Adapted from the novel by Sarah Perry, “The Essex Serpent” concerns the emergence of a monster that may not even exist. There are gruesome clues of its existence: a young girl's corpse is found chewed up; a long fence of nets, meant to capture it, is destroyed. A bonafide underwater troll no one can comprehend, the mythological serpent causes a small town's collective mental stability to go MIA.
But “The Essex Serpent,” a compelling and surprising six-episode adaptation now playing on Apple TV+, uses this mystery only for surface appeal. With nuanced performances from the likes of Claire Danes, Tom Hiddleston, Clémence Poésy, and Frank Dillane, the story finds deeper purpose in ruminating on other entities that easily scare people when they do not understand them: science; socialism; progress.
Heaven forbid that many of those ideas be embodied by a woman right on the cusp of the 20th century. That person is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), an archaeologist who ventures to the small village of Aldwinter in Essex to investigate the creature and search for fossils. She reasons that the creature does exist and that it could have “escaped evolution,” creating its own path. The faithful of Essex are like the flip side of the groupthink that makes up Pawnee in “Parks and Recreation,” and think the serpent is payback for their sins. Town pastor Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) is skeptical about the serpent being real and tries to temper the growing hysteria in his parishioners’ fire and brimstone thinking. Cora makes them even more fearful, all the more so given her timing with the monster’s arrival.
Every episode of the series is directed by Clio Barnard, who has a great approach to telling a mystery pitched in the unknown of belief. She blankets the episodes with a disquieting tone, mixing ominous wide shots of Aldwinter's spread-out small town with jarring handheld close-ups, a potent mix of classic and new filmmaking approaches to a period piece like this. Threatening clouds always hang overhead, while strings from Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdottir growl lower and lower—the series gets a lot of mileage from such rich gloominess. The moments back in Cora’s ornate realm of London prove to have less of an allure, even if the dresses, three-piece suits, and location suggest a strong eye for detail.
There are no flat main characters in this ensemble, who help make this series far more interesting and expansive than if it were just about its sea creature mystery. Cora begins a close friendship with a workaholic heart surgery doctor named Luke Garrett, played by Frank Dillane with an impressive balance of haughtiness and vulnerability, especially as he starts to crush on Cora. He is shown creating medical history, and being ignorant of Cora's mental health, thinking he can describe it away with something he read in a book.
There are also extended scenes that follow the aspirations of her servant, friend, and housing advocate Martha (Hayley Squires), who is such a socialist that the show seems to mention the detail every time she’s on-screen. Hiddleston’s vicar too, though the most underdeveloped main figure of the bunch, has his own complicated feelings about Cora, in part because of his faith, and the love for his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy). And yet even she has a striking approach to their budding attraction, showing the nuance that comes in not looking at things in black and white. These stories are not directly related to the serpent, but the strength of the performances proves they do not have to be.
At the center of all this is Cora. Through Danes’ performance, the series gains a rich, empathetic view of someone who seems to cause destruction everywhere they go, even if it’s not their intent. Danes illustrates the confusion and hurt in the process of her facing the multiple people who are attracted to her, the shame from Aldwinter townspeople, and her own trauma from the previously abusive relationship that she has escaped by becoming a widower, but carries with a scar on her neck. Episodes four and five practically forget about the serpent in Essex and make clear that however heavy-handed the metaphor may be, Cora's energy is a significant serpent in everyone else’s lives.
A minor scandal brews throughout “The Essex Serpent” regarding new widow Cora and hot vicar Will; though the tension will surely help sell the series, it’s the most shorthanded component in the story. Their mental duels, of his religious skepticism going against her science, prove to be more interesting than the looming threat of them becoming entangled. But at least Danes and Hiddleston have strong chemistry for these moments where they act like the only people on the marsh: their wistful gazes, the way they kiss with their mouths open as if it were their first kiss; the way he puts his scarf around her neck, dark green as this gloomy tale’s stand-in for the warmth of red.
One could accuse “The Essex Serpent” of being too slack with its central mystery, even as it uses the serpent for a few too many freakout dream sequences that are scattered about the show. But that overlooks how much it uses its powers for a far more interesting cause. With pacing that’s best described as assured—in the allure of its writing, cinematography, performances, etc.—“The Essex Serpent” takes a bolder chance in letting its characters stew. “The Essex Serpent” successfully creates a full world beyond its marsh, oftentimes treating the monster as a revealing conversation topic.
Full series screened for review. The first two episodes of "The Essex Serpent" are now playing on Apple TV+, with a new episode each week.