Review: ‘The Essex Serpent’ – An Unsettling and Must-Watch Gothic Drama

The Essex Serpent Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston

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The Essex Serpent is the latest original offering from Apple TV+  It’s a must-watch broody drama that is profoundly unsettling and emotionally evocative. The show is an adaptation of the 2016 novel of the same name by British author Sarah Perry. You get the sense that all is not right in Aldwinter – there’s a fraught undercurrent rushing under the surface of the mystical English landscape. It drips with dramatic tension.

The show is a moody masterpiece that builds slowly to hysteria-induced terror. It’s a solid addition to the Apple lineup.

If you’re used to the faster-paced shows that dot the current media landscape – that only require your attention for a blip before you’re drawn to something else, this show will feel different. This show is not a flashy historical fantasy show, ala Bridgerton. It is a slow and delicious burn and takes a bit for the worldbuilding to settle. But you’ll be hooked after the first two episodes and want more.

A good period piece will transport you into another time and place while you’re watching. The Essex Serpent does this. When a cast and crew work together seamlessly to create art, you forget you’re watching fiction. The show is so skillfully done that you forget you’re watching heavyweights in their crafts. The costumes and set design are exquisite, and the actual cinematography is stunning. 

Courtesy of Apple TV+

The acting is genuinely well done. Claire Danes is Cora Seaborne in her first role since playing a CIA agent in Showtime’s Homeland. Tom Hiddleston showcases his strength as an actor and slips effortlessly into the role of Will Ransome, the town vicar.

The leads have decidedly different views of the world and how they make sense of things, yet they are drawn together despite these differences. Their worldviews greatly inform the actions of their characters. On one side is Cora, the champion of science. The other side, Will, is the steward of faith.

Cora is, even by late 19th-century standards, an unconventional woman. Her husband dies at the show’s start, and she’s finally free from his torment. The psychological and physical scars remain a recurring theme, both in flashbacks and dialogue, throughout the show.

With her newfound freedom, she bolts to Essex with her son (Caspar Griffiths) and servant (Hayley Squires) to investigate reports of a mythological serpent that some have reported seeing. During all this, she has a quasi-courtship with a driven surgeon (Frank Dillane)

In Aldwinter, she meets the already-married-with-kids vicar. The clergyman is brilliant, has more books, and may be more well-read than she is. He’s also curious about the world and has the complicated task of trying to calm a superstitious town on the verge of a breakdown. In The Essex Serpent, life and love are messy.

The story engine of the show is the quest to make sense of this serpent – is it real, or is it a fata morgana – a mirage? Is something truly taking revenge on the townspeople? And why? But the true heart of the show is how much the events in Aldwinter change the characters. No one is emotionally unscathed. No one’s sense of self is where it was at the show’s start. 

A warning for those who are squeamish – there are a few intense 19th-century medical scenes in the first two episodes. There’s also a mangled body at the end of the first half of the premiere.

The Essex Serpent’s two-part premiere was written and adapted for Apple TV+ by Anna Symon. It was directed by Clio Barnard and is worth checking out.

The show premieres, appropriately enough, on Friday the 13th, with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly on Friday until the conclusion of the series. While you’re waiting for tomorrow’s episode, you might also consider checking out the Apple TV+ show Dickinson and our season 3 review.

 

What do you think of The Essex Serpent? Will you check it out? Please share your thoughts with us on Twitter @MyCosmicCircus.

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