Les-Revenants-Television-Series-1080x1920Last week saw the DVD release of The Returned (Les Revenants), the French drama that aired on Channel 4 earlier this year about the dead reappearing in a small mountain town. Last month I had a whole heap of fun marathon-viewing all four seasons of Justified and keeping a diary as I went along, and so here I am again doing the same thing with The Returned, which presents us with a much more manageable 8 episodes to delve into.

Below are recaps/diary entries; real-time thoughts, feelings and reactions to the show that we had whilst watching each episode, through the unique prism of a binge-watch. If you’ve seen the show already then feel free to dive in and read the diary in one big binge, but if you’re planning on watching the show for the first time on DVD too, then you might be advised to revisit the diary after each episode.

Now, full disclosure here – I’d actually seen the first episode once already, when it first aired on Channel 4 back in June. I really liked it then but due to a succession of busy Sunday nights I fell behind on the show and never caught up. So I’m re-experiencing that episode (and spotting a whole bunch of things I missed the first time), whereas the rest are completely new to me. That caveat out of the way, let’s dive into The Returned:

Episode 1 – Camille

Camille - The Returned

As opening scenes go, this is a pretty good one. We’re introduced to The Returned in an incredibly atmospheric scene on the roadside of a misty mountain, and then a bus – on which we meet the episode’s title character, Camille – seemingly drives off the edge for no reason whatsoever. Roll credits. That was four years ago, and in the present we start to see The Returned, well, return. Camille of course is one of them, but we also see a curly-haired chap walking enigmatically towards town, a creepy young boy being incredibly creepy, and a middle-aged woman shows up at an elderly mans house. Oh, and at that house we also saw a dead butterfly come back to life – given the dead floating animals we see in the opening credits, I wonder whether that might prove significant.

The high concept’s there from the beginning, but for a long time this opening episode seems more concerned with establishing its characters that it does with delving into the whole undead stuff. It’s more about seeing how the individuals react to seeing those they’ve grieved for return, than it is about any kind of plot progression. Well, for a while at least. In the last 10-15 minutes we get a lot more plot, but we’ll get to that. For now it’s just nice to soak in the ominous atmosphere (it feels very Let the Right One In) and meet the people who are going to be the major players over the course of the next eight episodes.

I know these undead folk don’t seem to be your traditional zombies right now, but I have to say I’m growing increasingly concerned by how hungry each of them seem to be when they show up. That’s pretty unnerving. A couple of movie posters seem notable by their inclusion, too. L’Exorciste (in the house that creepy kid Victor shows up at – eek!) and Memento posters are prominently displayed, and I’m guessing that they may be hinting at religious themes, and the importance of piecing together the past. Also that things might not be what they seem at first, and that something evil this way comes? Okay, lots of guesswork here… they may just be posters, we’ll see.

So here’s something I didn’t see coming the first time around – Camille, and he older sister Lena are actually twins. There’s a picture of them together when they were both Camille’s current age earlier in the episode, but it totally passed me by. It may have made the reveal later in the episode more affecting, but it also made me feel a little dim. I also wrongly assumed last time that the middle-aged woman was the daughter of the old man, but I think it’s pretty clear she was actually his wife. That means that the ‘returned’ all died at different times (the curly-haired chap, Simon, looks at his grave which states he died in 2002), and so we’re not just watching people who were on Camille’s bus. That’s interesting, and the final scene of the episode which flashes back to the bus crash again shows that creepy Victor was present, so maybe some of them returned at different times too?

So lots of questions, but let’s get back to the lots of plot development at the end of the episode. The old man, Mr Costa, can’t cope with the return of his wife and sets fire to the house with her tied up inside. He then leaves and kills himself, jumping from the dam where the undead seem to have reappeared from. The body of Mrs Costa isn’t recovered though, so maybe she survived (another thing I missed last time), or maybe she simply had to return for a second time. We also witness a brutal attack in an underpass (again recalling Let the Right One In), and a hooded man stabs a young woman repeatedly in the stomach. Then Camille and her twin Lena are reunited, which is fairly intense, but not quite as intense as that last flashback. While Camille was on the bus, Lena was busy losing her virginity… and Camille felt it too. She freaks out on the bus, distracts the driver who then swerves to avoid creepy Victor, and a fantastic plunging camera shot puts us in the POV of the bus heading towards the water.

It’s a great first episode, but one that makes me wonder whether this may be less of a reactive diary, and more of an investigative one. What do we know, when do we know it, and what does it all mean? There are a lot of questions, a lot of mystery, and I’m certainly intrigued…

Episode 2 – Simon

Simon The Returned

It looks like each episode is going to begin with a flashback to the day that the title character dies. We don’t actually see Simon’s death here, but we get a lot of context around it. Simon was engaged to Adele, a waitress at the local pub, ten years ago. On their wedding day she reveals to him that she’s pregnant, but she’s later left waiting for him at the church and he never makes it. In the last episode we saw signs that Adele has never quite gotten over Simon (their child is likely a constant reminder of her los), and it’s that strong character work from the first episode that makes this flashback even more heartbreaking. I wonder whether it’s important, though, that we don’t know yet exactly how Simon died?

Back in the present, it’s starting to seem like these undead folk aren’t good news at all. Perhaps being introduced to the seemingly innocent Camille in the first episode was meant to confuse us. We’re not meant to know whether they’re bad or good yet. Saying that, little Victor is getting creepier and creepier, like antichrist kinda creepy, and Simon gets very violent very quickly with a restaurant owner. The case for their defense isn’t improved when we find out that the hooded stabber from the last episode is also one of them, although it sounds like he may have been a murdering SOB before he was killed by his own brother! The man in question, Serge, likes to stab women in the stomach and then try to eat their livers, and apparently he tried to do the same seven years ago. At the end of the episode we see that Julie, the woman who has taken Victor in, has scars on her stomach, so it would appear that she was his victim. Did she die too? Did she return?

In another unexpected twist, it appears that Serge’s present day victim is still alive. Given that she was left in that underpass overnight bleeding out, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that she, Lucy, definitely did die and come back to life. That lends credence to the theory that some of the undead have returned at different times. Elsewhere, we see that Camille’s sister Lena is starting to put some of the pieces together that others haven’t, and realises that Simon has also returned from the dead. I really like Lena, she’s my favourite character so far, and hopefully she’ll prove key to weaving some of the disconnected narratives together throughout the series.

Episode 3 – Julie

Julie - The Returned

There were three clear threads of Julie’s episode that seem ripe for discussion, so let’s address them one at a time. The first, naturally, concerns Julie’s flashback at the start of the episode. Given that the previous flashbacks have been to the day of the title characters’ deaths, I’m not sure whether we’re meant to think that we’re seeing Julie die here, implying that she’s one of the returned, or more likely that the show wants to keep us guessing about her. What is for sure though is that the assumption from the last episode, that Julie was attacked by Serge in the underpass, was a correct one. We also see that she was in a relationship with the female cop we’ve met briefly in the previous episodes, Laure, who crosses her path again in the present day.

The next thread that I found really interesting was the story with Camille, Lena and their family. We think we’re going to see the twins connect again for the first time, but instead Lena lashes out when Camille spots a strange scar/legion on her sister’s back. It may be all of the mystery and questions that are keeping me interested in The Returned, but it’s the relationships between the undead and their old families that are keeping me invested. At least Camille’s worked out a clever way to get out of the house – she’s going to pretend to be Lena’s younger cousin, which seems to be fooling most people. Ominously, however, her mother also finds a dead animal carcass in their rubbish bin. Has Camille been snacking? Are the undead more zombie-like than they appear? However much time we spend with each of them and invest in their stories, it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier to entirely trust them.

