The Essex Serpent: Season 1 Review – IGN
The Essex Serpent debuts on Apple TV+ with two episodes on May 13, 2022, with a new episode arriving weekly on Fridays.
In The Essex Serpent, the new Victorian-era Apple TV+ limited series adapted from Sarah Perry’s 2016 bestseller, Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes find themselves at the center of the faith-versus-science debate that threatens to consume the English village Aldwinter – all while a slippery, unseen entity lurks beneath the surface. The duo anchoring the story holds our gaze; however, the six-part series suffers from attempting to cover too much ground as it divides time between London and the rural Essex community. It’s overstuffed, yes, but director Clio Barnard isn’t afraid to shoot in the dirt, and the genre-blending period drama captures the evocative and sensual atmosphere of the source material. Mud, mist, and a whole lot of yearning are on the menu in this moody — and sometimes gloomy — meditation on progress.
After spending her entire adulthood married to an abusive man, Cora Seaborne (Danes) is a recent widow with a newfound sense of freedom that allows her time to explore her natural history passions. Recent sightings of the fabled Essex Serpent give her the perfect excuse to leave the confines of her London home, full of expensive art, that doubled as a gilded cage. For Cora, it is an archeological playground, but Aldwinter’s community is experiencing a nightmare come to life. Here, folklore and faith entwine, and fear is a unifying factor. Parish vicar Will Ransome (Hiddleston) attempts to quell the paranoia as he rejects fire and brimstone teachings, and the well-read theologian looks more like a hot farmer than a hot priest.
Yes, Hiddleston is joining the ranks of Andrew Scott in Fleabag and The Exorcist’s Jason Miller (aka the OG Hot Priest) as a smoldering man of the cloth. Instead of being married to God, Will is a clergyman with a wife and two children (he has three kids in the book, but this change makes sense for a TV adaptation). In the first episode, Stella (Clémence Poésy) is a calming presence and opens her home to Cora, her young son, and maid Martha (Hayley Squires). The dynamic between husband, wife, and new companion doesn’t neatly fit into a love triangle box, partly because Cora also has another admirer — or two — and because the Ransome marriage is brimming with love.
Contradictions are rife within this story, and The Essex Serpent depicts various oppositional ideas to increase tension. It isn’t always subtle in its juxtapositions; however, some intriguing ideas are at play. For starters, Cora and Will are a twist on the Mulder and Scully “believer and skeptic” framing. Cora is a woman of science but thinks a serpent might lurk beneath the town’s shallow waters, whereas Will’s faith means he doesn’t believe such a creature exists — even if other villages believe the snake is here to punish sinners. Will refers to it as “an invention” that is “a symptom of the times we live in.” Progress in the city is spilling out into the nearby villages, and it is easier to blame the Devil than address the impact of industrialization.
Cora uses the recent (in terms of the show’s timeline) work of Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell to argue that this being could’ve escaped evolution. “I’d rather believe in a creature people have actually seen than an invisible God. Is that blasphemy?” is her lively response during dinner at the Ransomes in the premiere. This dynamic, as she pushes back against Will early on and finds a natural sparring partner, is at odds with the way her previous relationship unfolded. Cora is Danes’ first TV role since her eight-season Homeland stint, and she is particularly adept at playing opinionated characters with an underlying source of doubt.
But that dinner isn’t their first encounter with each other, as they had a unique meet-cute of sorts when Cora helped Will yank a sheep free from a muddy bog. Will is overtly spiky during this initial conversation as he is visibly riled by the mere mention of the elusive serpent and the additional attention it has brought Aldwinter. Neither holds a grudge, and playful chemistry is apparent to all that sit around the Ransome dinner table — including his wife.
Hysteria creeps through the grey landscape, and the arrival of outsiders from the Big Smoke elevates the tension. Romance and sensuality are a cornerstone of Apple TV+’s promos, yet yearning is only one element of Will and Cora’s partnership. It is a tricky relationship to pull off because Stella cuts a sympathetic figure, and not everything works in the build-up. The energy emanating from Hiddleston and Danes sucks up the oxygen in the room, and while this helps with later developments, it is hard to look at anyone but them. Poésy is understated in a role that leaves her hanging on the edges as an observer, but she has several touching moments with Cora’s son.
Amid the muddy landscape, it is a sumptuous production with Cora’s scene-stealing closet pulling focus in every scene, packed with clothes representing her past and present. Costume designer Jane Petrie swaddles Cora in grey textured knits and leg-of-mutton sleeves before offering freedom in pants, floral suspenders, and a white shirt. Even though summer is upon us, nothing has made me long for cold grey days than the garments worn by the leading pair.
The traditional dog collar makes an appearance, but Will favors a blue sweater and wax overcoat that shows how little some menswear has changed in over a century. Will’s stoicism is no match for the bubbling passion, and his inhibitions — and buttons — come undone. Hiddleston captures this inner battle, whereas Danes is unafraid to wear her emotions in every line and tear on her face.
Cora’s freedom after years of being subject to her husband’s cruelty means her actions in the present veer into selfishness, which is where her maid Martha comes in. The relationship is muddled, as Martha is an employee and Cora’s closest confidant; the power imbalance is hard to ignore. This is another example of a relationship with several dueling components as the lines blur between duty and friendship — and even love. Martha is a socialist who uses her proximity to wealth to make real social change. This storyline is one of many that makes The Essex Serpent overstuffed with ideas, themes, and heavy-handed metaphors. Subtle some of these exchanges are not, and the Aldwinter half of the story is noticeably more engaging.
Progress is also represented in the brave new world of surgery, which casts a foreboding shadow over those fearing change — and had me longing for another season of The Knick. Even though his storyline is dripping in on-the-nose exchanges, Frank Dillane is excellent as the slimy surgeon Luke Garrett who visits Aldwinter at the behest of Cora. Fans of the book will likely note that his character’s popularity has undergone significant changes in Anna Symon’s adaptation of the source material to increase his position as a rival to Will. Rather than simply being an obstacle, Luke’s arrogance and the revolutionary procedures he pushes serve a purpose to the broader mysteries and ailments suffered by those in this parish.
Conveniently, Luke is proficient in recent psychiatric leaps, such as hypnosis as a treatment, but this is straight from Perry’s novel. The latter is utilized after the children experience collective hysteria that is a disquieting but familiar in a story with this fearful setting of change. As history and movies have previously depicted, there are few things more terrifying than tween and teenage girls.
Progress as a catalyst for fear jostles for space alongside other elements that center on Cora’s exploration of identity in the wake of her husband’s death. Her marriage has literally and figuratively scarred her, and there is a question of how someone can put themselves back together after an experience this harmful. The villagers lash out and blame the outsider, which alienates Cora further. The period and setting provide the ideal backdrop for this evocative story that benefits from the limited series format — no episode runs over 51 minutes. While it is certainly overly ambitious, at the heart of the science-versus-faith conflict is a dynamic duo that commands attention — real serpent or not.