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Let me settle which version of "The Returned" I’m talking about right away. The piece of media I’m talking about is a French language series, named Les Revenants. A subtitled version of its first series was shown on UK TV this year. I am not talking about the planned US TV series, "Resurrection", which is an English language series that was originally going to be titled "The Returned" because it is based on the novel "The Returned" by Jason Mott. Although Les Revenants and Jason Mott’s "The Returned" are based on a similar premise (the dead return - not as decomposing, shambling zombies but as functioning human beings that look just as they did before they died) they aren’t related in any other way. Are you more confused than that time two films about Truman Capote were released in the same year? Don’t worry, it gets easier and more fun from here.

In "The Returned" dead people, some who have been gone for many years, begin to, well, return to a small, unnamed mountain town in France. The town suffered a terrific loss several years ago – a school coach crashed on the mountainside and everyone on board was killed. The town’s past holds another tragedy; an original version of the town, which now lies under the reservoir, was flooded and many people lost their lives. And several years ago, the town was the hunting ground of a serial killer that ate parts of their victims. Add all that together and this little town holds a lot of misery. Perhaps the accumulation of that pain gives it the kind of atmosphere or psychic environment that encourages the dead to return?

The first person to return to the town is Camille, a young girl who died in the coach crash. After her arrival, four more people appear: a child who becomes known as Victor1; Mrs Costa who was alive when the town was flooded and who knows Victor; Simon whose death appears entirely unrelated to any of the larger scale tragedies, and Serge whose death was designed to save others. There doesn’t seem to be a connection that explains why these five people are the only ones to have returned, and the reason behind their reanimation is still unexplained by the end of the series. I would say that these particular people come back to life simply because they’re characters that allow the creators of "The Returned" to tell interesting stories, However, as there’s a second series of "The Returned" to come so I may be proved wrong - perhaps it will turn out that there’s a specific SF reason why these five came back to the town ahead of the rest of the dead.

The program follows Serge and Victor as they go about their creepy business, and also follows Camille and Simon as they try to re-integrate into normal life and make a space in the lives of the people they left behind. As you’d expect a lot has changed, for example after Camille’s death her parents split up. Claire, her mother, has started a relationship with Pierre, a religious man who Claire’s ex-husband doesn’t trust (and as is the way with TV drama it turns out he has some basis for his suspicions – how convenient, no one has to care about the feelings of the spurned new lover because he is a murderer and vaguely unstable). Camille’s identical twin sister Léna has grown up and appears to have developed into a typically angry young adult who is at odds with her father in particular.

Camille and Léna’s relationship is one of the most interesting aspects of the program. Camille returns looking fifteen; the age she was when she died. Of course, while she has been away Léna has grown up and changed physically. Their bond is severed as Léna has had experiences Camille hasn’t shared and they now look different. Both are horrified by this split; Camille screams when she first sees Léna has aged without her and Léna reacts with anger, almost revulsion, when her sister reappears. Her emotions contrast strongly with Claire’s open joy at the return of her dead child. Perhaps Léna’s strong emotions are a rejection of her childhood self, or a manifestation of her guilt for surviving, or just an instinctual reaction of fear when she sees her dead sister come back a zombie. It’s never made clear what her reaction indicates but the violence of her response to Camille, and Léna’s continued attempts to break from her returned sister, make their interactions volatile. For Léna, having a sibling come back from the dead is too complicated to be subsumed by gut-instinct relief and love.

After Camille sees that Léna has aged without her, the viewer sees Camille wandering through her sister’s room longingly touching Léna’s adult clothing and gazing at photos of her sister. She seems wistful, but it’s hard to tell whether it is for her sister or for the life she has yet to mature into. Her feelings soon appear clear though when Camille determines to try and take over her sister’s life, presumably in revenge for being pushed away and to punish Léna for her relationship with a boy Camille loved called Frédéric. Camille dresses like Léna, ingratiates herself with her sister’s friends and sets out to seduce Frédéric, who seems to still be romantically linked to Léna somehow. Here, Camille takes on the traditional role of the evil spirit that haunts and destroys as it tries to take the place of a living person. In an early episode, Claire finds Léna’s room wrecked and, due to the tense, foreboding feeling of horror which hangs over the whole program, the viewer assumes a jealous Camille was responsible for the destruction. It appears her return is more sinister than her mother will allow.