Creepy Victor may be the driving force behind that mistrust, and he’s at the centre of the episode’s biggest ‘what the fudge just happened’ sequence. He’s almost become a parody of a creepy kid at this point, what with his terrifying dead-eyed drawings, so when he goes to visit the crazy cat lady at the other end of the hall you just know things aren’t going to end well. Sure enough, she’s later found dead, stabbed in the stomach, but at the same time we get a very strange scene with Julie downstairs. Serial killer Serge appears and attacks her, only maybe he doesn’t. Eventually we see Serge morph into Victor, who appears to be comforting Julie and pulling the scissors away from her stomach before she hurts herself. Was it connected to what was going on upstairs? I genuinely have no idea. That scene is a complete puzzle to me.

Some other stray observations: the moment Simon meets his daughter for the first time was a lovely one; and all of the weird stuff with the water seems important, doesn’t it? There’s lots of panicking going on around the dam itself, and now it seems the water problems are spreading. I wonder how all of that will tie in as we move forward?

Episode 4 – Victor

Simon - The Returned

And just like that, so many of my assumptions change. I pretty much had Victor pegged as some kind of malevolent force – maybe not even one of the returned, maybe something more sinister – and then we get this tragic flashback. A whopping 35 years ago, Victor was killed shortly after the rest of his family were also slain, when two masked men discovered him hiding in a closet. It’s possibly the most heartbreaking scene of the series so far, and one that completely transforms ones feelings towards Victor. He was just an innocent little boy who’s clearly still traumatised by the memory, and maybe he isn’t quite as creepy as he appears.

We’re also seeing new sides of some of the other undead characters. Simon, who became much more sympathetic since his violent outburst in the second episode, gets carried away and almost rapes Adele. They share some more consensual intimate scenes later, but Adele’s attitude towards Simon is transformed when her fiance reveals that Simon committed suicide on their wedding day. Camille, who also appeared sympathetic when trying to bond with her sister, goes into full-on bitch mode in this episode as she tries to get back at her sister by seducing her old crush (and the boy Lena lost her virginity to), Frederic. When Lena, clearly distressed confronts her at the end of the episode, Camille publicly humiliates her. That’s enough to send Lena over the edge after everything else she’s had to deal with this week.

That legion on Lena’s back that Camille noticed last week has suddenly got a whole lot worse, and she’s rushed to hospital. I can’t remember whether Camille touched the legion, or just saw it, but something about it makes me wonder whether she was responsible in some way. Might the returned each have some kind of power? Victor seems to be able to do some freaky stuff, so maybe Camille can inflict pain on people too? It’s pure speculation, but as Lena and Camille’s relationship sours, Lena’s condition seems to get worse. She ends the episode unconscious in the underpass… where Serge finds her. Noooooo! Not Lena!

Anyway, back to Victor, who seems to identify Pierre as one of the men involved in killing him and his family 35 years earlier. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t like this. It felt all too convenient, frankly lazy storytelling for Pierre to just repeat the same phrase that we heard the masked man utter at the start of the episode. As much as that irked, however, it does give me a chance to talk about Pierre. I haven’t mentioned him before, but he does seem central to a lot of what’s going on. He seems to have relationships with many of the returned, and despite running the ‘Helping Hand’ centre, his intentions have seemed dodgy even before this revelation. His religious beliefs are obviously thematically key, and his relationship with Camille’s mother seems laced with bad intentions. I don’t like him one bit, and I wonder if he knows more than he’s letting on.

Episode 5 – Serge et Toni

Serge - The Returned

We’re back to seven years ago, the night Julie was attacked in the underpass, and we see how her life was saved. Toni, Serge’s brother, somehow knew what Serge was up to and where, and went to stop him. He took Julie to the hospital and then, horrifically, took his brother back home and buried him alive. Sure, Serge is a cannibalistic serial killer, but that’s still a horrible way to go.

Back in the present Serge is somehow managing to resist the temptation to gut Lena (phew!) and even helps to heal her back. And, to be honest, for most of the episode that’s the most interesting thing that happens. There seems to be a very distinct mid-season treading-water feel to this episode, and it doesn’t engage in the way that the previous four did. Serge and Toni, even together, aren’t the most interesting pair to structure an episode around. We even knew (or could intuit) most of the events from the flashback. We do get to see that zombie butterfly again, and we also meet those floaty dead animals from the opening credits in the water around the dam. Apparently they committed suicide – just like Simon!

