Episode 3 of The Essex Serpent explores its witchy undertones, ramps up the fervour in its townsfolk and stays compelling.
This review contains mild spoilers for episode 3 of The Essex Serpent (‘Falling’).
So far, The Essex Serpent has made its case as a psychological thriller, but those ‘witchy undertones’ we mentioned in our review of the first episode are back at the forefront in episode 3. The mood is still sombre, the palette still grey, and there’s a definite shift in Cora and Will’s relationship.
Cora (Claire Danes) has had trouble sleeping since the incident at the school and she invites Luke (Frank Dillane) to visit and offer his medical opinion. He suggests hypnosis as a means of getting Jo (Dixie Egerickx) to speak, but his attempt enrages Will (Tom Hiddleston). An argument about it the next morning leads to him sharing a rather intimate moment with Cora, but Stella (Clémence Poésy) sees them from the window. Meanwhile, three fishermen claim they were attacked by the serpent out on the water.
Echoing episode 1, the opening scene sees three fishermen spooked at movement in the water. They get themselves into a panic when something catches on their net, and the force of trying to pull it back causes one of them to fall overboard. David Raedeker’s stunning camera work really gets in close to the genuine fear on their faces, and emphasises that Essex is a town where people truly do believe there’s something out to get them. It’s an effective continuation of that paranoia and fervour mentioned last week, and an immediate ramping up of the tension.
The rest of the episode isn’t quite as tense, but it does throw in some interesting, not-at-all throwaway titbits that offer up an idea of where the series could be heading. Luke casually mentions a working theory that the women in the Salem Witch Trials might have accidentally ingested a poison; Jo admits under hypnosis to the spell she did with Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) and how it was supposed to be a secret, and preacher Matthew (Michael Jobson) laments Cora for giving the children nightmares with her ‘new ideas’. With deliberate references to the aforementioned ‘witchy undertones’, the outright distrust the entire town seems to harbour towards Cora and the serpent’s propensity for allegorising evil, lies and temptation, things might well become quite uncomfortable for certain women in Essex as the series progresses.
Even Will himself seems to be struggling with ‘temptation’. Luke’s presence angers him; he’s jealous of another man in Cora’s life – particularly one who is quite firmly on the side of science alongside her. Their relationship has been fraught with an unnamed tension until now and the ending of this episode all but confirms that it was of a romantic nature. Stella, a hitherto relatively unexplored character, looks set to entangle further into the dynamics as well. With her lingering ‘flu’ that concerns Luke, her admission last week to Cora’s son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) that she can keep a secret, and witnessing the moment between Cora and Will, there seems to be more to this vicar’s wife than meets the eye.
And then there’s poor Naomi, still wrought with grief and guilt over losing her sister. She’s denied entry into school and, in a moment of weakness, is almost sexually assaulted after having a drink in the local pub. She scrubs herself raw and prays for forgiveness when her would-be-attacker calls her a ‘slut’. This, again, comes back to the idea that perhaps the wrath of the town – the force of their fear and faith – is about to fall on certain women. Perhaps Martha (Hayley Squires), with her radical socialism, should head back to London while she still can!
Episode 3 of The Essex Serpent is as intriguing and well-crafted as its predecessors. With its unsubtle hints towards witchcraft and deliberate nods to the roles people are expected to play in society, we have an idea of where the next episode could lead. But maybe that supernatural element will develop further and it won’t just be an exploration of humanity; maybe there really is a serpent in the water, sent by the devil or simply having escaped evolution. Only time will tell.
Episode 3 of The Essex Serpent is now available to watch on Apple TV+.