Apple TV+ period drama The Essex Serpent is in sullen repose this week as Stella gets bad news, Cora is in mourning for a relationship that never was, Martha has to decide who or what she really wants, and Will denies himself the pleasures of the flesh.
After last week’s wild party, the miniseries stumbles a little for the first time. Still, The Essex Serpent — based on the bestselling novel by Sarah Perry — manages to be a graceful and bewitching thing, as usual.
The Essex Serpent recap: ‘I Break Things’
The Essex Serpent episode 5: In this week’s episode, titled “I Break Things,” Naomi Banks (played by Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) is missing. The prognosis is not optimism. After all, her sister Gracie (Rebecca Ineson) vanished without a trace, then turned up dead a few days later. Not even her father, Henry (Gerard Kearns), can muster any hope that he’ll see his surviving girl again.
Rev. Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) tries to aid the search party, but his presence is becoming less and less wanted as he continues to fraternize with Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), whose arrival in Essex coincided with the rash of killings the locals blame on the fabled serpent of the marshes.
Will has other problems to deal with when he’s not despairing over a dead teenager. There are his feelings for Cora, which his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy) has obviously deduced. It’s a small town, after all — you can’t hide much.
Stella is ill, too, and demands to go to London to see Cora’s would-be swain Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) for help. Will is reluctant, especially because he’s worried what he’ll do if he sees Cora again. But Stella won’t get better just hiding in Essex, not seeking help.
A fossil in London
Back in London Martha (Hayley Squires) and Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) are waiting patiently for Cora to want to get out bed. She’s mad with grief and guilt, feeling like she made life in Essex harder than it had to be. But she has to put her feelings aside for a minute. She’s written the Royal Geographic Society with her findings about the possibility of the sea serpent’s existence, and they want to meet her.
She shows professor Marchand (Raul Fernandes) a fossil she found on the coast. He says the first fossil is impressive but not enough to go by. He suggests she go back to Essex, but that’s out of the question.
Martha tries to introduce Stella to her new friend, Sali (Deepica Stephen). She’s been trying to help Sali improve her labor and living conditions with her beau, Dr. George Spencer (Jamael Westman), but she’s too beaten down to be hospitable. She takes her frustration out on Martha, who leaves in a huff. Spencer hears her complaints and comes to the conclusion that it sounds like Martha has more than friendly feeling toward Stella.
… a dire diagnosis
When Luke gets a look at Stella, he discovers she has tuberculosis. Luke proposes an experimental procedure. And that enrages Will, who not only loathes Luke for his affection for Stella, but also mistrusts science in general. But Stella is adamant that they go through with it. Will agrees begrudgingly and takes their kids, Jo (Dixie Egerickx) and John (Ryan Reffell), out into London for a day of fun. And of course they run into Cora, but they quickly go their separate ways for fear of making a spectacle of themselves.
Cora realizes she must patch up some things in her life, so she apologizes to Martha and Luke. They have a plan to show their friend Charles Ambrose (Nitin Ganatra), a politician, the slum conditions in which Sali and Nev live.
Luke comes through for them, for Martha. Charles thinks of Martha as nothing more than a communist agitator, but he’s more persuaded by the advice of a hungover doctor who quite clearly doesn’t want to be there but can’t hide his findings, not the hydrogen darkening the windows, nor the cholera in the water.
Martha and Luke continue to hide their secret affair from George and Cora, and have a cute moment where they make sure neither of them has spilled their secret to anyone else.
… and a spurned proposal
Returning the favor for his help, Cora joins Luke for an awards ceremony that the doctors of London are throwing in his honor. Using a great quantity of champagne for courage, he finally asks Cora to marry him. She predictably says no and he blows up at her, accusing her of waiting for Stella to die so she can have Will all to herself.
Of course, the tuberculosis diagnosis was news to Cora, who flees in disgust. Luke, feeling rejected, walks out of his own awards dinner, then gets mugged and stabbed. His hands will be no use to him when he has to perform the surgery on Stella.
Nothing wrong with iron and concrete
I knew that at some point, the pace and scope of this lovely behemoth would prove problematic. This week’s episode of The Essex Serpent contains a number of moments that feel a little emotionally undercooked.
When Will and Cora and Jo run into each other at the British museum, Jo is thrilled to see Cora. And when she’s flustered at the sight of her dad, the young woman says, “You’re acting strangely.” I know there’s meant to have been a lot of off-screen fraternizing, but it is odd to hear that Jo has any conception of what strange looks like — especially on someone like Cora, who’s odd at the best of times.
The miniseries only stretching to six episodes is probably a good thing in the long run, because it means it can’t outstay its welcome. However, there’s a lot left to us to figure out. That isn’t a hard thing to do, but it is an unsatisfying one. There could have been a slightly better grip on the amount of time Cora spent in Essex, and what she came to mean to people, in a more real and less implicit way. It’s just sort of stated that Cora made a big impact on the lives of a lot of people and left at that.
Even still, a slightly unsatisfying episode of The Essex Serpent still makes for very good TV. The episode moves briskly from one great performance note or set piece to the next. Director Clio Barnard does a great job filming both the slums and the high society ball Luke and Cora attend, wringing maximum beauty from the stifling conditions of both environs.
I’m going to miss spending time in this world, even if I’m not convinced Claire Danes was the right person for the role of the irresistible Cora Seaborne.
Watch The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+
New episodes of The Essex Serpent Fridays arrive on Apple TV+.
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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.