Returning to your home town after years away should be cause for celebration. So it’s understandable when Camille (Yara Pilartz) arrives back in her tiny French mountain village she expects her family and friends to rejoice after four years away. There’s only one problem: she’s dead.
Usually zombie series treat the undead as a physical threat to the living. But The Returned takes a different tact, building tension from the undead's efforts to return to their previous lives. They’re the same as they ever were; it’s the living who are the ones that are disturbed. The result is classic television: The New York Times called it transfixing and unsettling; The Guardian described it as intangible and poetic.
For the living of The Returned, it’s not quite as simple as just accepting the return of deceased loved ones as some kind of straightforward miracle. The Returned is a series that loves to pose questions (answering them? Not so much), swiftly building up an eerie vibe that echoes Twin Peaks at its finest. Camille might seem unchanged, but that doesn’t stop her twin sister Lena (Jenna Thiam) from freaking out – and not just because she’s now four years older than her twin. At least Camille has a family; others of the undead aren’t so lucky, especially eight year-old Victor (Swann Nambotin), whose death 35 years ago seems to have some deeper significance.
If this was just another story of the dead coming back to life Walking Dead-style it wouldn’t have struck such a chord with viewers around the world (it was a ratings hit in the UK and a US version was attempted; it was axed after its first season). This is a show where mood counts for as much as logic: Vulture called it uncannily beautiful, while Variety said it was romantic, foreboding and creepy all at once. The gorgeous Alpine scenery here is as much a part of the series as anything else, and the slightly haunting, slightly run-down atmosphere of a tourist town in the off-season quickly seems like the perfect setting for the border between life and death to shift.
Like most monster tales, zombie stories tend to work within strict boundaries. Everybody knows the undead are mindless carnivores that kill by biting you, and it’s only by smashing their brains that they can be stopped. Only here the undead seem (at first) no different from everyone else; later, when mysterious wounds and strange sleeping patterns are revealed, they only deepen the mystery. And what’s the deal with the water in the local dam? No sooner are the dead up and walking around than the water level begins to drop, gradually exposing a whole new layer of death and decay – this kind a lot more physical.
But it’s the way this series moves between wish and nightmare that makes it truly haunting. Usually the return of a loved one from the grave is portrayed as the kind of heartfelt desire that comes back to bite; The Returned skilfully plays on that by dragging out the moment where the zombie movie is often strongest – the point where the dead have returned to life but the living haven’t realised the threat.
We’re constantly waiting for the undead to turn and for the living to have their hearts broken all over again. Every twist could be the point where it all falls apart; the longer they seem their old selves, the more painful that moment will be. And then there’s the undead who don’t need to be zombies to be dangerous; when people start turning up dead in the village – from stab wounds rather than bites – it’s a reminder that death takes away evil people as well as good, and even the seemingly miraculous returned are a mixed blessing.
At its core, The Returned is a series about the ways the world shifts under our feet. The living and the undead might be suffering from different kinds of shock, but they’re both struggling to cope with a world that has changed in ways that can’t be brushed aside. We all know that life is strange; turns out the afterlife isn’t any more knowable.
Seasons 1+2 of The Returned are again streaming at SBS On Demand: