“Esther” begins with the most promising five minutes of The Returned’s second season: The story of how one of those mute women wound up in Toni and Serge’s cabin (with special guest Victor), followed by Toni setting the day’s agenda for himself and his brother. Like Toni, we recognize the young woman in the trenchcoat as Esther, who left the Lake Pub one night but never made it home. Toni and Serge are going to deliver her to that unreached destination, even though she’s completely unable to tell them where it is. The brothers are coming down from the mountains, to make up for the horrible deeds one of them did in the town below.
This isn’t their episode entirely, but Toni and Serge’s mission sets a resonant tone for the remainder of “Esther.” It’s a series of homecomings and reunions, of familial bonds strengthened and exposed. It’s also, following the lead of our favorite watery-eyed serial killer, about atonement and forgiveness, as the townsfolk apologize for the sins they’ve committed, and struggle to comprehend—and forgive—those who’ve sinned against them. Even near the end of a season that’s gone very heavy on baptismal imagery, “Esther” is laden with religious iconography, from the Biblical roots of its title character’s name to the crucifixes hovering over everyone’s shoulders.
The first of those crosses, hanging above Serge’s bed, sends a strong signal. The light glances off of it in such a way to pull focus from Guillaume Gouix, the shot framed so that we can’t look at Gouix without also thinking “that set-dressing is important. I wonder how many more of those we’ll see this week.” We’ll see a lot of them, almost always in relation to someone with a reason to repent—or, at the very least, something to get off their chest. Pierre’s still doing dirty deeds up at the The Helping Hand (gathering apparent information from the military troops stationed in town); Sandrine’s having second thoughts about turning Audrey over to Pierre and his thugs, feelings complicated by Yan’s ongoing convalescence.
There are also miraculous births and pregnancies at play, with the latest developments in the ongoing Nathan saga and Julie learning that she was with child when she was attacked by Serge. As up and down as the drama over the baby has been, it’s definitely the type of plot that benefits from playing out over the entire season: With his mother away from the rectory and Lucy stopping by, there’s finally a real sense of stakes and suspense wrapped up with Adèle and Simon’s bundle of supernatural joy. It snaps into place during the visit to gendarmerie HQ, a slowly winding affair of “Don’t go in there!” tension where Alcide (last seen having Lucy’s thrall cast upon him) making note of Adèle’s arrival, Adèle taking leave of her child, and then an unidentified soldier taking Nathan off of Jean-François’ hands. There’s a boatload of portent in Adèle’s visions of probably dead Thomas (who haunts her just as Simon did before he returned), but nothing quite as ominous as the priest handing the infant over to the uniformed officer. Especially after that suggestion of collusion between the military and the Helping Hand—it’s really beginning to look like this season will conclude with a four-way clash between the residents of the town, the Helping Hand, the military, and the revenants.
“Esther” also contains a suggestion about why Lucy is so hellbent on claiming Nathan as her own. On her way to revealing that Julie was pregnant when she was attacked in the tunnel, friendly neighborhood nurse Ophélie references another woman who underwent a similar trauma:
Now, this is taking a great big giant leap, but as far as we know, there’s only one other person whose case could be considered remotely close to Julie’s, and that’s Lucy. But then who’s the child? We now know that Victor wasn’t the Lewanskis’ biological son—as he did at Julie’s, he just showed up at their place and made himself at home—but is it plausible that she’s Victor’s mother? In another of “Esther”’s reveals, we find out that both Julie and Lucy figure into Victor’s latest nightmare, but does the connection between the three of them go even deeper than that?
This is the type of mystery-unraveling I’m loath to do in these reviews, but with the number of clues season two has scattered to the wind, it’s difficult not to speculate. Besides: Whatever clues may be baked into this conversation between Ophélie and Julie, they’re not as important as what the conversation means a) to the burgeoning relationship between Ophélie and Julie, and b) Julie’s current emotional state. So let’s change the subject: Pauline Parigot is delightful as Ophélie, and the expressive joy in the actor’s face in the screen caps above, contrasted with the pain she’s unwittingly causing Julie, just breaks my heart. Also breaking my heart: The fact that she wasn’t good enough at hiding Julie, who was spotted by another hospital employee and reported to the authorities.
It’s less of a leap to see parallels between Serge’s apology to Esther and the act of contrition Milan performed in front of Lucy two weeks ago. Staring up at the ones they’ve wronged, placed under duress—like murderous father, like murderous son. They both have a lot more forgiveness to beg for, but at least something positive came from Serge asking for Esther’s—she returned to full consciousness, her memory picking up right where it left off 10 years before. In a town where so much has gone so wrong, where the residents love playing blame games, remorse has real power. What Serge took from Esther, he has restored, and her first act isn’t to lash out at him—it’s to ask where Victor is.
The only true monsters in this world are the ones who act without remorse, a feeling even Milan is shown to express after he’s pulled to the surface by the rescue divers. (Remember: Water = rebirth, forever and ever.) That leaves glum, glowering, manipulative Pierre—who’s seen in “Esther” supervising the torture of a teenaged girl—in the role of season two’s unequivocal villain. His descent is one of The Returned’s strongest and most fascinating arcs, his potency as charismatic cult leader deriving from the same qualities and characteristics that made him the right guy to conduct the post-bus-accident support group. Even at his most sinister, he offers comfort and security, telling Sandrine that the creature chained to the basement wall isn’t Audrey.
The exchange is cleverly framed, with Pierre’s words to Sandrine emanating not from the recognizable form of Jean-François Sivadier, but an amorphous black shape that appears to tower over her. There’s a lot of unnerving work done with silhouettes in “Esther,” with characters dipping, Pierre-like, in and out of the light, alternately projecting friendliness or intimidation. Serge and Toni look like Esther’s protectors when they enter the tunnel, then become inky specters; two blurry figures trundle toward Lena, but turn out to be Jérôme and Berg—who then join Lena, Camille, and Claire to stare down a street full of shadowy revenants.
The crowd assembled outside Claire and Camille’s house in the village is the last barrier to the thing the Ségurets have been working toward for the entire season: A return trip home. After spreading its characters out geographically, The Returned is now drawing them back to the epicenter of the show’s unexplained phenomenon. Like Toni and Serge at the beginning of “Esther,” they’re compelled to head into town, where the final two episodes of season two threatening to build to a cataclysmic head. Julie, Victor, Simon, and Madame Costa have already made the trip; the Ségurets are gearing up to fight through a phalanx of dead people to do the same. They’re returning to a changed landscape, but it’s the same as it ever was: Beset by tragedy (Frédéric’s friend shoots Madame Costa, then leaps to his death), haunted by the dead. For Victor, going home is as easy as strolling through any door that opens for him; the others don’t have it so easy.