On several occasions, the viewer sees the results of violence which happens off screen in the vicinity of one of the characters that have returned. This implicit linking of "The Returned" with violence, encourages the viewer to be suspicious of the people who have come back, especially when they also see explicit evidence that some of "The Returned" display violent natures. Western traditions of horror naturally incline viewers to feel suspicious of creatures that return from the dead2 and "The Returned" offers the right kind of atmospheric clues (dulled lighting, a simple soundtrack which plays around with musical indications of foreboding, well used silence) to keep that suspicion in the viewer’s mind. I was never quite sure, as the series progressed, how much trust I should place in various undead characters and I was worried that Camille, that hard to love girl who appeared at times to be entirely made out of edges, might be a totally malevolent force that would tear her sister apart.

And yet by the end of the series I was rooting for Camille, and I felt like the TV series was rooting for her too. While other characters who return end up being extremely violent and destructive, Camille comes back from embracing the nastier potential of her undead state. Simon embraces his violent side – scaring Adèle and stealing his daughter away; Victor I suspect killed Julie’s neighbour and definitely manipulates Toni into killing himself; Madame Costa is generally abrasive, and Serge, well, Serge has always been a monster. In contrast, at the end of the series, Camille turns away from trying to take down her sister, on the advice of the shady but genuine Pierre, and Léna initiates a reconciliation. Camille also tries to help a couple whose son was killed in the coach crash by saying that their son is at peace and knows he will see them again. Unfortunately they hang themselves so they can see him in the afterlife, but there’s no hint that Camille is actively trying to bring about this terrible result.

This might sound like Camille is saved by her sister’s forgiveness, or the advice and love of those around her. After all, other returned characters who become violent, or who are generally nasty, like Mrs Costa, Serge, and Simon are eventually pushed away by the people who once loved them (Mrs Costa’s husband tries to burn her alive as soon as he sees her, Serge’s brother tries to kill him a second time, and Simon is eventually shunned by the woman he loves). It’s a pretty theory, all about redemption of the soul, but it’s not a theory that works universally because then we come to Victor:

Victor is a little pale boy in a red jumper with a cowlick hair style sitting on a chair looking straight at the camera with


Victor is officially the creepiest small boy since Timmy in "Identity":

Timmy is a small boy with a cow lick hair style and he is looking out a rain filled window and pressing his hand against the glass with a creepy half smile on his face


Creepy little kids hit all my horror buttons.

The story of Victor’s death, shown in flashback, is a sad one but he is also a total creeper. For a while, I thought my taught fear of small, silent kids with cow licks and outdated clothing was making me harsher towards him than he actually deserved. I mean he hadn’t actually done anyth– oh my god Victor what did you do?!

He did something bloody, is what he did.

Before he goes full out child of Satan, Victor adopts a local woman, Julie, as his protector because his mother told him to look for ‘the blue fairy’ that would protect him. Julie, he decides on returning from the dead, is the fairy. And so, already scarred mentally and physically by her past encounter with a cannibalistic serial killer, Julie finds herself unwillingly attached to a random child who won’t speak to her. To her credit, despite her bafflement, Julie copes well even when she realises that Victor is undead, and protects him from her ex-girlfriend who is less than enamoured with the random, worrisome child. Julie looks after him as well as she can and Victor responds with love. This care does not, however, keep Victor from killing a few people when, as far as I can make a pattern out of anything in this program, he feels like they have wronged Julie. And while Victor does pull himself back from murdering the man who killed him and his parents it doesn’t feel like this is a consequence of Julie’s care. And even after deferring his revenge, he still forces Serge’s brother Toni to kill himself.

