his resurrection, Serge has no memory of what his brother did. Toni, wracked with guilt over killing his brother, has been trying to make the best of this second chance. They, like Julie and Laure, tried to leave town and found themselves going in circles until Serge disappeared, sending Toni into his present suicidal state. Now, Toni has been reunited with Julie, the woman whose life he secretly saved all those years earlier and who has now been given the chance to return the favor and talk Toni down. Once she has though, Laure immediately arrests him for murder. However, the quartet is forced to flee back to town once the Horde returns for Victor.
Laure’s cop self reasserting itself frustrated Julie, who has been thinking only of Victor’s welfare, and is convinced he’s not safe in town. However, Laure is convinced of her duty to bring Toni back to the station. The intervention comes from an unlikely source though, as unbeknownst to Julie, Victor is kind of a creepy kid. He’s implied to have murdered Julie’s disagreeable neighbour, and here we get a glimpse as to how that might’ve gone down. While Julie and Laure are outside the car arguing, Victor confronts Toni about Serge’s death, which he somehow knows. Victor seems able to control people and give them visions, which he uses to force the handcuffed Toni to shoot himself in the stomach. Perhaps this is part of Victor’s sense of punitive justice, the revenge to which Madame Costa was alluding. But, it might also be a more complicated ploy to get Julie and Laure to go where they need to. With Toni grievously wounded and the town’s infrastructure in disarray, they drive to the closest point of refuge they can: The Helping Hand.
The Helping Hand is the community center overlooking the whole town and is where Pierre has been hosting as many of the returned as he can and running group therapy sessions for the affected townspeople. One of these sessions ended in tragedy when a young girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz) attempted to console grieving parents by telling them they would be reunited with their son. Her words are misread as an incitement to commit suicide, and later a woman has a miscarriage at the memorial. So, tensions are already high at the Helping Hand, with some blaming the returned, and Camille in particular, for the recent tragedies.
However, Camille’s family is holding strong, despite the return of Camille having brought up a lot of confusing emotions for them all. Camille’s sister Lena (Jenna Thaim) has been having a hard time dealing with the fact she’s now five years older than her twin, while her parents Jerome (Frederic Pierrot) and Claire (Anne Cosigny), who became estranged after Camille’s death, are now pretending to still be together for her sake. Additionally, Jerome is growing increasingly worried about Pierre’s fanaticism, which the devout Claire is prepared to shrug off.
The last main plot line of the episode follows Adele (Clotile Hesme), her chief-of-police husband Thomas (Samir Guesmi), and her now returned fiancé Simon (Pierre Perrier). Adele was due to marry Simon the day he committed suicide, and his reappearance in her life throws her marriage to Thomas into disarray when he reacts possessively to his claim on her and their child Chloe (Brune Martin) from whom they’ve been keeping the secret of her parentage and the fact of Adele’s recent suicide attempt (which Victor revealed to her in a vision). Struggling with her lingering feelings for Simon and Chloe’s curiosity about him, Adele is in a fragile state as the episode begins.
Simon, however, is in jail, having been arrested and combatively interrogated by Thomas in the previous episode. However, he is soon visited by Lucy, and after a mysterious conversation, Lucy disappears and Simon escapes from his cell. He and Lucy then present themselves at Adele’s home, with Simon revealing that Adele is pregnant with another child, apparently conceived since his return. Horrified, Adele stabs Simon to no effect before locking herself in the laundry room, allowing Lucy and Simon to abduct Chloe.
Upon finding Adele, Thomas resumes his manhunt for Simon and Lucy. Upon searching Lucy’s former workplace, he finds one of the returned—apparently a lone member of the Horde—who attacks him before Thomas succeeds in killing him. The search is in vain, until some of Thomas’s officers sight the Horde, heading up the hill towards The Helping Hand. Thomas and Adele head there with the whole town’s police force, and after a brief standoff with Pierre, Thomas decides to hold ground, lock down the building, and await the arrival of Simon, Chloe, and Lucy with the Horde at their back. At last, after eight episodes, we have every major character converging in one place.
What follows is one of the show’s biggest emotional climaxes. Julie is down in the basement, alone, trying to use her skills as a nurse to save Toni…when Serge walks in.
Suddenly, she finds herself face to face with her attacker, the man who stabbed her multiple times in the stomach, a trauma that has dictated her life ever since, ruined her relationship with Laure, and left her as a near-recluse until Victor arrived. Serge doesn’t recognise her, only his brother, who he last saw alive and well, now lying on an operating table, dying from a gunshot wound to the belly. At first, Julie believes Serge is just a vision, after all, she’s seen him in her nightmares for the last seven years. She’s beside herself with confusion; she has every reason to loathe and fear this man, to wish him every misery imaginable. And yet, his brother, the man who saved her from him, is dying in front of them both. She has come face to face with her monster at his most pitiably human, in a moment of inconsolable grief for his only friend in the world and his only living family. Like her and Victor, Serge is now alone. Because she’s a good person, for the second time that day, Julie finds herself consoling one of the Garrel brothers. Meanwhile, upstairs, the fate of the town is being decided.
