The Essex Serpent follows London widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) who moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical snake. She forms a surprising bond of science and skepticism with the local pastor (Tom Hiddleston), but when tragedy strikes, the locals accuse her of luring the creature.
Witch trials, meet Nessie
The Essex Serpent comes across as a “witch trial” type story: a small religious community, driven to paranoia and violence by a sudden tragedy. They blame the devil for their fate; we, as onlookers, blame religious zeal and mass hysteria.
The Essex Serpent puts a bit of a twist on that premise. Town pastor Will (Hiddleston) actually tries to calm the townspeople down instead of annoy them, insisting the snake isn’t real. And newcomer Cora (Danish) may not believe in the devil, but she Is think a snake is attacking the community. (She’s a naturalist who believes the snake is actually a “living fossil” — basically, a dinosaur that survived undetected for years.) This puts the pair slightly at odds, but still on the same side against the city’s growing insistence that their tragedies are the result of otherworldly punishment.
The twist makes The Essex Serpent conceptually interesting, on the surface. But as tales of “witch trials” go, this one honestly leaves a bit to be desired. The plot isn’t bad, but it fails to build the tension as much as these kinds of stories normally do. (In fact, he sometimes seems to actively avoid this tension. When the townspeople accuse Cora of inflicting the snake’s wrath, she…just leaves town. Problem solved. Tension gone.)
The question of where the snake will strike next – if there is a snake – and how the city will react should arouse the interest of the public. But instead, it lags behind the show’s personal relationships. As a result, The Essex Serpent lacks many of the thrills that normally accompany the genre. It never really feels like the series is escalating like it should.
Shakespearean romantic mess
But at the same time The Essex Serpent somewhat lacking in edge in its witch trial-style thrills, it doesn’t drop the ball when it comes to the relationships between its characters. Every relationship in the series is complicated, forming a twisted web centered around Cora.
Every person is either in love with someone they shouldn’t be in love with, or in love with someone who doesn’t know it. Dr. Garrett (Frank Dillane) is in love with Cora, who thinks they are just good friends. Her associate, Dr. Spencer (Jamael Westman), is in love with Cora’s maid, Martha (Hayley Squires), but Martha is also in love with Kora. Cora is in love with Will, who is already married to Stella (Clémence Poésy). But Stella Lowkey wants Will and Cora to reunite?
That’s all a lot, But in the right way. It reminded me of watching a Shakespearean play unfold, with all of these messy personal dynamics coming into play. It would probably be too much if the show ran any longer. But since The Essex Serpent Spanning just six episodes, the story feels contained enough for this dynamic to work. (That’s helped by strong performances from the cast all around.)
These characters and their relationships really serve as a driving force The Essex Serpent, making the series watchable even if the snake plot leaves a bit to be desired. From the way Shakespeare’s works are translated into new contexts, one gets the sense that the dynamics of The Essex Serpent could be painted over any other backdrop and still look compelling.
Essex snake could use more bite
In all, The Essex Serpent is a solid romantic drama, but it doesn’t deliver the growing tension and thrill its premise promises. At just six episodes, it’s not exactly a chore to watch. But if the characters don’t hook you, you probably won’t find it difficult to give up on the show halfway through. I kept wishing this limited series had a little more bite.
The Essex Serpent launches new episodes Friday on Apple TV+.