The Long Walk Home: The humane zombies of The Returned

OK. Here goes: I’ve become obsessed with a show about zombies.

No, not that zombie show. I’ve only seen a few episodes of that one and didn’t have much use for it. No, this zombie show is different. In fact, I’m not so sure it is a zombie show at all (I’m using the term here for lack of a better word). In this show the zombies are as equally beautiful, smart, sexy and charming as their living counterparts just as they are dangerous, manipulative and insufferable. These zombies are awfully human.

The Returned (Les Revenants) is a French drama that aired on Canal+ in France and Sundance here in North America. The show is based on a movie called They Came Back and, rather curiously, has a very similar premise (dead folks coming back to life) as an American show called Resurrection that began airing last week. Even more curious, Resurrection is based on a book called “The Returned” but has no connection to the French show. It all has the makings of a head-spinny Abbott and Costello routine.

(I’m interrupting here to give you a warning about spoilers. The Returned is more fun if you go in blind. I try to be generic as possible below but some major plot points and mysteries are revealed).

After a shocking opening sequence, The Returned begins with a walk home. A young girl named Camille heads through the forested area in a misty mountain town towards her family home. She heads to the kitchen and starts preparing a sandwich. Shortly after Camille’s mother, Claire, arrives and she is shocked to see her daughter in the kitchen. At first Claire looks like she has seen a ghost. But, eventually, it sinks in that Camille is really, truly there before her. Camille has returned, in one piece, just she was when she left. Camille, we learn, has been dead for years. She died in a bus crash with a number of her school friends. But Camille doesn’t know this when she makes herself a sandwich in the kitchen. She thinks it is the same day she left for her school trip. And she looks and acts the same too. As the story progresses we learn what happened to Camille and without Camille almost at the same time she does. Camille’s parents are now split-up. Claire has begun dating a creepy, religious guy who runs a homeless shelter. Camille’s dad looks run down and disheveled. Camille’s twin sister, Lena (who is now an older sister), is horrified to see a vision of basically her younger self in front of her.

And Camille isn’t the only one who comes back. There are a number of other townsfolk who met violent and untimely ends that return to the close-knit town as well. There is “Victor”, a small boy that looks like Norman Bates as an eight year old, who was murdered in his bedroom. “Victor” seeks out a nurse named Julie and invites himself into her home; Simon, a young adult novel’s idea of broody male perfection, who may have committed suicide and returns to his lover, Adele. Adele now has a child and a new fiancée who happens to be the chief of police; Serge, a mysterious/violent man who seeks out his brother, Toni, and his mother who he finds is now also dead. The dead returning keeps the townsfolk busy enough but there are other strange things occurring in the town, too: the power keeps going out, the water levels in the dam are curiously lowering to slowly reveal an old, perfectly preserved town that was destroyed in a flood, people start getting strange wounds and rashes that won’t heal.

Every episode of The Returned is named for a different character above (and, by the end of the season, a group of characters) and we follow their story in two different timelines; before they died and after they returned. The timeline shifts are not dissimilar to the ones at play on True Detective although The Returned is less druggy in its editing than that cop show. The effect, though, is the same: make the audience work at trying to figure out the intersecting points in the timelines and the characters. And there are A LOT of intersections.

The Returned is atmospheric, emotional and moody. It is tastefully and deliciously mysterious, luxuriating in the mystery for long, slow stretches. But mostly the show is beautiful. Everything about it, from the cinematography, to the music, to the casting (oh boy, are these people gorgeous in that awfully casual French kinda way), to the sets (I’ll take these houses over the real estate porn in Downton Abbey any day – I drool over the faucets alone – seriously, there are an abundance of spectacular faucets on this show) are exquisite. But the show is also beautiful because of its humanity. The characters behave in a way that anyone might if their loved ones came back from the dead – with a mixture of horror but also with gratitude and love beyond anything else. It is as if their only wish, for their children or lovers to come back to them unharmed and perfect, has been granted. But, of course, the old adage holds true: be careful what you wish for.

There are complications. Other parents are upset that Camille has come back and not their own children that died in the crash. Camille seems to want to leap-frog entire years and jump-start her growth into young adulthood and sexuality by hanging out with Lena’s friends. “Victor” is able to tap into people’s thoughts and make them do horrible things. Simon is an angry young man, capable of lashing out and becoming violent. And Serge, well, he’s Serge, a big pile of dangerous question marks. Of course, there is also the problem of being cognizant of your own death – to know that, in every other way you are just like everyone else, expect for this one small matter. “The returned” aren’t blundering and brainless zombies and in many ways that is their curse.

What I admire about the show that it is pitched so specifically towards empathy, sometimes to a fault (it’s the only show I can think of where I have been queasily attracted to a serial killer), at least very early on in the season. We feel for “the returned” because they function as immediate outsiders, because of the horrible ways that they died and because they have been absent from their own lives for so long. And also because, in every single one of these cases, someone loved them. And also because life has so clearly gone on without them. Because that is what happens when people die. Life goes on for the living. We see that, when these people come back, despite feeling loved, they feel they’ve been forgotten.

The focus on love and empathy is important for a singular reason: characters on the show are willing to fiercely protect “the returned” as a secret. This is the most crucial way that character design affects the structure of the show. All of the folks that are visited by someone who returns keep it a secret for a large portion of the season. They do this for various reasons: because they are worried others will destroy “the returned”, they think “the returned” will be taken away, they are worried that others will think that they are crazy and, in all cases, because they are scared. There is no immediate talking to the police, no posting photos of the undead on Instagram, no medical intervention or testing. It is enough for these people to have their loved-ones back – they do not require concrete answers about their return, at least not yet. This works in favour of the central mystery of the show (what are these people and how is it that they have come back?) by allowing the mystery to unfold fairly slowly and methodically. The Returned works when the mystery is unforced.

But I also have a major bone to pick with the show. The Returned is at its best when it marinades in the possibilities. However, the show has a tendency to layer mystery upon mystery, seemingly unrelated to its central one, fantastical element on fantastical element which often takes away from the heart of the proceedings. The Returned wants to have it both ways – be a character study about love, death, loss, family and community and also be a show about very strange, supernatural things happening in a small town – and for a while that balance is achieved. But, by the end of season one, when the show begins to unravel into more of a straight forward “Us vs. Them” zombie show, much of the drama, the humanity (for lack of a better word) is sucked out of the proceedings. For me, never quite knowing what kind of show I was watching was part of the fun.

At the end of the season we are left with another walk. This time it is a reverse of Camille’s lone walk home. This time, 3 “mothers” take their children back into the forest from where they came. It’s a devastating scene, while their families watch from the windows of the homeless shelter (where the townsfolk have taken refuge from an impending ambush), but the mystery of the show, of who these people are, is palpably close to being solved. The show is in danger of turning into something very regular. But there is some hope there in that walk not for just the characters doing the walking but also for the show itself. It is the act of walking that is interesting. Let’s hope the journey brings us to more mystery and questions unanswered. Let’s hope the journey takes its time.

A quick shout out to Natalie for recommending The Returned to me. Thanks, Nat!

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