Synopsis of 01×01: The dead mysteriously return to life in the small mountain town of Caldwell, Washington. The various bereaved are forced to deal with these “miracles” in different ways.
A teenaged girl named Camille (India Ennenga) stares despondently out of the window of a school bus rolling up some scenic mountain roads. A somewhat generic indie folk tune beats on about “home” – and what could be going on there? Suddenly, the bus swerves off the road and plummets down into the treacherous valley. The scene cuts to “present day” and, without explanation, we see Camille climbing out of the ravine with little more than dirt and a dazed look on her face.
This is the set-up of The Returned: loved ones lost years ago suddenly come back to life in the town of Caldwell, Washington. And it’s probably worth noting that “Caldwell” is Old English for “cold spring.”
I’ve never seen Les Revenants, the original French series. That series was overwhelmingly lauded for its unique, brilliantly-shot atmospheric horror elements and acting – and that might be The Returned’s biggest problem. I detect none of that artistic legacy in its dully plodding American remake. Something about the acting, the script, and the cinematography, though beautiful and hauntingly clean, felt more heavy-handed and ham-fisted at times than “creepy.” Perhaps it was constrained, creatively, by the reputation of its predecessor.
But what the series premiere does very well, is explore the existential nature of grief and bereavement in a deliberately restrained and dramatic way without plummeting into the realm of melodrama.
In the “present” we are first introduced to Jack Winship (Mark Pellegrino), who we eventually learn is Camille’s father. He keeps off to the side brooding at a therapy group for the parents of the kids who died in the bus accident four years ago. Most of the bereaved parents are optimistically trying to rebuild their lives and move forward from their loss, but Jack seems stuck. He dismisses the memorial (an abstract architectural spiral) designed for the children. He even makes a jab at a couple expecting their first baby since the accident.
Jack instead has dealt with his grief by consulting a psychic named Lucy (Leah Gibson) – one who claims she can communicate with his dead daughter, but only while having sex. And he’s also paying all the legal fees for her divorce. It’s a weird, messy relationship, and it sharpens to a disturbing pitch when Jack confronts the sex-psychic after witnessing Camille’s return. He sexually assaults Lucy when she doesn’t know that Camille is alive; Lucy fights him off and runs, only to be killed in a tunnel by a knife-wielding masked murderer. (Aside: I’m willing to bet that this masked killer is opening up a possible “Angel of Death” plot.)
Camille’s mother, Claire Winship (Tandi Wright), is just as shocked to find the daughter she’d lost four years ago hungrily devouring all the contents of the fridge. It’s the painful desire of the bereaved made manifest. Claire takes the miracle (?) joyfully and without question; Jack is clearly distraught, having suffered four years towards a broken kind of acceptance, only to have the circumstances so suddenly reverse.
They call in their psychologist, Peter Lattimore (Heremy Sister), to diagnose the situation, which starts off with Claire’s elegantly simple lines: “Camille has come back. Do you want to see her? She’s in her room. Come and see.” Camille appears to have no recollection of the accident and exists in her own pocket of history, as if nothing happened after that ill-fated school trip up the mountain.
“What kind of acceptance am I supposed to have now?” Jack asks a fair question. But Claire accuses him of being selfish: “Why are you trying to ruin this?”
Meanwhile, Dr. Julie Han (Sandrine Holt) rescues a spectral little boy off the street and takes him home to safety. He doesn’t speak. He only smiles in response, as if holding onto a divine (or sacrilegious) secret. Dr. Han seems to have a psychic connection with him, however, that leads her to call him “Victor” in lieu of his real name. When he finally speaks, it’s to inform her that his name is indeed Victor.
Speaking of psychic connections, Camille might share one with her twin sister Lena, who drinks away her grief and guilt for years later. The end of the episode goes back to four years ago: Lena faked an illness on the morning of the accident to lose her virginity to a boy Camille also liked, and ultimately avoided sharing her sister’s fate. Crosscuts between Lena having sex and Camille on the bus suddenly panicking and demanding to be let off the bus suggests their preternatural bond. What is it about sex and psychic abilities in this show?
In the most unsettling moment of the premiere, a woman in a vintage floral dress walks the streets, and steals into the bedroom of a sleeping old man. A portrait of her in a wedding gown is perched on his nightstand; she must have been this dying man’s wife and she must have died very young. She slips into bed next to him. He wakes to see her and, overcome by the living and breathing vision of his dead wife, he calls Dr. Han, his physician. When she answers, he decides to throw himself into the town’s dam.
And the show’s final plot thread follows the story of Simon Moran (Mat Vairo) and his ex-fiancé Rowan, now engaged to a man named Tommy and mother of a little girl. His return is more explosive and wrought with more crying and violence than Camille’s. Led by Camille’s grown-up twin sister Lena, Simon finds Rowan’s door and pounds on it, screaming her name. Rowan (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is crying for him to leave her alone. When Simon does eventually stop and Tommy comes to comfort her, she tells him that she thought “it was over.” What is “it?” Is Rowan referring to psychotic delusions of her dead boyfriend or Simon rising from the dead again? Has Simon “died” multiple times?
We certainly know that Victor came back from dying once before. He was the smiling ghost standing in the middle of the road who made the school bus driver veer off the mountain four years ago.
I’ve reasoned out my gripes with this premiere and the very idea of this remake early on in this post. Over all, the season premiere produced a well-paced effort of setting up the show’s premise, without giving too much away. A perfect shot-to-shot remake it may be – it just lacks a throbbing heart.