As darkness falls, the Horde arrives, Lucy stepping into the spotlight as their representative. Thomas and Pierre go to parlay for Chloe’s release. Lucy agrees that Simon will return Chloe to her mother, on the condition that all those who have returned from the dead come out and join her. Thomas, who has been a conflicted and morally disagreeable character from the start, here emerges as the show’s villain. He agrees to the condition and orders his men to separate Camille from her family and hand her over. Any father can imagine what they would do to get their child back, but Chloe is not his daughter, she’s Adele’s, and he doesn’t consult her before offloading their family’s separation onto other families.
The police escort Madame Costa down into the light and wrestle Victor and Camille away from their sobbing guardians. In one of the show’s most unexpectedly heartbreaking moments, Jerome, an ineffectual and non-committal character thus far, performs his one heroic, albeit doomed, act. He places himself between his daughter and the police and the uncertain fate they will condemn her to by handing her over. Unwilling to be separated, even in the face of possible death, neither Julie nor Claire will be separated from their children and resolve that wherever the child goes, they will too. And so, with their families watching, powerless, the cryptic Madame Costa, the mysterious child Victor, the confused tween Camille, the devoted mother Claire, and the vulnerable, heroic Julie step into the light together.
However, just as it looks like the standoff has reached its heartbreaking but largely non-violent conclusion, Lucy drops the other shoe. Throughout Julie’s arc, since the dead have begun returning, she has started to wonder if maybe she died in Serge’s attack all those years ago. She hasn’t felt truly alive since then, and most of the returned seem not to be aware of their deaths. She goes with Victor anyway, so the possibility that she might have been dead is left open-ended by the episode’s end. But, the idea there might be one more character who was one of the resurrected without knowing it is established. Maybe Julie was misdirection and it was someone else? Lucy says there’s one more, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell us who. It’s the one person, besides Chloe, who Thomas would never, ever, consent to hand over, not to Simon.
Perhaps Lucy is referring only to the child in Adele’s womb. It was, after all, apparently conceived with Simon after his return, making it arguably half his. Or, maybe Adele’s suicide attempt was successful after all? Regardless, with that revelation in Thomas’s hands alone, any hope of a peaceful resolution is gone. Without a word, Thomas takes Chloe back to the Helping Hand, locks her in with the others, and closes the shutters, ordering his men to let no one in or out. As the shutters lower, Chloe whispers the truth to her mother, and Adele shares one last horrified look with her husband. As the townsfolk wait inside, huddled in fear, clinging to their loved ones, the power goes out and they are plunged into near darkness as gunfire begins to sound outside. First one or two shots, then dozens, fall like a hailstorm, echoing around the building.
The next morning brings stillness, and upon reopening the shutters, not a trace of the battle nor its combatants remains. But, as the townspeople look out over the valley, they see the town submerged, with only the roofs of the tallest buildings clearing the floodwaters. It seems as if, at long last, Madame Costa’s prophesied revenge has been fulfilled.
There’s a lot that makes The Returned such a hypnotically compelling show. At the top of that list is Mogwai’s unforgettable score, one of the first soundtrack albums I ever bought. Close behind that is Celine Sallette’s interpretation of Julie, one of my favourite characters in television. Her trauma, struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and unwavering commitment to helping and protecting others in need is inexpressibly endearing and made fiercely credible by Sallette.
However, a big part of what makes The Returned so hard to shake from your mind is the ending of its first season. I watched the show as it came out, and so had to sit with the surreal, pseudo-apocalyptic finale of season one for some time before some of the most tantalising questions it raised were answered in season two—although many weren’t. But, from the moment the credits rolled, I was satisfied with those unanswered questions.
Not many shows can make a cliffhanger so perversely satisfying. It was almost too good. By the show’s own logic, an open ending is better than a closed one. From the series premiere, it was clear you’d be a fool to expect a full explanation for the paranormal phenomena it depicts. It’s not that kind of show. What it does instead is use its supernatural premise as a means to throw the lives of its characters off balance, ultimately allowing the irresistible forces of entropy to distill them down to their purest needs and desires. Once, the show’s characters were conflicted, unsure of themselves or of what to do. By the show’s climax, they have clarity. Whatever the cost, Julie will never abandon Victor, Claire will never abandon her daughter, and Thomas will never let go of his wife. That’s all the resolution I needed from The Returned.