Ah, Simon, poor Simon. He’s dead again! He’s shot by Adele’s fiancé, Thomas, who’s had it out for Simon for a long time. Even this is pretty much bereft of tension, though, as it seems fairly clear that Simon won’t be staying dead for very long. That raises the interesting new idea that the undead can’t be killed – so might some of the returned have returned before? Adele doesn’t seem very upset when Simon’s shot, regardless, so it seems she’s finally turned against her undead former fiancé and is as unsure about him as the rest of us.

Elsewhere, in a resolution of the plotline I didn’t like from last week, Victor finds Pierre and tries to use his freaky making people appear mind tricks to kill him, only they’re interrupted and it didn’t work. It’s a nice insight into Victor’s abilities, but nothing more. Hopefully the next episode will see an improvement, especially given that the last shot shows us that an almost fully-recovered Lucy has woken from her coma.

Episode 6 – Lucy

Lucy The Returned

Lucy wakes up, and straight away we’re getting more of her story via flashback. If there’s one thing about The Returned that can be predicted by now, it’s that as soon as they introduce a new element, they’re going to be exploring it fairly quickly. So Lucy’s awake, and immediately we learn more about her as we flash back a year into the past, breaking the established format (as long as we continue to assume Julie, at least briefly, died from her wounds) that the flashbacks are to the day of the character’s death. But we already saw Lucy’s death, so instead we see her arriving in town for the first time and meeting Camille and Lucy’s father Jerome – who we actually saw her with in the very first episode, pre-stabbing. Reluctantly, Jerome sleeps with Lucy, who then claims to be able to see the then still-dead Camille mid-coitus. It was off-handedly mentioned in an earlier episode that Lucy claimed to be able to contact the dead (how did I fail to mention that!), and although that seems entirely possible in the world of the show, we’re still left wondering whether it might have been a con she was pulling. This is actually a much stronger episode that the last, and it feels we’re gearing up towards the end of the series now, with Lucy’s return acting as a catalyst.

I think one of the main reasons I didn’t like the last episode was a lack of Lena, but thankfully she’s back, but stupidly she’s climbing into bed with serial killer Serge. Things go south when the police arrive, Toni shoots one of them, and Lena has to flee. Back with Camille, things aren’t going too well either. Frederic now knows who she is, but confused he decides to dig up her grave and finds only that murky black water inside. Is there a link between the graves and the water beside the dam? Is that how they returned? Gah, my brain hurts! During the trauma of being outed, Pierre convinces Camille to speak (read: lie) to the parents of the other bus crash victims and comfort them with tales from the other side.

But yet again, after a strong episode full of great character moments, it’s the last 10-15 minutes that bring all the exciting plot-driven stuff. Simon, as expected returns again, and immediately bumps into Lucy. As enigmatic as Simon seemed in the early episodes as he wandered the town in his wedding suit, Lucy’s infinitely more inscrutable and fascinating. She seems to know far more about her situation than the rest of the undead, and I’m desperate to find out more about her.  Anyway, after recruiting Simon (because recruiting is very much what it feels like) they head back to her pad to have some full-on zombie-sex, during which Lucy claims to have visions of his suicide. We’re seeing them too, except, what we’re seeing isn’t Simon hanging himself, it’s two of the parents who Camille told their child was waiting for them in the afterlife. It’s a freaky sex scene that turns into an emotional gut-punch of a moment, and it feels like a fitting way to end the episode.

Except, wait. There’s more. Remember Lena was fleeing from Serge’s house through the woods. Well in the middle of the woods she sees something disturbing, and IT’S ONLY AN ENORMOUS GROUP OF ZOMBIES!!! Well, I’m assuming they’re also among ‘the returned’, but holy shit there’s loads of them and they all seem to be grouped together like your traditional zombie horde. Have we just made the shift from mystery to flat-out horror?