"The Returned" avoids proposing universal theories about why those who come back sometimes become violent. At one turn, it seems that this lack of explanation might mean that "The Returned" might have been violent before they died; Serge was clearly violent before he died and I wondered if it would eventually be revealed that Camille, Simon or Mrs Costa had often been horrible when they were alive. But then how do we explain Victor? He seems too young to have developed such murderous tendencies before he died, and in all the flashbacks that the viewer sees he seems perfectly pleasant. Then, it seems possible they might have been infected with violence by their return. Perhaps their scars are a physical manifestation of a spreading nastiness. But Camille eventually conquers her destructive tendencies, despite her growing scar, and Serge tries to resist his murderous nature for a while. In the end, the viewer is left with a set of undead characters who are as individual as live people. They are all specifically affected by the particular circumstances they find themselves in, and the powerful, possibly sinister forces that seem to have brought them back to life.

I was glad "The Returned" avoided simplifying the undead characters by making them either evil and frightening, or good and misunderstood. Who wants to invest in a simple character? Some of the characters I liked the most were unbearably frightening because of their zombie nature but also human and almost enchanting. Simon, for example, is the love returned from the grave – Adèle’s young groom who dies on their wedding day, and father to a child he’s never met. It’s clear that Adèle is still not over his death and that she continues to love him, even to mourn him, although she loves her new husband very much. Their story is a totally adorable goth romance.

In a typical piece of media, I can well imagine Simon being a hero who reveals the wickedness of the new man and wins Adèle back to his side. In "The Returned" he is a much more conflicting personality. He can be tender and loving but he is also unpredictable, sometimes violent and insistently insatiable – he initially tries to push Adèle into having sex and is afflicted with the creepy, never ending hunger of all the undead3. When the circumstances of his death are revealed they evoke great sympathy for him, and I found I liked him so much that I wanted him to have a successful new life. Yet, there was always a part of me that also found his behaviour worrying and wanted Adèle to lock herself away from him. His dual nature, and the way he ends the series by stealing his child away from her mother, reminds me more of the goblin king4, ,or the evil fairy sent to seduce with his black magic, than the romantic hero. And I, like many people, am wary of the evil fairy even if I would also quite like to sit and watch him spin his spells all day.

In the final episode, the rest of the town’s dead come back en masse and there’s a shot of one man which evokes the traditional inhumane and violent picture of the undead; he is discovered lapping from a toilet bowl, then turns and bares his teeth before attempting to jump on a policeman. And the ending features a battle between the horde of undead and the town’s police (although the fight is only heard by the townspeople through the storm shutters they hide behind, and no bodies are discovered in the morning so the viewer can’t be absolutely sure that a battle has taken place – still, it seems likely). Just before that final battle, all the undead characters that the viewer has been investing in, apart from Serge, are reclaimed by the dead. Despite all the horrors some of these character had caused, I felt sorry for all of them as they were cast out of their town into the dark and called to join that undead mass so the town could be saved from destruction. I was glad when Claire and Julie chose to go with Camille and Victor to whatever unknown realm they are being summoned back to5. While I violently empathised with Julie’s revulsion at being clung to by a man who had tried to eat her, I even felt sorry for Serge crying over his dead brother in the basement. What "The Returned" does so well, which so many other dramas fail at when presenting sympathetic villains as people6, is to keep the character’s monstrosity very firmly in view while they also bring out their humanity. "The Returned" lets that humanity stand beside the violence and the deceit rather than placing a filter of humanity over the terrible side of these people. I wouldn’t say I wholeheartedly sympathised with any of the undead characters, except for Camille, and a lot of my feelings for her came out of the passionate sisterly bond that stuck her and Léna together. That’s because I was allowed to see their full monstrosity without any ‘but remember why they do this’ qualifiers. However, I definitely felt like I got to see the best parts of them as well. And I somehow liked them better for being able to see all their parts clearly.

I hope you’re getting by now that I found the characters in "The Returned" fascinating if a bit opaque. I’m never sure if I’m communicating my enthusiasm or if I’m just coming off dry… Perhaps they were even more interesting for their sometimes impenetrable nature – I do like puzzling vagaries sometimes.

