The Essex Serpent
by Anna Symon, based on the novel by Sarah Perry
The Essex Serpent is slow, pretty, slightly creepy, and sexy in that “I can’t have you so I’ll stare at you with my brooding, metaphorically piercing eyes instead of having sex” sort of way that some people despise and other people adore.
My idea of pure happiness on this earthly plane is Claire Danes digging fossils out of cliffs while wearing trousers and a floppy hat, accompanied by Tom Hiddleston in a sweater, so I was down with this for the most part. But if you aren’t, I get it, because this is terribly slow paced stuff, and worse, it lacks chemistry.
Our story begins with the death of a horrible man, the abusive husband of Cora Seaborne. Cora, played by Claire Danes, positively glows with bliss once her tormentor is dead. She gathers up her son and her companion, Martha, played by Hayley Squires, and makes for the Blackwater Estuary of Essex, a place of tidal mudflats and marshes and channels that lead to open sea. Cora is fascinated by recent rumors of the Essex Serpent.
Claire is On It.
She is also fascinated by the local vicar, (Tom Hiddleston, still my true love), who is married to the perfect wife and mother and friend Stella (Clémence Poésy). Meanwhile, Martha (who, to my delight, is a Marxist) is clearly in love with Cora, and so is London hotshot doctor Luke (Frank Dillane).
All this simmers on low burn while Cora delights in poking at cliffs for fossils and dancing at her birthday party in bare feet, but threat lurks in the increasing local panic about the serpent. Cora and Will try to get villagers to calm the fuck down, an effort the villagers do not appreciate because no one likes to be told to calm down, especially when the person who is telling you to calm down is literally standing over a corpse.
Should you watch this show? Here some of the pertinent FAQ’s:
Does everyone wear comfy sweaters and interesting historical clothing?
Do people gaze at each other, tense and sort of vibrating with silent and repressed longing?
Does Tom Hiddleston get dressed up and waltz?
Of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Does a weird guy with an unfortunate beard yell about sin a lot?
Alas, it is so.
Does someone yell, “SHE’S A WITCH?” at an out-of-towner redhead in a red dress?
Takes them long enough, but they get around to it eventually.
Is there a monster?
I won’t say whether the monster is real, but I will say that we see far too little of any creepy content, cryptid or otherwise.
I get that this show has interesting female characters, but are women also behind the camera?
Why yes! For instance, the series is based on a novel by Sarah Parry, directed by Clio Barnard, and written by women.
This series benefits from complex and interesting characters and excellent actors. No one is one-dimensional. Everyone has flaws but also strengths with the possible exception of the curate who spends all of his time yelling about sin.
The women are particularly mesmerizing – Cora with her mingled compassion and cluelessness, curiosity about the world, and joy in her independence, Martha’s crusading spirit, savvy awareness, and quietly broken political heart, and Stella with her clear-eyed view of her family’s future .
Stella says hello to Cora’s son, Frankie, who is hanging out under a table.
Alas, there are two problems with this show that utterly sink it: glacial pacing and a lack of chemistry between Danes and Hiddleston.
This entire endeavor depends on Cora and Will feeling an intense, irresistible, insatiable attraction towards one another but they both just look, respectively, nervous and (forgive me, Tom, you know I’ll always love you) constipated.
I buy their friendship but not the sexual chemistry and without the sexual chemistry there’s no reason for 90% of the drama. Will, in particular, is just a sad mop of a man, ineffectual in every way and making everything about him.
“Is this my judgment?” he asks, upon learning that Stella has tuberculosis.
Jesus, asshole, your wife’s TB is not about you! Get a hold of yourself, man!
I’ve had a stressful couple of months, y’all, so frankly I didn’t give a shit what happened in this series as long as beautiful people wore beautiful clothes amongst the interesting scenery. But I’m essentially using this series as wallpaper. As a drama, there is not a lot here. Whole episodes pass with just a teensy bit of plot taking place about five minutes from the end.
Is the series creepy?
Is it sexy?
Alas, IMHO, no, not especially.
Do I care about these people?
Kinda, but mostly as individuals, not as potential romantic partners, which is a problem in a show so propelled by romantic entanglements.
The show has six episodes and no significant payoff. Many questions remain unanswered at the end of the show, and although the characters’ relationships with each other have finally fallen into place, they do so antilimactically. I can only recommend this show to the most devoted fans of historical drama. It’s simply too slow paced and too lacking in chemistry to be compelling.
It’s a shame, because all of the characters are fascinating and they, as well as the actors that portray them, deserve so much better.