What Started with Such Potential, The Essex Serpent Ends Up Paralyzed by Possibility
‘The Essex Serpent’ is the newest addition to AppleTV+ starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston. It is an adaptation of the 2016 novel by author Sarah Perry of the same name. Set in the Victorian era of 1893, it tells the tale of Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a woman relishing her recent freedom from an abusive husband, who moves from London to a small village in Essex after becoming intrigued by the idea that it might be haunted by a mythological sea serpent.
As mentioned, this show takes most of its story from a pre-existing novel so I will try to distinguish between the plot and the television elements. It was produced for television by See-Saw Films (Power of the Dog) and is directed by BAFTA Award-nominee, Clio Barnard. Fresh from the death of her abusive husband, Cora becomes aware of a potential sea serpent terrorizing a village in Aldwinter. She travels to and from London multiple times with her servant/friend, Martha, and her son, Frankie. While in London, she meets Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) and the romantic tension is clear but when she runs into the “crusty old vicar”, Will Ransome played by Tom Hiddleston, the romantic tension is palpable.
By the end of the first two episodes, you get an inkling something weird might be happening—rushing of water, a girl disappearing, ritual-like sites on the beach—but unfortunately, they lead to nothing in the end. One of the strongest scenes regarding the serpent plays out in the schoolhouse as the children start to chant in a horrific and haunting manner, leading to one girl passing out. As I said, the scene is gripping but almost hits a dead end. With the episodes ending in this manner, I was under the impression the last few would fall into the trope of getting weird and weirder until the serpent is striking down people left, right, and center.
I was wrong! What begins as a mysterious and eerie old England tale, slowly drags out into a love story between a scientist and a priest. One, which takes away solely from the title of the show. The cast does a stellar job in their respective roles. Cora (Claire Danes) is insufferable but Danes pulls out all the stops. Hiddleston almost looks like he is phoning it in but his religious character, Will Ransome, is a tormented soul as he flips between deities and beauties.
Clémence Poésy (known as Fleur Delacour from Harry Potter) plays Stella Ransome and encompasses the too nice, dutiful wife very well. Martha (Hayley Squires) is Cora’s best friend and nanny and she does an amazing job as someone who is almost used in her position but is trying to break into the world (she is also a socialist for some subplot reason that goes nowhere).
But the standout actor for me in The Essex Serpent is Frank Dillane. You might remember him as the young Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Dillane plays Dr. Luke Garrett, a brilliant up-and-coming heart surgeon who, for some reason, falls in love with Cora despite her misgivings and general disregard for anyone except Will Ransome. Dillane’s performance as a smirking, quick-witted, and intelligent man torn apart by his job and his love is so believable and natural that I am convinced this is his actual nature. Without spoilers, Garrett’s subplot is just that, a byline to Cora’s sacred timeline.
The show is beautifully shot on location in parts of Essex and London. Having it filmed practically, provides a natural tone to the series: the mist in the air exudes the freezing temperatures and the old cobblestone parts of London provide the tactile sensations of the Victorian era. Along with that, the costumes are superb. Cora’s multiple outfits showcase her high class and taste while those living in the marshes of Essex are grungy and covered in mud. This provides a nice continuation of the juxtaposition between Cora and the townspeople after fact versus faith.
As I was watching and beginning to realize the serpent might never show, I was searching for a metaphor. What does the serpent actually stand for? I never came to a solid conclusion but perhaps the serpent is a metaphor for the unknown, the serpentine nature of life, and the ups and downs and uncertainty that comes at us when we least expect it. I don’t know. Or maybe Cora was the serpent all along, coming into town and shaking things up with her flicking tongue while oozing with venomous attraction. Maybe GoodReads has something on there from people who have read the book.
There is so much going on in this series: the serpent, the religious rituals, kids missing, Frankie basically left on his own, communist parties, social housing issues, heart surgery, paleontology, the love triangle (more of a love V), cheating vicars, tuberculosis. All of these things continue to build to a thrilling climax but most, apart from the relationship issues, are never resolved. Sure, you sort of get an answer on the serpent but it is severely underwhelming.
I know this is a show based on the source material and I have tried to separate the two but we watch television and movies for a mixture of plot and art, and you can’t have a quality show with only one aspect. What started with such potential ended up being paralyzed by possibility.
The Essex Serpent premieres on AppleTV+ May 13th.
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