Anyway, what else did I like about the program? Well, I loved its slow build nature; there’s a lot of dramatic tension generated by the slow pace of revelations. It’s also, this is hard to explain, but it’s got a slow atmosphere. The music, the lighting choices, the character silences and the landscape shots all seem to contribute to make "The Returned" feel like a drama that takes its time. It makes the viewer slow down to absorb everything, but it does so without feeling sluggish and without removing any tension. Does that taking of time sound gorgeous to you? If so, I think you’re going to love the opening credits which are made up of the kind of weird/beautiful images that seem to play well with the internet. A rotating mixture of panning and static-focused shots, featuring goats floating under water, taxidermy, leaping cats catching bugs in mid-air and shots of watery landscapes that could be described as ‘brooding’, make up the most attractive set of credits I’ve seen in a long time. And there’s a combination of small, surprising moving parts set against large scoping backgrounds which mingles together to establish the program as a series concerned with detail and allowing its audience time to notice things.

The whole program exhibits a strong attempt at constructing a consistent aesthetic. A deliberate colour scheme is created and maintained, the lighting is kept similar throughout and there are lots of wide shots of landscapes, water and natural scenes. It really fit with my own aesthetic tastes. And all of this atmospherically controlled beauty serves a practical purpose as well, racking up the tension, melancholy and horror of the drama presented in the program. I thought it was pretty-scary is what I’m saying7.

I also really liked that "The Returned" avoided making the undead into metaphors for contemporary cultural issues. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I like stories where zombies are used as supernatural metaphors, or where it feels like there’s a palpable subtext behind the use of undead characters. I will cheerlead "Feed" to anyone, anyone (would anyone like to hear about it again?) and I’m very much looking forward to "In the Flesh" which Ana has kindly gifted me. I also like diversity of presentation. So, "The Returned", which bucks the trend of making the undead stand for a variety of disenfranchised social groups, or real diseases, or real global disasters, but also keeps its undead from becoming cardboard cut-out monsters satisfies my interest in seeing things done differently. There’s a religious bent to this undead drama, but by the end of the series any attempt of the townspeople, or the viewer, to definitely understand the undead as a divine punishment or miracle has been rendered impossible. At the end of its first series "The Returned" seems to be a zombie program for the aesthetes and for once I find myself happy with that approach.

There is one thing that marred "The Returned" for me. The program contains some unique weird, which made me flinch even more than when a taxidermy wolf suddenly came back to life and attempted to tear Toni’s throat out. The twins Léna and Camille feel physical manifestations of the other’s sexual acts. Yeah. When they are young, Camille feels Léna’s first time. She doesn’t know what she’s feeling, but it makes her anxious and is painful. This psychic sex-connection freaks Camille out while on board a coach, which distracts the driver, and this causes the tragic crash. To me, that reads like the program handing Léna the death of her sister and classmates as a punishment for her interest and enjoyment of sex. There’s also a female psychic, called Lucy, who can only communicate with the dead by having sex with their (male) significant others. How convenient… for the men. This part of the program was some weird gendered shizz.

That’s really the only criticism I have to make of "The Returned" though. The ending is super vague - it leaves the audience with absolutely no clear answers about where the undead came from, why they came, and why a hoard of them eventually arrived with determined and violent intentions. This unclear, ambiguous ending will not be to everyone’s taste. I actually go back and forth about whether it was really even to my taste. I like vague, but is it too vague, and am I in the mood for vague right now? My opinion is even more changeable and subjective than usual! I’ll be interested to see how the second series leads on from that ending when it eventually gets here. So, I wait until late 2014. Come on France, there’s a Christmas before then; just make it your diplomatic present to us! Until then back and forth I go.

Footnotes

1 His real name is revealed later in the program, but because everyone around Victor knows him by his false name I’m going to refer to him as Victor for the rest of this post.

2 Yes, what I affectionately call the sparklepocalypse (a word probably originating from cleolinda) happened. And yes, the tradition of good undead that followed has to be factored in to audience reactions, but I think generally our society's general default position is still ‘UNDEAD – Get the pitchforks’. Media has to make an effort to encourage us to discard this reaction, for example in the first Twilight film the Cullens still feel creepy at first until the films explain why the viewer should feel differently.

