This article contains spoilers for Return Season 2
Return is a show about drugs that makes people forget, and for the time being, it seems like the second season plan hopes that viewers do the same. The first season, adapted by creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg from their hit podcast, came to a conclusion that felt open and definitive. The story of a military veteran (Stephan James) whose mind has been cleansed nonsensensually and social worker (Julia Roberts) who helped expose the government contractor who did it, the season wrapped in uncovered truth and the relationship between the main characters more or less resolved (insofar as that could happen when one person is chemically unable to remember another). There is a brief teasing scene involving Hong Chau as an executive at Geist, the company responsible for memory drug abuse, but it feels like the rhythm at the end of a horror film, lacking the setting for a sequel to one last fear before the credits finally roll.
At first, the second season seemed to only tell the story of the first season again. We start with Jackie (Janelle Monáe) waking up with a rowboat in the middle of the lake, a wound on her forehead and no memory of how she got there or even who she was. The closest thing he has as a clue to his identity is the “Death From Above” tattoo on the inner arm, a symbol of his time as an Army paratrooper. The first two episodes find him tracking leads and walking towards the Geist, as Chau’s Audrey Temple continues the evil work of restarting the Homecoming program. When Audrey throws a party to celebrate the launch, Jackie walks through the crowd, full of anger and seems to be on the brink of violence. Audrey saw him coming and began to walk toward him, as though he were trying to prevent trouble and keep Jackie from storming the stage. The music gets tense when the two almost collide, but when Jackie opens her mouth to scream, Audrey stops her with a kiss. Hah?
The third episode, “Previously,” begins to explain what is happening, even though the story does not fully pursue important moments until the season is almost over. Jackie, we found, was not an Army veteran – in fact, as the tattoo on his arm revealed, he was not a veteran at all. He also wasn’t named Jackie. His name is Alex, and he’s a crisis manager in a long-term relationship with Audrey. (Jackie is their cat’s name.) What’s more, when we immediately learn from watching her talk about a woman coming out of filing sexual harassment claims, she is usually on the wrong side of the crisis. Because he is played by Janelle Monáe, we are inherently interested in Alex, and the season keeps us by his side because he, like Roberts in the first season, follows the truth. But the truth he discovered was that he was a villain, or at least one of them.
The season’s way of deceiving the viewer to side with the wrong character is the most interesting fool.
Second season Return never fully justify his own existence. Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who takes over as director of each episode, has no visual talent from his predecessor Sam Esmail or a feeling of showmanship, and the season spends his music budget to secure Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” for balloon dropping at Audrey’s big party rather than licensing scores of conspiracy-thriller scores for the soundtrack. (Certain cues make it look like the season will offer a few comments on post-Clinton corruption noble ideas, but the idea never thickens.)
But that tricking the audience to side with the wrong character is the best and most interesting trick. It takes a few more episodes to study the depth that Alex wants to drown, during that time we also see how Audrey’s ambition to climb the corporate ladder, which was previously thwarted because of his gender, race, or both, led him to make a deal with the demons in this case is the head of the Department of Defense Joan Cusack. There is something a little nauseous, if apparently unintentional, about the way the larger bow in this season is cruelly ambitious, morally bankrupt women – Monáe, Chau, and Cusack – against men who are pious, respectable, including James’s character and Chris Cooper as head of the Geist and namesake, who wanted the company to go out of business that changed its mind completely. Women are thwarted if they play according to the rules and thwarted if they break them. (To be honest, this pattern does not apply: Bobby Cannavale and Alex Karpovsky returned from the first season due to some weaker Geist employees.)
As we learn more about Alex and Audrey, we learn that they are a happy married couple wrestling with the decision whether to have children, which means their drive for greater financial stability is not just about personal interests. Of course, that’s how many people end up doing evil things their way: It’s for kids, or their parents, or just because they think they deserve it. We don’t feel like Alex and Audrey are bad people, and they certainly don’t consider themselves that way, even when their actions drift further into the dark. They get their revenge at the end of the season, and in a way that feels really final, even though the creators say they have ideas for another season. But the justice that was handed down was poetic and cruel, and, like at the end of the first season, like true villains might still be left behind.
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