A teenage girl sits on a school bus, looking lazily outside. Within seconds, that school bus is swerving off the bridge. The teenage girl dies—and then returns to her mom’s house later on, apparently rising from the dead. It’s a good thing, but also a terrifying thing: There’s no explanation for her sudden reappearance, and there probably won’t be for some time. This is how Camille dies and then comes back. This is how A&E’s The Returned begins.
The Returned is adapted from a French television series titled Les Revenants—or, The Returned in French—that was adapted from a 2004 movie titled They Came Back. Les Revenants, a slow-moving but intriguing series about the dead returning to earth, quickly became a critical hit. It was moody; it was well-acted; it was mysterious as hell.
Carlton Cuse’s American adaptation is, at this point, a near carbon-copy of its inspiration—except for two very important factors: the atmosphere and the soundtrack. Les Revenants’ scenes are minimally lit, mostly bathed in yellow tones that add a dose of eeriness to the already eerie show while The Returned more closely resembles the look of a drama like Scandal. Mogwai’s moody instrumentals soundtrack Les Revenants, setting the tone for every scene it accompanies, while The Returned opens with a run-of-the-mill guitar-heavy tune.
Comparatively, The Returned is good but not as good as Les Revenants. The Returned wasn’t made for watchers of the original, though. It was made for people who haven’t seen the French series, who are looking for something strange and spooky and powerful they can watch without having to pay attention to chunky subtitles.
With the origin story out of the way, let’s talk about the first episode: Each hour focuses on one of The Returned, and this one spotlights Camille (India Ennenga)—and manages to introduce the rest of the undead crew. Their lives don’t intertwine too much—at least not yet—so for now, I’ll give a rundown family by family beginning with this week’s star.
The power goes out around town, so Camille’s mom, Claire (Tandi Wright), lights some candles by her daughter’s shrine. Once the power’s back on, she goes downstairs looking for Camille’s living sister Lena (Sophie Lowe)—only to find Camille making a sandwich in the kitchen, no big deal. Somehow Claire avoids visibly freaking out and instead talks to her daughter somewhat normally (albeit with a shocked expression on her face). This is about the time I’d call 911 insisting I was hallucinating, but Claire doesn’t question it: Her daughter is really back.
But she does call for reinforcements: Camille’s dad, Jack (Mark Pellegrino), who shakes his head in sorrow when Claire announces what’s going on. Then he sees Camille for himself and his heavy heart lightens a bit—though he still thinks it’s all pretty impossible.
Peter (Jeremy Sisto), a psychologist and Claire’s “friend,” comes over next and tells Camille she was in an accident. She doesn’t remember it—she only remembers riding on the bus then waking up in the woods. He assures her what’s happening is “extraordinary,” but she’s not buying it: Camille basically kicks Peter out so she can be alone (not sleep—The Returned don’t do that) in her bed.
This is when the show becomes more about grief, about what happens when there’s a solution to our grief. Camille is home; this is what her family likely—unrealistically—wished for since the moment they found out she had died. Claire is ready to completely accept that, circumstances and all, and she’s therefore the easier character to identify with. Of course she’s happy and accepting, her daughter returned from the dead. Isn’t this what everyone who’s ever lost someone wants? But Jack is the more interesting character because his reaction is complicated, just like the situation: He wanted Camille back too, but he’s also spent so much time attempting to accept her death, to accept her absence. That pain is still there. What’s he supposed to do with that now?
What he does is heads to a psychic, who claims she can communicate with the dead… only while you’re having sex with her. The psychic says Camille is “here for Claire,” but Jack’s not satisfied and ends up assaulting her—and things don’t improve for her from there: She’s walking through a tunnel when a hooded man chokes and stabs her. Goodbye, sex psychic.
