There’s something chilling about the start of The Essex Serpent. An aerial view presents a calm blueish water that sits neatly within the bends of a river. This quickly fades as mist and fog flood the screen and the river banks descend into a maze of cracks and crevices within the marshes. A young woman stands nearly up to her waist in water, holding a crucifix as she states that it was the ‘serpent’ that tempted her. A girl watches nervously from the bank as something darts through the water, seemingly to take the young woman. Very gloomy, very bleak, very British.
Set during the 1890s, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is a woman from London who is liberated by the death of her abusive husband. Keen to explore her own interests in natural history and science, she decides to relocate to a small community in Essex along with her son, Francis and her companion, Martha (Hayley Squires) after discovering that a serpent has been spotted in the area. This news disappoints Dr Luke Garrett, a pioneering Doctor who hopes to become closer to Cora.
Believing the serpent to be some ichthyosaur-like creature, Cora arrives in the village to research more into the phenomenon. She meets the local Vicar, William ‘Will’ Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) who is aware of the speculation of the serpent but is keen to quash the rumours. As Cora’s interest in the subject grows, so does the paranoia of the villagers as they try and ward off the serpent. ‘The Devil, the Devil has come’, is exclaimed by the Vicar’s Curate (assistant vicar) when tragedy strikes. A panic begins to grip the community, but will faith or science uncover the secret of the serpent?
The Essex Serpent is not strictly horror, and the goriest moments come during the scenes of surgery, and after the first episode’s opening scene, the terror subsides quickly and makes way for a more traditional period piece. However, this doesn’t stop The Essex Serpent from being an atmospheric drama that explores a multitude of themes through the desires of different characters, whose personal beliefs, interests, disciplines and faiths dictate how they react to the serpent and the measures they will go to understand it, as well as the changing world around them.
The serpent is much like the shark in Jaws in regards to its reputation and the fear it evokes. It’s constant presence despite seldom being seen acts as a constant dark cloud over the community and drives the tension. The creature acts as a Boogeyman for each characters’ personal demons, whether that be coming to terms with past abuse or a loss of faith.
The sub-plot of Luke Garrett’s desire and success of pioneering open-heart surgery is very effective in demonstrating that humans can play God and potentially rely less on faith for greater answers, something it Wil appears to be wary of.
The question of science vs faith is very prevalent throughout, and one of the notable ways this is played is out how London is compared to the community in Essex. London and its inhabitants are seen as sleek, well-to-do and progressive. However, the Essex town and its inhabitants are seen as unkempt, primal and superstitious. This at times seems clunky, especially as London and Colchester (the nearest town to the village), Essex are only 55 miles apart. Cora’s and Will’s characters acts as the representatives in the science vs faith battle, but a character’s belief or faith appears to be dictated by where they live.
The two standout performances so far are from Claire Danes as Cora and Hayley Squires as Martha, who both portray women with different strengths. Danes perfectly balances a character who has the will to follow her instinct in the face of resistance with being vulnerable due to her past as a victim of abuse. Squires portrayal as the straight-talking and loyal companion, Cora is the complete performance – Squires is an actress that makes the characters she plays feel real – she seems to settle in a character’s skin instantly.
It will remain to be seen if the story of the serpent can maintain enough interest for the entire series, but the question of science vs faith is an interesting one, especially during the late 1890s. When Cora asks Will what he thinks off her interest in the serpent he replies, ‘you’re trying to understand; you’re trying to find the truth, I approve of that’. The problem is, with faith and science there is never usually just one ’truth’.
Episodes Score: 3.5/5
The first two episodes of The Essex Serpent are now available on Apple TV. Subsequent episodes will drop every Friday.