A Series in Review: The Essex Serpent

Admittedly I originally only started the series on Apple TV because Tom Hiddleston was starring, but I soon found myself enthralled by the quality of the characters, sets, and plot of The Essex Serpent directed by Clio Barnard, based on the 2017 book by Sarah Perry. Through the development of newly widowed Cora (Claire Danes), we search for truth and confront past trauma of her marriage, and the moral dilemma of cheating with a married priest, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston). The show oscillates from smoky Victorian London and the grassy rolling landscape of Essex, the sharp contrast between modern and rural setting the scene for conflict.

The fear the “Sea Dragon,” inspires in the simple christian citizens of the small town in Essex encapsulates a hysteria similar to the Salem Witch trials, with people looking for someone to burn at the stake to reassure their fragile minds, and Cora quickly becomes the their chief suspect for devilish deeds in the storyline. Almost immediately after her abusive husband’s death Cora is introduced to a new love interest, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), who is unironically searching for the perfect heart to cut upen. 

Being a modern woman with a socialist best friend Martha (Hayley Squires), and her young son, Cora throws herself into Essex and the hunt for fossils, and consequently, Will, a handsome welcoming stranger. Cora struggles with the mark of abuse left by her dead husband, yet ahead of her lie two possibilities: an ambitious single surgeon destined for fame, who desperately adores Cora, and Will, married, off the market, yet alluring; the tension between them is undeniable, their characters circle each other magnetically throughout the series. Being a priest the attraction is even more complicated, as he is supposed to be the moral savior of the small tight knit community, and once he falls heaven only knows what could happen. 

The narrative lulls the viewer into comfort, then strikes unexpectedly, and the rising tension reaches a climax and the serpent and priest meet in the grass, as chaos ensues.

The hauntingly beautiful scenery of Essex, the ominously dark ocean that snakes into the grasslands, visually shows how the ocean seems to be swallowing the melancholic town slowly, taking the children and unsuspecting sailors and maddening the townspeople. The narrative lulls the viewer into comfort, then strikes unexpectedly, and the rising tension reaches a climax and the serpent and priest meet in the grass, as chaos ensues. The Biblical symbolism throughout the plot is rich, with the paramount search being for the possibly not even real serpent adds to the forbidden romance of Will and Cora. The serpent, as the one in Adam & Eve, serves as a reminder of the original sin, and its disregard for the virtue of marriage, the serpent will take who it wishes, regardless of morals.

However, there is more than temptation. The Essex Serpent attempts to tackle socialism, sickness, death, grief, trauma, obsession, and unrequited love. Some aspects are handled better than others, such as Martha’s socialist mission which seems to get lost in the shuffle often, but overall, the series does well by the viewer with shocking moments of breakthroughs, epiphanies, profound loss, happiness, and violence. The slowly paced narrative is perfectly enough for a viewer to beg for something to give, but habitually the show gives in a way that is not entirely foreseen, and just as the illusive serpent, the true motives of characters, the hidden rages and breaking points are kept just out of sight until the teeth have securely wrapped the viewer in, with no escape.