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Like the possibly mythical creature of its title, The Essex Serpent is something of a slippery beast. It winds through ideas and genres, twisting and turning in ways that can be difficult to predict, and wriggles free of tidy categorizations or explanations. It’s a story about a sea creature, sort of, but it’s primarily a story about faith and progress and love and maybe half a dozen other things. But if the journey it takes can seem occasionally odd and even frustrating, it’s one guided by a steady heart toward an ultimately worthwhile destination.
Adapted from the novel by Sarah Perry with Anna Symon as lead writer, The Essex Serpent begins rather ominously, with the one-two punch of a disappearance and a death. In late 19th-century London, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) sits by the bedside of her abusive older husband as he passes away of cancer, stubbornly refusing the newfangled medical treatments suggested by his ambitious young doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane). Meanwhile, some miles away in the Essex coastal village of Aldwinter, a teenager has vanished without a trace — taken, the locals have started to murmur, by an ancient sea creature recently reawakened.
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Intrigued by reports of the creature and freshly liberated from her oppressive marriage, Cora, an amateur naturalist, makes the impulsive decision to move to Aldwinter to search for what she theorizes could be a type of plesiosaur that’s escaped both extinction and evolution. Upon arrival, she’s greeted by a town full of people increasingly scared and suspicious of a monster they’re convinced is coming to claim them for their sins.
As the local vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), attempts to quell their panic by denying the serpent’s existence and directing their worries toward God, Cora takes a different tack, trying gamely to offer a rational explanation for the disturbances. Despite their oppositional stances, it’s not long before the two realize they’re more alike than different, and find themselves drawn to each other in spite of his happy marriage to the kindly Stella (Clémence Poésy).
For the first two-thirds of its six hourlong episodes, The Essex Serpent conjures a seductively dark, mysterious mood, with even a few scares that wouldn’t feel out of place in an A24 thriller. In the tense atmosphere of Aldwinter, adolescent girls cast spells and fall victim to disturbing fits, while superstitious men hang skinned moles to ward off the beast. It is, as Cora’s maid and companion Martha (Hayley Squires) observes with a shudder, “witch-burning country.”
Then, in its last couple of episodes, The Essex Serpent switches gears to become a more conventional drama, and eventually mellows into an ending far gentler than the first few hours of the series might have given any cause to expect. The serpent, once the main focus of the lead characters, recedes from view, as the personal journeys and relationships between the characters come to the fore.
For some viewers, the change in pace will come as an annoyance. Those who’ve come expecting fantasy-tinged monster hunts will likely be disappointed by The Essex Serpent‘s disinterest in embracing the supernatural. At the same time, those who’ve previously enjoyed dirt-caked British relationship dramas like Ammonite or The Dig may have already been warded off by the eerie tone suggested by the marketing.
Those open to seeing where the tide takes them, though, will find much to like. Clio Barnard, who directed all six episodes, has an eye for beauty, especially of the strange, austere sort that Cora finds in the countryside. Aldwinter is established through long shots of marshes covered in mist so thick, it threatens to swallow objects whole. The landscape is a wild and unruly one, so indifferent to human life as to look almost alien at times, and it feels like little wonder the people living in it find both faith and science to fall short in their efforts to understand or control it.
In contrast, Cora’s upper-crust London home is done in sumptuous fabrics, intricate designs and sparkling gems and metals, and yet Cora looks trapped by the gold bars of her elaborate bed frame, and weighed down by the heavy colors and shadows that fill the space. It’s hardly a surprise that she looks not just happier but more alive in Aldwinter, despite the hardships she encounters there. As written by Symon’s team and played by Danes, Cora has the un-pin-down-able quality of a real person. She’s both caring and careless, likable and exhausting, determined and indecisive — and never anything less than compelling.
As for Hiddleston, it’s a thrill to see him try on new colors again after spending the past half decade in Loki green onscreen. The Essex Serpent taps back into the romantic intensity that made him such an obvious star in films like The Deep Blue Sea, Only Lovers Left Alive and Crimson Peak. Much of the series’ warmth and heat are generated from the way Hiddleston simply looks at his costars, with affection or yearning or worry — and much of the narrative momentum, too, since it’s hard to see an expression like that and not long to know what happens next.
It is possible, indeed, that one of The Essex Serpent‘s faults is an overabundance of riches. The series has a lot on its mind, and it’s not always apparent what, say, a storyline about Martha’s campaign for public housing has to do with Cora and Will’s irresistible attraction to one another. And conceits that may have worked better rendered in Perry’s evocative prose — like Stella’s characterization as an ethereal saint prone to making profound observations about the color blue — strike an odd note among more grounded characters and settings.
But it works beautifully as a drama about complicated characters tangled in relationships unable to be contained by the conventional boundaries of romance or friendship, and about the ways humans will try to impose order or sense where none can be found. In the end, both faith and science fall short in the face of elemental drives like fear and love, and neither can account for the random accidents or tragedies that befall all lives. Whether the serpent is technically “real” is beside the point: It persists because the world is and always will be full of forces that slip out of our grasp.
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