Episode 1 of The Essex Serpent leans more towards moody psychological thriller than supernatural mystery, but intrigues with atmospheric visuals and a cracking score.
This review contains mild spoilers for episode 1 of The Essex Serpent (‘The Blackwater’).
Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent has the feel of a slow, eerie drama with witchy undertones and an intriguing central concept. This first episode, with its gothic, Victorian-era setting and moody, misty locations, sets up what appears to be a supernatural story, but might well turn out to be a psychological thriller instead.
Recently widowed Cora (Claire Danes) is intrigued by the rumours coming from Essex of a mysterious sea serpent-like creature terrorising the locals. Along with her son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) and companion Martha (Hayley Squires), she travels to the county determined to investigate the legitimacy of these tales and finds a town in the midst of being ravaged by grief and fear. The local vicar, Will (Tom Hiddleston), is keen to put an end to the stories, but finds himself at odds with his faith when a local girl goes missing in the marshes.
The function of this first episode is to establish the world in which this mysterious serpent supposedly exists. Cora is grappling with the expectation of grief after losing her husband and a burgeoning connection with local surgeon Luke (Frank Dillane), while Will is desperate to calm his congregation and keep the fear and rumour from getting too out of hand. Victorian London is bright and bustling, but Essex is another beast entirely. It’s so atmospheric, thanks in large part to director of photography David Raedeker, and it really feels as though Cora is stepping into a place that’s struggling with the weight of a secret, with the sunshine barely creeping through the mist on the boggy lands and the locals so clearly on edge. For the serpent is an allegory for the devil, and they won’t even sit in the church pew with its carved snake on the side.
Episode one also effectively sets up the core relationships, with just enough backstory hinted at in flashbacks and conflicted looks across the distance to not feel laboured. Cora seems charmed by Luke, whose ambition sees him desperate to operate on a human heart, although she’s tormented by memories of her dead husband. Will is steadfast in his reliance on faith to disprove the serpent, and at odds with Cora’s suggestion that there might actually be a creature in the water, something in the realm of a pterosaur.
It feels likely to entangle into a messy web of suspicion and paranoia, as the locals turn away from God and towards the practice of witchcraft; and of forbidden romance, as Will’s boundary between his life as a vicar (and husband to Clémence Poésy’s Stella) blurs with Cora’s appearance, and as Luke grows more attached to his patient’s widow. Hiddleston, filling the void vacated by Fleabag’s hot priest (Andrew Scott), gets to flex his acting chops outside the superhero realm, and there’s an undercurrent to his Will that suggests there’s more to his mild(ish) mannered vicar than meets the eye. Danes gives a committed performance as always, turning the emotional dial up to 100% as Cora plays the part of grieving wife to a secretly abusive husband, whilst immersing herself in the hunt for the serpent and engaging in Luke’s mild(ish) flirtations. And Dillane feels like the wildcard in this dynamic; it’s unclear whether Luke will stay the pursuant lover with high medical ambitions or reveal a darker side, but – like Hiddleston – his performance has enough edge to keep it intriguing.
So where does The Essex Serpent go from here? Well, while the opening scene might suggest there is indeed a creature, it feels as though the entire mood of the show is pulling it in a different direction. There is an eeriness and a creeping sense of menace, – aided by Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s tremendous score – but predominantly, episode one gives the sense of a psychological thriller, rather than a supernatural one. A tale of religious fervour and the power of belief warring with intense emotion and residual trauma. The ‘serpent’ might well be a metaphysical monster, and not a literal one, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Episode 1 of The Essex Serpent will be available to watch on AppleTV+ on May 13, 2022.