The Essex Serpent had its final episode a few days ago, and yet there was barely a murmur of interest on social media. Even when the show began, there was no buzz, despite having the likes of Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes onboard. If we consider TV shows like Midnight Mass, Mare of Easttown or The Queen’s Gambit, these are limited series that viewers couldn’t stop talking about. In contrast, discourse regarding The Essex Serpent is practically non-existent. The main reason? There’s no spark.
The series is centred on Cora Seaborne (Danes). She lives with her son and her maid/companion Martha (Hayley Squires), and is recently widowed when the series starts. Her husband’s passing is how she becomes acquainted with Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), and after their first walk together, his attraction to her is apparent, while she’s more reserved in her regard. Cora has an intense passion for fossils, and when she receives news of the appearance of the Essex serpent, she is encouraged to go by both Luke and Martha, to see if there’s any evidence of its existence. Once there, she befriends the family of the local Vicar Will Ransome (Hiddleston). Despite his married status, the pair become emotionally involved, leading them down a path of love and chaos.
Will and Cora make a handsome pair, but the show doesn’t really flesh out how exactly they fall in love. Hiddleston and Danes do their utmost best to conjure up a certain amount of chemistry, and we do glimpse it at times, in the long lingering looks exchanged across rooms, or the spirited banter they have during their walks. It also helps that their entire union is forbidden, so the yearning can feel quite palpable at times, especially when Will pulls her in close to him and they breathe heavily on each other. However, everything else is pretty bland.
Danes can be quite affecting at times, especially when her character’s forced to reckon with her past. But the show doesn’t delve too much into that, so most of the series is just her emoing about. Hiddleston does his best to be brooding, looking very Mr. Darcy-esque with his windswept hair and open-collared white shirts, but there isn’t much to his characterisation besides being a pining, lovestruck Vicar who behaves pretty abominably.
As his parish gets swept up in the fervour of the Essex serpent after the death of a young woman, he doesn’t do much to allay their fears. When Cora unwittingly becomes involved in some of the strange events happening in Aldwinter, he doesn’t defend her nor comes to her aid. Despite the show’s portrayal of him as an enlightened man, he’s quite against medical advancements, and is often seen raging against Luke, who isn’t doing anything but trying to help. While there was a lot of skepticism regarding science and medicine during that time period, his overreactions do contradict how we initially perceived him to be.
The Essex Serpent isn’t quite sure what exactly it wants to be. At first we think it’s about the hysteria of religious superstition, since the townsfolk look at the serpent as the devil coming to devour them for their sins. Will starts the show denying the serpent’s existence, until he falls for Cora and begins to believe that the serpent’s arrival might be due to his sin. There’s also fellow clergyman Matthew Evansford (Michael Jibson) encouraging this hysteria and fear. However, these themes are abandoned towards the end of the series. Matthew just completely disappears, and the storyline wraps up rather weakly.
There’s the socialist narrative involving Martha and George Spencer (Jamael Westman), a doctor who works with Luke. Martha’s trying to get government officials to sponsor public housing and improve the conditions. While it is a topic relevant to the time period, it doesn’t really connect well with the gothic mood that inundates everything else.
The constant movements between Aldwinter and London also breaks our immersion in the bleak, oppressive atmosphere that envelops Aldwinter. For The Essex Serpent to succeed, the show has to make us believe that the serpent is real; we need to feel the weight of superstition that has overtaken the town. But this doesn’t happen. You’ll find yourself not even caring about the serpent, or pretty much anything else going on in the series.
Despite the fact that most would tune in for Hiddleston, the one who actually makes the biggest impression is Dillane as Dr. Luke Garrett. Even though he has hubris regarding his surgical prowess, he’s devoted to Cora and would actually make a good partner for her. Dillane has good chemistry with everyone and livens up every scene he’s in, which we desperately needed since Will and Cora were mooning about half the time.
It’s such a shame that the series meandered about and lost its way, since the cinematography is stellar. It reminded me so much of 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, with all that marshland and mud, but it also has the hues of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. This is mostly for the scenes in Aldwinter — like I said, London isn’t really shot in a unique way.
With a more focused storyline and more episodes to really flesh out the romantic spaces, this series could have been something quite special. As it stands now, it’s a half-baked attempt that doesn’t really engage the viewer.
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Despite its riveting source material, The Essex Serpent ends up being a gothic bore. Even the charms of Tom Hiddleston can't save this one.
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