Episode 7 – Adele

Adele - The Returned

So from a horde of zombies to the image of a woman with slashed wrists. We’re flashing back a year again, this time to Adele who attempted to take her own life. We kind of already knew something like this had happened to her, but it wasn’t made clear how severe her self-harming was. Could she have actually died at this point? Should we start to suspect that Adele is one of the undead in the same way that we think perhaps Julie may be? It really didn’t look like Thomas had found her quickly enough in that flashback. I have to say, I love the way the flashbacks are right at the start of every episode. It feels like, as viewers, we’re being rewarded with a new jigsaw piece as a thank you for tuning in to each new episode.

Back to the present day, and Serge and Toni are on the run in the woods, and they come across the zombie camp that Lena saw earlier. It’s full of burnt, rotting animal carcasses, and there’s definitely the sense that the camp’s previous inhabitants aren’t too friendly. Two other undead characters, Camille and Mrs Costa, then share a conversation that suggests their return only spells darkness. There’s a tacit acknowledgement that Mrs Costa caused her husband’s death, and that Camille was responsible for the deaths of the parents from last week. Mrs Costa, who mysteriously hasn’t been the focus of an episode despite being one of the returned, then tells Camille that she died from starvation in the aftermath of the dam bursting 35 years ago. But she’s told different stories to Camille’s parents before about her death, so Camille doesn’t believe her. I do, however. I just think Mrs Costa has died a number of times already.

There’s a couple of images from this episode that really stuck with me. There was Serge being dragged suddenly underwater, never to resurface. Then there was the hilarious image of creepy Victor (yes, he’s still creepy, even if he’s not totally evil) bouncing gleefully on a trampoline… only to do his mind trick again, causing Adele’s daughter to faint. Then there was Simon finding the flesh on his stomach was beginning to rot, only to rip off a strip and have a good old munch on it.

And remember when I said last episode that when The Returned introduces a new element, it immediately runs with it; that’s what happens here with the rotting flesh. We’re first shown that Camille has a tiny bit on her face, and then within a few minutes we see that Victor’s entire arm is rotten. Simon’s totally rotten torso is the tip of the iceberg, at least we think it is before he snacks on it too. Sure, there have been tiny hints that this might be happening before, but as soon as it’s out in the open we’re hit with a barrage of rotting flesh reveals.

The main transition in the episode is that everyone seems to be converging on Pierre’s ‘Helping Hand’ centre, where the zealot has vast supplies of food and weaponry. He’s hoping that he’s going to get raptured up to heaven, that these are the end times, and many seem to share the view that it’s the safest place to be right now. There are a couple of people that don’t agree though: Simon and Lucy decide their place is with the terrifying zombie horde; and Julie, Victor and Laure are trying to get away. The thing is though, they’re driving around the dam and it just doesn’t seem to end – that is what happened there, right? I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that the dam is going to play a big part in the finale. I’m not sure how, but given that everything started there, and the mysterious problems they’ve been having, it seems like a natural place to end the season.

Episode 8 – La Horde

Le Horde - The Returned

Woah, okay, there’s a lot to get through here. Even the flashback is an information avalanche. So we’re flashing back 35 years again, and this time we see that the dam has just burst. The implication is that the horde were all victims of the dam bursting, but some familiar faces were among the survivors. We see a young Serge and Toni pretending to be dead around a not yet dead Victor, although apparently Victor’s real name is Louis? Mrs Costa is there, eerily predicting that the dead will have their revenge, and we’re shown the face of one victim of the dam. Another flashback, now only one week in the past, on the day the dead returned, shows that dam victim returning at the same time that Camille does. Camille heads towards town, while the dam victim sees the zombie horde assembling in the woods.

The town’s dense history seems ripe fodder for further exploration in a second series, but for now we’re back in the present day where Victor says the horde tried to recruit him overnight. We also see an area of the town that’s been ransacked, and there’s a crazy guy drinking from the toilets with bite marks all over his face and neck. He may be the first full-on, traditional zombie that we’re seeing. Has this season merely been a prequel to the traditional zombie apocalypse? If it has, it’s been a damn good one, and we should be suitably terrified for what might follow, now that we’ve grown to like a lot of these characters.

