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The French Zombie Show You Didn’t Even Know You Needed

Death is not a welcome guest.

By 4.17.14

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There’s a scene in the second half of the Peabody Award-winning French TV show The Returned (Les Revenants) where two characters are swimming across a reservoir. One cries out and disappears. The other dives under the surface and searches for him, but with no luck. Eventually, he gives up. The first person is gone, apparently without a trace.

Give or take a few traces (a body, say), this is how death is supposed to work, particularly if you don’t believe in an afterlife: you swim along and someone around you disappears. Then the water closes over them and life goes on, until it doesn’t. And even if you do believe in an afterlife, you do not expect the sudden resurfacing of your lost companion to be any time soon.

But death in The Returned, which was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the United States, doesn’t work that way. Instead, it works much like a different scenario from the same episode: a person attempting to drive across a dam finds herself always on the side she is trying to leave. No matter how many times she drives across the dam, she never goes anywhere. And neither, as it turns out, do the dead.

Based on a 2004 film of the same name (well, in French, anyway—the English title is They Came Back), The Returned focuses on a small town’s risen dead as they come to terms with having been dead and try to regain their old lives. But not everybody is happy to see them; and, depending on how long they have been dead, they may not have any life to return to at all.

When Simon Delaître, for instance, returns to life and to the woman he was engaged to marry, he discovers that he has been dead for several years and that woman is about to marry someone else. His one-time fiancée is at first traumatized by his reappearance, and then reconciles herself to what she imagines to be a representation of her survivor’s guilt in a speech that is heartbreaking and funny at once. “I know you’re a ghost,” she says. “You’re part of my life. I won’t forget you. Of course, at one point, I tried.”

But Simon, who is neither a memory nor a ghost, is left to contemplate how unwelcome his presence is to this woman, who has painfully built a life in the wreck he left behind. Not because she doesn’t love him, but rather because she does. And when she realizes, inevitably, that her dead love isn’t so dead, she will have to consider whether she ever really wanted him back.

He is not the only one whose reappearance comes with a reminder of the work time has done. Fifteen-year-old Camille is one of a set of identical twins. She died, her sister Lena didn’t; thus all their scenes together have an undertone of accusation. In their interactions, you see the unwelcome past and the hostile future, each demanding of the other: “How could you change? How could you stay the same?”

The dead can’t really return, even when they come back to life. In one scene, two characters—one dead and one living—spy each other through a window and try to reunite by walking down a seemingly endless wall of windows until they eventually reach an opening. But even as they embrace each other, the viewer is left aware that they are still separated by something greater than space.

It’s a truism that the dead always stay with us, but The Returned demonstrates the ways in which that saying is both very true and very not. The living and the dead are both faced with how difficult it is to forgive someone for living while you’ve been dead—or, for that matter, being dead while you’ve been living. The return of the dead makes death more terrible and life more pointless, even as some try to seize on their reappearance as a message of hope.

And their return gives rise to uncomfortable thoughts: that the process of healing and moving on from death is always a betrayal; that the relentlessness of life is as terrible as death in its own way. And that insofar as the dead stay with us, it may not be because anybody wanted it that way. 

Nothing is perfect, so The Returned isn’t either. When the show focuses on how traumatic it would be for the dead to come back into a life, it is unbeatable; when it makes other decisions, such as venturing into the realm of a greater plot or some kind of religious commentary, it becomes either simply weird (plot) or simply wrong (religion).

The show is full of vague overtures of a greater plotline to come, but they don’t really add up. Anyone who has seen a TV show before will know to take those hints with a big dose of skepticism. And a recurring minor character is an extremely regrettable Catholic priest who informs one parishioner that Christianity does not believe in a bodily resurrection, and another that it is not necessary to believe in the resurrection of Christ. Someone should probably speak to his bishop.

It’s hard to say whether The Returned’s misguided determination to give itself a plot will hurt the next season. And the religious elements, which are badly handled, also unnecessarily complicate the study of human feelings that make the rest of the show so great. But the first season, simply as an examination of guilt and grief, will remain worth watching either way.

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About the Author

B. D. McClay is the associate editor of the Hedgehog Review.