The Essex Serpent is Apple TV+’s first foray into folk horror and a welcome return to BBC-style costume dramas. Based on the book by Sarah Perry, and starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston, this series holds a lot of promise in its deviously clever premise.
Shepherded by writer Anna Symon (Dark Matters: Twisted But True, Deep Water) and director Clio Barnard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant), the series’ excellent production design and game cast make The Essex Serpent appointment television. You can watch the first two episodes Friday on Apple TV+.
The Essex Serpent recap: First two episodes
In the early morning fog, a young woman named Gracie (played by Rebecca Ineson) sits in the swamps of a small coastal town in Essex, England. She bears a cross, apologizes for being tempted, but blames “the serpent.” Just then, something swims toward her with ferocity and purpose — and she vanishes beneath the water. The only witness, her sister Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu), is terrified by the sight.
A few miles away, London socialite Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes of Homeland fame) is saying goodbye to her husband, Michael (Cal MacAninch). A doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) is called in, but it’s too late. She tells her son, Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), the news and he can’t help but point out that she doesn’t seem all that sad.
Of open-heart surgery and sea serpents
Mr. Seaborne was no saint, and Cora won’t admit it but she’s not at all sad to see the last of his days. She, indeed, seems more content in the arms of her socialist friend Martha (Hayley Squires, a welcome sight). The doctor seems perplexed by Cora’s decision not to operate on her dying husband. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this marriage had run its course. And so, then, did Mr. Seaborne’s life.
Cora decides to get to know the doctor a little more, meeting him for a drink and watching him perform in the operating theater at the local hospital with his partner, Dr. George Spencer (Jamael Westman). The doctor tells Cora what really interests him is a new idea called open-heart surgery. She’s interested not so much with the doctor’s ideas but his passion.
She decides to pursue a story that has been interesting her in the weekly papers: the sighting of a sea serpent in Essex. Cora is a would-be naturalist, most taken with the idea of sea creatures. What a sight it would be to find a real, live sea serpent.
What are you doing here in the marshes?
Cora’s only in Essex a few minutes when she happens upon Father Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston, who plays Marvel villain Loki). Will is trying to free a sheep from a bog, and Cora assists. However, she earns his ire soon after his gratitude by telling him she’s come to see the serpent.
One of his parishioners is Gracie Banks’ father, and he doesn’t want people believing in monsters instead of doing earthly things to help find the girl. Will’s been looking after Naomi whenever he can, as well as his own family — his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy), daughter Jo (Dixie Egerickx) and son John (Ryan Reffell).
Will is cross with Gracie and Naomi’s father Henry (Gerard Kearns) for allowing them to seek refuge in superstition. However, he recognizes that battle may be lost.
You’re too young to be a widow
Cora, Martha and Frankie are joined in short order by Spencer and Garrett, who botch a surgery and provoke the ire of the head surgeon in charge of their practice. But he has competition for Cora’s attention in the form of Father Will.
Will was to be her liaison in the Essex community, arranged by a mutual friend, Charles Ambrose (Nitin Ganatra). And thus they have a second chance at a first impression. Cora agrees to stay the night with Will’s family so she can see the famous serpent adorning his church, from an old legend. The townsfolk believe the mythical serpent has been reborn and is taking young women to their watery graves.
Cora’s more excited by the possibility of a creature. She gets Will’s hackles up when she says she believes more in the idea of a creature than in God. Will’s an odd sort of preacher. One suspects that something real rough happened to him to make him so stubborn in so many ways, and so taciturn about his own belief system.
All that will have to wait, though. Gracie’s body just washed up.
I hate fresh air!
I’m unfamiliar with the work of Sarah Perry, a greatly admired author in Europe whose other two books also touch on the fantastical. Nor am I familiar with showrunner Anna Symon, unfortunately. That means I mostly must go by what’s in front of me with regard to the writing. So far, it’s very strong.
Clio Barnard, however, I know well. Barnard emerged in the early ’10s with a crop of other up-and-coming British filmmakers (though some of them were well into their 40s at the time). Barnard, like Andrea Arnold, Andrew Haigh, Ben Wheatley, Joanna Hogg, Ben Rivers and Steve McQueen (and maybe Mark Jenkin, but that might be a borderline case) represented a stark new direction for English cinema.
English film had essentially run aground, making the kinds of movies that win American awards and foundering elsewhere. These new directors gave the national cinema mouth-to-mouth, provoking audiences with violent new images that recast the classics in a harsh and unsparing light.
For an example of what I mean, Barnard’s first film, The Arbor, was a sort of hybrid documentary/performance piece wherein actors lip-synched to recordings of people recalling the life of English playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died young after the success of two early plays about people living in poverty.
Barnard’s next two films, The Selfish Giant and dark river, were tales of people living along the poverty line like Dunbar’s heroes, but in a mix of Ken Loach-style UK neo-realism and high post-modernism a la Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad or Je T’aime, Je T’aime.
Of women haunted by ghosts
The Essex Serpent is very much in the style of Dark River (which also focuses on a woman haunted by the ghost of an abusive family member). It’s impressionistic one minute, balefully realistic the next. The show makes no bones about the obnoxious intrusion that Cora Seaborne represents, trying to bring scientific reasoning to tragedy wrapped in the supernatural.
Everyone here is at cross purposes. Luke Garrett wants Cora’s affection. Cora wants to divine what’s really killing people in Essex. The people of Essex want to simply believe what they believe, which rankles Will Ransome, who in turn bothers Martha. It’s like a Mike Leigh family drama with a healing helping of Eugène Lourié’s English dinosaur movies (Gorgo, The Giant Behemoth).
Imagine all of those conflicting impulses corseted by the dictates of a British period drama, and you’ve got The Essex Serpent’s number.
It looks like it ought to be very ordinary, if of course stately and lovely to behold. But there’s a lot of weird stuff packed into these hours. I’m very excited to keep watching the mystery unfold. If somehow every element (Garret’s first successful open-heart surgery, god versus nature, Cora and Martha’s relationship) winds up paying narrative dividends, that would be quite the trick indeed.
Watch The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+
The Essex Serpent premieres May 13 on Apple TV+. New episodes follow on Fridays.
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.