At this point I also genuinely like a lot about Camille and Victor, and I definitely like Julie and Adele, so should they turn out to also be undead there’s a lot of the returned characters that I like and am invested in. And even if I don’t particularly like some of the other characters (and that’s mostly by the show’s design) I’m interested in nearly all of them, and that’s some achievement given the size of the cast and the heavy mythology. It occurred to me during this episode, though, that the one character I’ve never really latched onto is Claire, Lena and Camille’s mother. I don’t feel the show has ever really got to grips with her in the way it has with the rest of her family. She always feels like the second most important character in any given scene, whereas even Jerome and Pierre feel fully-formed, complex and realised in many of the same situations.

Back to the main plot, and Simon escapes from prison (along with that undead butterfly that keeps popping up) and reunites with Lucy. They’re on a mission to kidnap Simon and Adele’s daughter and take her with them to join the horde. A manic scene follows in which we find out Adele’s pregnant (ZOMBABY!), and Simon and Lucy manage to take off with the child despite Adele managing to stab her former fiancé in the gut. There are lots of stomach injuries in this episode. In fact, there have been a lot in the series – just imagine what will happen if the zombies start doing some proper stomach ripping! Victor pulls his crazy mind tricks on Toni, and makes him shoot himself in the stomach. Toni, who I’ve always imagined would be the first character to die, is rushed to the ‘Helping Hand’ centre by Julie and Laure for medical attention.

Now comes the most uncomfortable scene of the episode. Forget zombies, Julie being reunited with her killer/attacker, Serge – who doesn’t even seem to recognize her – is a horrible thing to experience as a viewer. Couple that with Julie desperately trying, and failing, to save the life of the man who seven years earlier saved hers, and the scene is difficult to watch on a number of levels. The spine tingles at the moment Serge wraps his arms around Julie, and it says a lot about how much is going on in the scene that Serge’s miraculous, unexpected return from the water isn’t the first thing you think about when he shows up.

The final 15 minutes is a showdown between the town, who’ve almost all assembled at the Helping Hand now, and the hoard, led by Lucy. They arrive at nightfall, willing to exchange Adele’s daughter to her step-father Thomas, in return for the rest of their kind. So that’s Mrs Costa, who agrees to leave, Victor, who is taken by Julie (so she could still be one of them), and Camille, who is accompanied by Claire. They give Adele’s daughter back, but they also want Adele herself to join them. Could that be because Adele’s one of them, or because she’s carrying a zombaby? Irregardless, it’s a fantastically tense scene that unravels, with Thomas eventually refusing to give over Adele (despite forcing the others out), while Pierre stands helplessly by and watches as all of his power and belief seems to evaporate.

They retreat into the Helping Hand, draw down the shutters, and leave some of the police outside as a guard against the horde who still want Adele. We hear what sounds like a firefight outside, but when the shutters come up the next day there’s no sign of anyone. The guards are gone. So too are the horde. And, unbelievably, so has their town. Okay, so I thought something might happen with the dam, but I had no idea it would burst and completely destroy the whole place. The final shots of the survivors looked shellshocked out at the flooded land is extremely affecting. And from a wider narrative standpoint, given that the dead’s return seems linked to that water, should we expect more of them to follow? It’s a perfect cliffhanger, and I feel like the series has answered just enough of the questions without giving away so much that we don’t want to come back for more.

The series first aired in France late in 2012, and apparently we’ll be left waiting till at least late 2014 for a second series. IMPOSSIBLE! I genuinely can’t wait for more of this. I want to spend more time with those characters, and at least some answers to some of the bigger mysteries would be nice. Please do let me know in the comments if you think there’s anything I’ve missed or that you think I’ve got wrong – I’m going to go ahead and assume there’s a lot – and let us know what you thought of the show.