At the start of Apple TV+’s The Essex Serpent, Victorian wife Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is delivered from her husband, a brute who once, during sex, branded her with a red-hot poker on the neck (leaving an S-shaped scar). The sadist dies, apparently of throat cancer, despite the attempted intervention of brilliant young doctor Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane). Suddenly free, Cora feels both grief and immense relief. In a sense, the monster is dead.
But elsewhere at the same time, another one is born: a legendary leviathan that hunts the brackish waters of Essex on England’s marshy eastern coast. The dragon-like beast hunted locals back in 1669, and now, more than 200 years later, villagers fear it has returned. When amateur natural historian Cora reads newspaper reports of the serpent, she leaves her London mansion and heads to the isolated fishing village of Aldwinter. Serpent fever spreads, and faster than you can scream “witch!” Cora is getting blamed for the troubles. This lushly shot and gracefully acted series traces the collision of two worlds: Cora as sophisticated Londoner and proponent of science, and the isolated English village where paganism and puritanism threaten to tear the social fabric, despite the efforts of kindly vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston).
If you haven’t read Sarah Perry’s bestselling 2016 novel, on which the series is based, you will stew in amiable suspense for its well-paced six episodes. Is there a supernatural beast—or living dinosaur—out there in the water? Will Cora and Will give in to their obvious attraction? And if not, will she default to the flirty and swaggering Dr. Garrett? And what of her attachment to her brusque socialist maid, Martha (Hayley Squires): Is it platonic or something more?
For a series that wants to have its eel pie and eat it, too, The Essex Serpent balances folk horror and romantic threads reasonably well, and that’s down to fine scripts by Anna Symon, assured, cinematic direction by Clio Barnard, and a strong ensemble of players. Headlining her first series since Homeland wrapped in 2020, Danes brings her flair for raw feeling and palpable angst, adding to her portraits of Temple Grandin and Carrie Mathison another extraordinary woman kicking against the limitations of her times. She has a simmering, playful chemistry with Hiddleston (although the pensive, witty dreamboat would probably have chemistry with a patch of moss). Dillane adds vital humor and sauciness as the cocky doc; and Squires props up a somewhat labored subplot about improved housing for the poor.
The meat of the series involves the intertwining social and intellectual ties among its two central characters. As a provincial priest, Will is humble and literate, and while he’s skeptical about the sureties of scientists, he puts his faith in a rational, loving god. For her part, Cora believes in science—even if, in the 1890s, that requires a leap of faith. Amid the philosophical discussions of whether the Church of England or Darwin is the surer way to rationalism and social order, there remains the looming question: Is there actually, you know, a monster out there in the water? Or is it just a metaphor for things unknown, in nature and the human heart?
Barnard and director of photography David Raedeker bring 19th-century Aldwinter to life with a moody palate of boggy grays and greens, a foggy, waterlogged zone that’s half water, half land, with glum, unwashed islanders who skin moles and hang them on crossed branches to ward off evil spirits. In this clammy realm, the very ground seems to squelch and stink of fish rot. For a show with “serpent” in the title, it will not surprise you that S-shapes dominate the visual vocabulary: aerial shots of Essex waterways snaking around fragments of land, Cora’s aforementioned scar, and even rivulets of blood pumping from a heart as Dr. Garrett operates.
We hesitate to praise the show with a Masterpiece Theatre tag, but there is a bit of tea-and-biscuit coziness in The Essex Serpent’s earnest patience and restraint. (Even a spontaneous shag on the moors is handled discreetly). “Love is not finite; it’s not confined to marriage; there are so many ways to love,” Cora tells Will, explaining how friendship and Eros can snake around each other like inlets and isles. For those needing a break from Bridgerton’s smoldering looks or The Great’s cynicism, try wading into this humanely gothic tale. The water’s cold but refreshing.