There’s a party tonight on The Essex Serpent and everyone’s invited. But no one’s going to have the time they imagined. Things take a turn for the biblical this week with red paint on sinners’ homes and adultery in every hearth. Dancing leads to sex, and nobody’s in the bed they must be.
Apple TV+ miniseries The Essex Serpent bids a tearful farewell to good taste this week — and then enjoys the ever-loving hell out of the depraved no man’s land.
The Essex Serpent recap: ‘Everything Is Blue’
In this week’s episode, titled “Everything Is Blue,” Cora Seaborne (played by Claire Danes) is throwing a party in her newly adopted home of Essex. She, her son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), and her friends Martha (Hayley Squires) and Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) will be having over everyone in town who can stand to be around them, including Father Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy), their daughter Jo (Dixie Egerickx), and son John ( Ryan Reffell).
This should only be slightly awkward because Luke has feelings for Cora (He gives her a necklace she is super-weird about because she doesn’t like him that way). Also, Will kissed Cora a few days prior, Luke hypnotized Jo a few days ago — which sent Will into a rage — and Martha trusts nobody anymore.
It’s weird to be throwing a party while fear of a mythic serpent is stalking the marshes of Essex. But then again, maybe now’s the best time, as everyone’s tense as can be and needs a distraction. When Luke and Will try to bury the hatchet, it’s awesome.
“Cora says you’re a genius… are you?” ask Will.
“So they say,” Luke answers.
A few minutes of terse, patronizing conversation later, and will surrender. Perhaps I will have some wine,” he says.
Now that’s a wild and weird party
Dr. George Spencer (Jamael Westman) and Charles Ambrose (Nitin Ganatra) show up to the party and immediately start quarreling over housing conditions, Martha between them, getting called a “rabid communist” as a joke (and one she isn’t all that fond of). Great start! Now let’s get everybody dancing.
Stella gets a weird bit of advice from Garrett regarding her health, then snaps out of her stupor and insists that Will dance with Cora … right now … in front of her. (If you heard the sound of someone fanning themselves, it was me laying this overtop my memory of the dance scene from Crimson Peak). Everybody’s getting a little odd out here on the marsh, serpent or no serpent.
Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) heads to church to speak to Will, but finds only his second-in-command, Matthew (Michael Jibson), who is a more pious sort than Will. She wants to confess to having brought the serpent out of the waters of antiquity with a spell, and thus she feels responsible for the death of her sister Gracie (Rebecca Ineson).
Meanwhile, Frankie goes walking while everyone’s partying and watches an old man die on the docks of natural causes. It’s a pretty excellent bit of characterization from the writers that Frankie just takes his death in stride. He explains it like he saw a ship coming in, or the weather changing (Also, the old man is played by Christopher Fairbank! This won’t mean much to many of you, but I’ve been watching him with interest since his small turn in Alien³, the movie that also gave us Holt McCallany).
Cora goes out walking to clear her head. (She’s hugely distraught about having feelings for Will while stringing Luke along.) But she comes to no conclusions. She’s just lost — and will be as long as she stays in Essex with an unsolved mystery.
To top it all off, Naomi doesn’t come home that night. When her father (Gerard Kearns) goes looking for her, he finds the corpse of the man who died next to Frankie.
Matthew thinks the serpent is feeding off the sins of everyone in town. Will tries to protect Cora, whom the men in town think is calling the serpent in. They start painting houses with red streaks of paint like in the time of Moses. Cora resolves to leave that day, but you know what they say about announcing your plans.
You mustn’t go out by yourself
Actor Frank Dillane, who I’ve liked in a host of things before now (Viena and the Fantomes, Fear the Walking Dead) is exquisitely fidgety in the role of Dr. Garrett. He’s a perfect idiot, socially inept and cocky and unpleasant. And Dillane looks like he’s having a ball playing him. He reminds me of David McCallum in any of the early 70s TV movies roles where he plays a drunken scientist or a husband with secrets.
It’s always a fine line when actors are having fun, but I kind of dig that Dillane wasn’t content to play the bare facts of Garrett. He wanted to become someone more loathsome. Dillane, if I’m not speaking out of turn, must have known that everybody else knows that he’s about the prettiest man ever born. He’s been doing his utmost to break out of the mold of playing rock stars and heartthrobs. This is a great and weird part for him.
He and Hayley Squires’ frank, drunken talk about Cora and the vicar’s relationship stands as an Essex Serpent highlight. The two of them, so rational, can’t help but pity the two heroes of our story with their beliefs in all kinds of fantastical things. Director Clio Barnard, showrunner Anna Symon and her writers room know that their position regarding Will and Cora is a tad unfair. (Aren’t we also here to see Will and Cora fall for each other in the mists of Essex in the predawn blue?).
But also, it makes for amazing television, especially because condescending to squares happens to be there love language. When Squires demands Dillane take her upstairs and make love to her, it’s the hottest the show’s yet been. “You’re thinking about her, arencha?” she asks. “No,” he says. “That’s OK. I am, too,” she says.
Hello! *cartoon spring sound/old-timey car horn* We gotta live one!
The images of the odd and eerie blue skies are also a series highlight. Cinematographer David Raedeker has been doing a great job with focus and perspective all season, but this may be his best episode.
The Essex Serpent probably won’t wrap up every loose end, but I could care less. This is excellent damned programming. Clio Barnard has shown up half the Apple TV+ slate without blinking. The Essex Serpent is a sexy, sweaty, grim cauldron of conflict. What more could you ask for?
Watch The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+
New episodes of The Essex Serpent Fridays arrive on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.