The Essex Serpent follows London widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) who moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical serpent. She forms a surprising bond of science and skepticism with the local pastor (Tom Hiddleston), but when tragedy strikes, locals accuse her of attracting the creature.
Witch trials, meet Nessie
The Essex Serpent frames itself as a “witch trial” type story: a small religious community, driven to paranoia and violence by sudden tragedy. They blame the devil for their plight; we as the audience blame religious zeal and mass hysteria.
The Essex Serpent puts a bit of a twist on this premise. The town’s pastor Will (Hiddleston) actually tries to calm the townsfolk down instead of riling them up, insisting the serpent isn’t real. And the newcomer Cora (Danes) may not believe in the devil, but she does believe a serpent is attacking the community. (She’s a naturalist who believes the serpent is actually a “living fossil” – basically, a dinosaur that’s survived undetected for years.) This puts the pair slightly at odds, but still on the same side against the town’s increasing insistence that their tragedies are a result of otherworldly punishment.
The twist makes The Essex Serpent conceptually interesting, on the surface. But as “witch trial” narratives go, this one honestly leaves a bit to be desired. The plot isn’t bad, but it doesn’t manage to ramp up the tension nearly as much as these kinds of stories normally do. (In fact, it sometimes seems to actively avoid this tension. When the townsfolk accuse Cora of bringing down the serpent’s wrath, she just… leaves town. Problem solved. Tension gone.)
The question of where the serpent will strike next – if there is a serpent – and how the town will react should drive the audience’s interest. But instead this takes a backburner to the show’s personal relationships. As a result, The Essex Serpent lacks a lot of the thrills that normally accompany the genre. It never quite feels like the series escalates as it should.
Shakespeare-level romantic messiness
But while The Essex Serpent lacks edge somewhat 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’re just good friends. His associate Dr. Spencer (Jamael Westman) is in love with Cora’s maid Martha (Hayley Squires), but Martha is also in love with Cora. Cora’s in love with Will, who’s already married to Stella (Clémence Poésy). But Stella lowkey wants Will and Cora to get together?
It’s all a lot, but in a good way. It reminded me of watching a Shakespeare play unfold, with all of these messy personal dynamics coming into play. It would probably be too much if the series went on longer. But since The Essex Serpent only spans six episodes, the story feels contained enough to make these dynamics work. (This is helped along by solid performances by the cast all around.)
These characters and their relationships really serve as the driving force of The Essex Serpent, making the series watchable even as the serpent plot leaves a little to be desired. In much the way Shakespeare’s works get translated into new settings, it feels like the dynamics of The Essex Serpent could be painted on to any other backdrop and still feel compelling.
The Essex Serpent could use more bite
All in all, The Essex Serpent is a solid romantic drama, but it doesn’t provide the escalating tension and thrills promised by its premise. At only six episodes, it’s not exactly a chore to watch. But if the characters don’t hook you in, you probably won’t find it challenging to abandon the series part way through. I just kept wishing this limited series had a little more bite to it.
The Essex Serpent debuts new episodes Fridays on Apple TV+.