The Essex Serpent ‘s episode 4 is visually and thematically interesting, even if some pacing issues bring the momentum down somewhat.
This review contains mild spoilers for episode 4 of The Essex Serpent (‘Everything Is Blue’).
In our previous reviews of The Essex Serpent, the focus has mostly been on the atmospheric visuals, the chemistry between the leads and the ramping up of tensions and religious fervour within the local townsfolk. Episode 4 continues in much the same vein, but a few pacing issues mean its momentum dips a bit and the pile of questions continues to grow.
It’s Cora’s (Claire Danes) birthday, and Luke (Frank Dillane) has organised a party for her. Friends from London, Will (Tom Hiddleston), Stella (Clémence Poésy) and their children join the pair, Martha (Hayley Squires) and Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), for a night of celebration, drinking and dancing. But the jovial mood doesn’t last, and as morning breaks it appears Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) has gone missing.
As we mentioned, there’s been a great deal of focus on the series’ mood, atmosphere and tension building over the previous three episodes. This week the tension is mostly confined to Cora’s living room, and as Cora and Will share a dance, it could almost be cut with a knife. The party starts relatively smoothly, if a bit awkward, with the visiting Londoners’ boisterousness at odds with the more reserved locals. Luke’s present to Cora makes his feelings pretty clear (as if they weren’t already), but Cora – still presumably reeling from the encounter at the end of last week’s episode – is a bit more hesitant. It’s a fool’s errand for Luke though and he gets the hint pretty soon, because the dance itself is almost an exercise in excruciating endurance with its awkwardness and thick sexual tension, and grinds the party pretty much to a halt.
There’s also the stirrings of a more melancholic theme in this episode. Stella, yet to confront her husband over what she saw last week, takes a moment of respite during the party and comments to Luke that she feels ‘blue’. Her pallid complexion, tiredness and shallow breaths concern him, and it seems as though her secret might well have to do with her health. The relationship between her and Will seems a little cold, but the episode doesn’t give us anything in regards to a confrontation about Will’s growing attraction to Cora. (An attraction that’s clearly reciprocated.)
And then there’s Naomi, eager to find out whether she’ll be taken next for her ‘sins’. The death of her sister, as well as her guilt over the spell, feels cloying and with little support from her father Henry (Gerard Kearns), it proves to be too much. Disappearing into the night, there’s now the anxious wait to find out if she has indeed been taken by the ‘serpent’, fled or is safe and sound somewhere out in the misty marshes.
Alongside the metaphorical ‘blue’ element, due to an anomaly in the sky – referred to as a ‘night shimmer’ – there’s an ethereal blue glow present over all scenes at night in this episode. It’s visually impressive – if only a little wonky, CGI-wise – and has echoes of the supernatural vibe that hasn’t been particularly explored so far. It’s a subtle, cohesive merging of the thematic and the visual in a way that’s been pretty present throughout the entire series, but feels a little more pronounced here. It’s an unnatural sky, and as it fades to the cool light of day, that unnaturalness lingers as the townsfolk happen across an unpleasant discovery and point their fingers a little more harshly in Cora’s direction.
But it’s at this point that the issues with pacing need to be addressed. The majority of the episode takes place over one night, with the party and then the ‘fallout’ afterwards. It doesn’t feel slow up until the final ten minutes or so, but then it all kicks off and moves at a near rapid-fire pace. Accusations, illicit encounters, sacrifices, horrific discoveries and frantic fleeing all take place in that space of ten minutes, and it feels a little jarring. It isn’t surprising, the suspicion and tension in regards to Cora’s presence in the village has been growing steadily, but it all comes to a head fairly quickly in a manner that doesn’t feel like the satisfying explosion of built-up tension we’d perhaps expected. But perhaps that’s unfair and this is only the beginning of the proper fallout, after all there are still two episodes left. But even still, it leaves the majority of this episode focussed on relationship dynamics rather than exploring the theory we discussed last week.
And it seems pretty evident that that is where the series is heading. With Martha’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to an… impropriety in her relationship with Cora, Matthew (Michael Jibson) crying ‘witch’, Naomi’s vanishing and Stella’s poor health, it really feels like the net is tightening on certain women in Essex. Episode 4’s minor dip in quality doesn’t mean the intrigue for the next instalment has lessened any; The Essex Serpent has a fair grip on us. (Although we aren’t quite ready to get the goat’s blood out, quite yet.) But hopefully next week is better paced, equally as interesting thematically and visually, and perhaps makes a start on answering the lingering questions of what exactly is going on in Essex.
Episode 4 of The Essex Serpent is now available to watch on AppleTV+.