In a less violent part of town, Camille and Lena—twins surprise!—are reuniting… sort of. Lena screams for her mom moments after seeing Camille for the first time, and we soon find out Lena was supposed to be on the bus that day four years ago, but she faked sick and stayed home to lose her virginity to some boy both she and her sister liked. The twist is, Camille appears to have felt Lena’s orgasm—and that feeling inspired her attempt to get off the moving bus. This is a bit disturbing and definitely not what Mary-Kate and Ashley movies or Sister Sister taught me. But it also points to a supernatural connection of sorts between the two, something that only adds to the unexplained mystery of this whole world.
NEXT: A nurse finds the little boy who caused the bus crash.
Driving home, Julie (Sandrine Holt)—a young nurse (Dylan Kingwell)—sees a little boy alone at a bus stop. Then she sees him again as she’s checking the mail in her apartment building’s lobby. Movies like The Shining and The Sixth Sense have taught us little kids are creepy, and this one’s no exception: Even when Julie tries her best to talk to him, he just stares blankly at her. Julie ends up calling him Victor, because of course that’s what you name a little boy who refuses to talk.
She threatens to call 911 if he continues to stay quiet, but these threats don’t bother him. Instead, he eats the food she gave him and smiles like a weirdo. It’s not until later when she’s putting him to bed and begs him to tell her his real name that he talks: “Victor,” he replies. It’s not clear whether he’s just giving himself the name she gave him or if she was clairvoyant, but either way, there’s something off with this kid—who might be a returned Returned: In the flashback to the bus crash, the driver swerves because he sees a little boy standing still in the middle of the road. That little boy is Victor, who would have no reason to just be chilling on a road if he was a normal mortal. Perhaps he was already dead, and perhaps he died again, only to repeat the process.
OLD MAN’S WIFE
A young woman climbs into bed next to an older, white-haired man. Bottles of pills pepper his bedside table, which features a large framed photograph of the young woman in a wedding gown. His wife has returned, and judging by the age difference, she’s been gone quite awhile—meaning she likely didn’t die in the bus crash, but somewhere and somehow else.
The man doesn’t understand and can’t handle it, so he heads to the dam where he jumps. Like Jack, he didn’t know how to process this return—and he seemed to attribute it to his own health: Before heading to the dam, he calls his doctor—Julie!—but hangs up once she answers. He had the opportunity to ask for help, but he decided to give up instead. Maybe it’s because he would rather die than watch his health worsen; maybe it’s because he was reminded of his wife and thought that by dying, he could finally be with her again. Or maybe it’s both.
Simon (Mat Vairo) is a more dressed-up version of The Strokes’ Fabrizio Moretti. He sulks around town in a white button-down, asking if anyone knows where Rowan (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is. It turns out Rowan was his one-time girlfriend (or fiancé or wife) until he, you know, died. Lena—who was busy getting drunk at the bar when she encountered Simon—leads him to Rowan’s house, where he finds her trying on a wedding veil.
Instead of letting her be like a respectful gentleman, he bangs on the door. If he, like Camille, doesn’t remember what happened to him, wouldn’t he assume things were okay with him and Rowan? Wouldn’t he just walk in the house, or ring the doorbell, like a normal human? But no, he scares her and reignites her grief.
Later, Rowan’s current beau comes inside to find her crying over Simon. “I thought it was over,” she says. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but also a reality check: Grief isn’t ever really over—especially when you still see what you think are visions of your dead ex.
We don’t really get to know any of the characters in the first episode of The Returned, yet there’s a heaviness that lingers after the hour is over. It’s emotional and dark and not blatantly scary, though it does have horror-like aspects: the unnamed man who stabs the psychic, Camille and Lena’s connection, the fact that all these people who were once—and maybe still are—dead are back roaming the earth. The unexplainable is inherently frightening, and most of the series is based on the unexplainable (or, at least, the currently unexplainable—this is only the first episode, after all).
Like Lost or The Leftovers, The Returned isn’t a show you should watch if you need answers. It probably won’t give them to you right away, if at all. But it is, so far, a show that explores grief and death and life in a thought-provoking way, a kind of show that’s often missing from television—and one that explores complicated, relatable topics that can be just as intriguing as easily resolved mysteries.