The Returned opens quietly, as we’re walked around a small mountain town in France. We see a bar, filled with the usual teenage drinkers and an older man, Jérôme, who’s come to see one of the waitresses. She apologises and he says he’ll try again and leaves. He arrives at a support group meeting and it becomes clear that something truly awful happened here recently. Many of the residents who were touched by these events have been able to get past it. Jérôme, played by Frédéric Pierrot isn’t even close to it. He’s tired and politely broken by grief, made all the worse by the fact that the man leading the group, Pierre, played by Jean-François Sivadier, is now living with Jérôme’s wife, Claire, played by Anne Consigny. Their surviving daughter, Lena (Jenna Thiam) is barely present, and spends her days getting drunk in the local bar. This is a family, and a town, that’s quietly broken in two, nursing wounds that will never heal, despite the best efforts of Pierre and the support group.
Then, a blackout walks its way across the valley.
When it lifts, the dead start to return.
There is a constant air of otherworldly menace to the first episode of The Returned, whether it’s the offhand way Camille (Yara Pilartz) makes a sandwich or Victor (Swann Nambotin) and his silent, relentless presence in the life of town nurse Julie (Céline Sallette). Each arrival is met, not with the tears and relief that you’d expect, but a tight-jawed acceptance, the terror that the living feel betrayed by their eyes or hushed conversations out of earshot. This is an event so unprecedented, so viscerally wrong that everyone locks in place, unsure whether to embrace their dead or run as far and fast away from them as they can. It makes for a profoundly unsettling hour of TV, made more so by the fact the town is hunched underneath the black, featureless mass of the mountains. There’s an air of Picnic at Hanging Rock to the episode, that same sense of living on the boundary of the normal world and being spotted, and reached out, by something on the other side.
That sense of menace is heightened by some remarkably smart story choices. We’re dropped into the middle of these people’s lives and have to swim to the edges ourselves. The ghosts of the last four years haunt the Returned as much as the people they’ve returned to, with Jérôme and Claire’s relationship, or lack of it, at the centre of this episode. As we work out more about them, it becomes clear there’s huge emotion behind everything they do, especially the natural way they fall back into speech patterns and mannerisms when they’re around each other. But that familiarity is swamped, like the town itself, by the sheer enormity of what’s happened. Orbiting around them, Pilartz does great work as the supernaturally calm Camille whilst Thiam’s Lena is a rolling ball of rage, grief and horror. The fact that Camille is the same age as she was when she died four years previously, revealed late in the episode, is one of the episode’s best moments and leads to even more questions about the girls. There’s something else going on with them in particular, with the end of the episode implying that they either share a psychic bond of some sort, switched places on the day of the accident or Camille had a premonition of what was about to happen.
Elsewhere in town, the direction is as subtle. The reveal on Mr Costa’s wife returning, and his actions, are both horrifying as is the sudden, brutal (And I suspect temporary) murder of another character. In both cases questions abound; what did Mr Costa do? How did Mrs Costa die the first time? Who committed the murder in the underpass? It’s a deliberately ambiguous, and horrific scene, with the camera looking on unflinchingly as Lucy, one of the waitresses at the bar, is stabbed again and again. There’s an implication that there’s something more to it though, a suggestion that other people in the town may know what’s happened (And perhaps that it’s happened before) and have chosen Lucy as a test case. Again, just enough answers to keep you interested and lead you on to even more questions.
Then there’s Victor, played by Swann Nambotin. The youngest Returned, Victor is silent this episode but his presence draws lines of tension across every scene he’s in. Attaching himself to Julie, the town nurse played by Céline Sallette, Victor’s glacial calm is the point that the entire episode orbits around. He’s involved in the accident that killed Camille and seems to have no one to return to. His relationship with Julie is muted, calm and, thanks to great work by both Nambotin and Sallette, sweet. Whether it stays that way remains to be seen.
The Returned is menacing, gripping television. Anyone doubtful about spending time with a foreign language show really shouldn’t be, the script is so well balanced that you get swept along in the plot and instinctively follow the subtitles. This is a fiercely smart, unsettling debut and I can’t wait for the second episode. Even if I’m not sure I want to watch it in the dark…