The Essex Serpent Review: a slow suspense drama with lots of great sweaters

The Essex Serpent Review: a slow suspense drama with lots of great sweaters

How much fun are you having The Essex Serpent, an Apple TV Plus adaptation of Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel, might depend on how much you enjoy watching Tom Hiddleston brooding in a foggy field while wearing cozy wool sweaters. For many people, that will probably be enough of a catch. (It was for me.) But thankfully, the six-episode series offers much more than great hair blowing in the wind — it’s a tense and heartfelt exploration of grief and faith, and just how confusing those two things can be. The great sweaters are just a bonus.

The show mainly follows two characters. One is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a young widow and aspiring naturalist who has quite an obsession with sea serpents. She spends her free time researching them in old books, maps and newspaper clippings. When rumors surface that a snake is terrorizing a small Essex fishing village, she – along with her young son (Caspar Griffiths) and her friend/housekeeper (Hayley Squires) – board a train from London to investigate.

What she finds when she arrives isn’t a snake – at least not initially, no spoilers – but a city constantly going mad with fear. A missing child has everyone on edge, blaming the mythical creature many believe is attacking the most sinful of the group. As bad things continue to happen to pretty much everyone, the tragedies are inevitably blamed on the Beast. One of the first people Cora meets in town is Will Ransome (Hiddleston), a local pastor and one of the few people who not think that the snake is a bad omen from God.

Initially, The Essex Serpent borrows fairly heavily from some well-worn tropes. When Cora and Will first meet, they have no idea who the other is, and even though she helps him save a goat from certain doom, he’s still a big jerk. Later, when they’re properly introduced so he can help her with her research, it’s that classic rom-com moment where she has the startling realization that, “Oh, that’s the person who was so rude to me earlier.” It’s not the most original way of pitting two characters together, but at least the show moves past it quickly. It helps that Danes and Hiddleston have an antagonistic chemistry that’s a lot of fun to watch, even with the familiar setup.

The other, much more interesting, subject the show draws on is the debate between faith and science. Cora’s desire to find a logical explanation for the snake — she spends a lot of time dressing up in nice outfits to dig for fossils — comes into direct conflict with most of the town’s population, who are increasingly convinced that it is work of a vengeful deity. Which makes the dynamic particularly interesting The Essex Serpent is Will stuck in the middle. He’s a man of faith who also can’t accept the supernatural explanations for everything about the city, which makes him quite questioning about his faith and how much he can help the community he serves.

To add even more drama to the proceedings, the show ends up being much more about human relationships than existential ones (although the serpent and religion still remain key elements). The Essex Serpent puts a bunch of very beautiful people in a very grim place and then has you watch them try really hard not to be openly horny with each other. Cora is now finally experiencing something close to freedom after her abusive marriage is over, and it ends up between Will (who is not only a pastor but is also married with two children) and Luke (Frank Dillane), a charming boy Physician who also happened to be a pioneering force behind the then-nascent field of open-heart surgery.

Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent.
Image: apple

Much of the show hinges on the three navigating this awkward dynamic while being too British and polite to just come out and say how they feel. This is balanced with all of the above combat like finding a mythical sea serpent or perfecting a radical type of operation. It’s a slow burn of a show that only reveals its true intentions after a few episodes. But once she found her footing, The Essex Serpent becomes a drama that treats its subjects with a refreshing kind of honesty that makes them all the more interesting. Falling in and out of love is always messy, but especially so when the world around you is also a complete mess. The Essex Serpent captures that perfectly. And at six episodes, it does so without exceeding its welcome.

Really, it’s a show about the beautiful chaos that comes from conflict, whether it’s between science and faith, love and hate, or a bunch of pretty people in a bleak and depressing small town. In this way, the cozy sweater is a metaphor for The Essex Serpent as a whole: Its drab and worn exterior hides something far more intriguing underneath.

The Essex Serpent begins streaming on Apple TV Plus on May 13.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.