3They never stop being hungry – I mean they eat human food, not flesh but I can’t be the only zombie fan who finds an undead person wolfing burgers unbearably creepy. I was always wondering when they would start eating human flesh.

4 The Bowie version, not the kind from The Hobbit.

5 Alright, part of me did still want Julie to desert Victor for Laure because that kid freaks me out so much and I enjoy romantic happy endings.

6 Although, I am certainly susceptible to that failure.

7 Terrible word play you are fun.


Supplemental Materials

Digital Spy: The Returned - All the Unanswered Burning Questions in One Place
The Guardian: "The Returned series finale - were you disappointed?"
Den of Geek: "Does This Hold Answers to The Returned's Mysteries?"
The Metro: "The Returned finale - 7 Theories to Take Us Into Season 2

Date: 2013-09-22 12:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkM4sSAFrJYW2vWDcrCUUvCi_UEFX9Mg1A
I've only skimmed this post because I have The Returned sitting on my Sky Box waiting for me to get to it (we really need to find a generic catch-all for tv box yokes). The premise looked interesting, I didn't realise the upcoming US one wasn't based on the same show, I thought they were all related.

Date: 2013-09-22 12:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkM4sSAFrJYW2vWDcrCUUvCi_UEFX9Mg1A
huh, I thought loggin in with that Open ID yoke would give my google profile thingy, but I guess not.

Fence from http://www.susanhatedliterature.net

Date: 2013-09-22 07:12 pm (UTC)
goodbyebird: 70s Show: Kitty is laughing. (70s Show Kitty)
From: [personal profile] goodbyebird
Skimmed a bit in the beginning, sounds interesting, thanks!

Date: 2013-09-24 09:21 pm (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
They are showing this in the US but on a channel I don't get...but, it will be available on DVD in January so I will come back and read then

Date: 2014-03-05 08:25 am (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
I HAVE WATCHED!

First, I like stories where zombies are used as supernatural metaphors, or where it feels like there’s a palpable subtext behind the use of undead characters.

lol I disliked In the Flesh for how on the nose it felt to me, but The Returned reminded me of it a litttle bit, particularly with Simon having killed himself. Like if you kill yourself and then have to come back as a zombie, IDK seems LIKE REALLY BIG PUNISHMENT UNIVERSE.

I sort of thought Lena had loads of guilt surrounding Camille's death since she was getting it on with the love of Camille's life having lied to stay home from the field trip for that purpose? So I can only imagine that the grief and guilt would have been huge, but obvs she would have been putting her life back together after losing her sister when BAM. Oh her sister is back and she's still that same girl seeing the world the same way as when she died. Why was Victor there though, when the bus crashed?

I completely agree about Victor, SO CREEPY.

I think that I'm in agreement with a lot of what you say about the characters. I really appreciated how complicated things were and how you could feel for both characters in any given situation, that's one of my favorite things ever, tbh, and somewhat hard for shows to pull off. I mean I liked that Camille was still a 15 year old girl with ridiculous 15 year old motivations and desires, certainly not acting like someone coming back and given a second chance at life or whatnot. I didn't think about her as a malevolent force I guess, though I do see what you mean.

I also found myself rooting for Simon and feeling annoyed about it, lol. Thomas wasn't really any better, he was so threatened by Simon and controlling and spying on his wife, UGH.And I felt like everyone involved were not taking Chloe's feelings seriously. But lol Simon himself was no prince. But I still wanted him to win in a way, lol.

I really like that the show was so layered and mysterious. I loved the way they did their reveals, I liked thinking there is a bigger mystery in all of this, but OMG MAGICAL PREGNANCY NO. Whyyyy show. Sorry, that was just so disappointing to me! But everything else was great. Great characters, great pacing, great mystery, etc.

Oh also I was grossed out when they started decaying, ugh.

anyway, this is a really rambly comment, sorry! I just now finished and am tired but needed a place to vent some feelings :)

Interesting enough, I read the book The Returned that the US show is based on. It's actually quite a bit different and I'm looking forward to the US show as well because I think it will have different considerations.

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