In “The Essex Serpent,” the residents of Aldwinter might all be whispering amongst themselves about some mysterious force lurking in the water just beyond their town’s shores. They mourn the missing and some of their own still living, both feared lost to the ravages of a beast that preys on those who have strayed, either from the path of righteousness or into the chilly waters that wash up against the east England coast.
In some ways, this adaptation of Sarah Perry’s 1890s-set novel hovers above it all. Quite literally in the case of the aerial views of the coves and inlets dotting the area around Aldwinter, but also in the way that it shows each of its main characters (both Aldwinter residents and visitors) as just as listless as the tides themselves.
There’s Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a recent widower looking to use her newfound mobility as a means to pursue her uncoventional-for-the-age interests. (In the immediate wake of the man’s death, a confidant reminds her that she’s “free.”) Her scholarly pursuits in London bring her into the orbit of Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), an upstart surgeon who sometimes finds his charm and cockiness slipping out of balance. Despite their fast friendship and his insistence she shouldn’t go, Cora soon finds herself in Essex, investigating the local Aldwinter lore that a mythical sea serpent might be plaguing the town.
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Through a chance encounter on the marshes, she meets modest local vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who is as dead set on extinguishing “the serpent” from local conversation as Cora is on cultivating it. That push-pull of discovery and stasis is a centerpiece of the show’s first episode, one that tees up a season matching the lush attention that director Clio Barnard and this production team put into fully realizing various corners of Victorian England.
The longer that “The Essex Serpent” goes, though, the more that it’s not only its characters that feel adrift, floating from one tenuous bit of connection to the other. The would-be creature that gives the show its title recedes the more that Cora becomes overwhelmed by the various life options at her disposal. She and her son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) — a quintessential timid Victorian child unfazed by strangeness or trauma — find more than they bargain for in Essex, particularly when some of the locals begin to transfer their own misfortunes onto the London interlopers.
Though “The Essex Serpent” is perhaps not overly generous in its painting of most of the Aldwinter residents as simple folk susceptible to the latest church-derived scapegoat, it does find in Cora someone who has distinct opportunities that her social status affords her. Whenever things get overwhelming, she always has the luxury of returning to big-city high society and all its trappings. That she chooses to stay in Essex as long as she can, and for the reasons she chooses, is at least something the show addresses, however cyclical those reasons end up becoming.
Though Danes, Hiddleston, and Dillane do admirable work to elevate their characters’ thorny entanglements, it’s other characters on the relative periphery that show how “The Essex Serpent” spotlight often feels misplaced. As Cora’s employee and companion Martha, Haley Squires is the perpetual spark that keeps the show from being an extended study in repression. Each of Martha’s threads here, whether as someone agitating for social progress or navigating the hazy line between friendship and affection, are key parts of what “The Essex Serpent” is spelling out. But rather than pursue those lines fully, the show often treats Martha’s interests as side efforts, curiosities flitting around the main question of what will happen to Cora and the others that she loves.
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That glint of scientific curiosity that leads Cora to Aldwinter is also reflected in Luke’s efforts in the medical field. Along with his surgical lieutenant Dr. George Spencer (Jamael Westman) — another of the show’s more underserved individuals, given six full episodes’ worth of space to work with — Luke’s pursuit of operational advancement sets up the perfect point of contrast between him and those in the town that he too eventually visits. “The Essex Serpent” puts in opposition a man of God and a man striving for new life-saving techniques. That the show feels content to draw those comparisons and largely leave them there points to “The Essex Serpent” as more a collection of ideas than ones that feel fully explored.
Ultimately, putting the word “serpent” in a title isn’t something done idly. Amidst the swirling ideas of trust and class and family and pain, it’s temptation that almost has to emerge by necessity. Series writer Anna Symon finds a more muted way into matters of lust, juggling everyone’s affections in a way that sidesteps some expectations, however slightly. To the extent that any of these characters have feelings that they can safely express, some of the best moments of these six episodes manage to find different forms of intimacy that transform strangers into lovesick beings almost as elusive as the sea monster some of them are hellbent on tracking down.
All of this plays out against a rich sense of place and time. Barnard’s instincts about how close to orient the audience in relation to whatever is going on does give these expansive exteriors the room to breathe. Through Cora’s eyes, it’s possible to see what it is about this area that draws her, beyond the dashing man of the cloth and the scientific breakthroughs potentially paddling just off shore. (Barnard also includes some underwater camerawork to underline the idea that no one is ever in full control of their own story here.) Yet, despite all it evokes, “The Essex Serpent” tells a story where faith rarely manifests in ways other than preachers shouting about sin and love is rarely felt without being laid bare in plain terms. Regardless of what it is that Cora is destined to find out in the water, it’s hard not to want a little more from this show than what’s floating on the surface.
The first two episodes of “The Essex Serpent” are now available to stream on Apple TV+. Additional episodes will be released each Friday.