Episode 5 of The Essex Serpent channels its focus away from the mystery and towards the melodrama, thus losing its momentum and feels a bit disappointing.
This review contains mild spoilers for episode 5 of The Essex Serpent (‘Break Things’).
With such a strong opening episode, The Essex Serpent appeared to be a specific type of series. It was moody and atmospheric, with a central mystery that weaved together supernaturalism and religious symbolism in a really intriguing way. But as the show has progressed, its theology and thriller elements have been somewhat left behind for a stronger focus on melodrama. And that’s not necessarily a benefit.
Stella’s (Clémence Poésy) health has taken a turn for the worst, so she takes a trip to London with Will (Tom Hiddleston) and their children to visit Luke (Frank Dillane) for a diagnosis. Having fled back to London, Cora (Claire Danes) is trying to readjust and, on Martha’s (Hayley Squires) recommendation, takes the fossils she discovered whilst in Essex to the Royal Geographic Society. But a chance meeting in the museum and a disaster of a party only further entangle the complex mess of feelings between her and the two men.
It feels a little frustrating to have reached the second last episode of the series and for it to have drifted as far from the first as it feels like this one has. The mystery of the serpent – the question of whether it was a physical beast and the themes were supernatural, or a metaphysical one and the show was exploring the nature of humanity – was such an effective introduction into this world and offered some really interesting theories as to how it was going to play out. (Our review of episode three was pretty heavily centred around witches, and now feels somewhat irrelevant.)
But it now feels as though the crux of the show is Cora’s romantic entanglements, with poor, still-missing Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) all but forgotten for most of this episode. The ‘love’ triangle between Cora, Luke and Will is perhaps the least interesting – and most awkward – element of the series, and so for the focus of episode 5 to be so heavily tilted towards it is a little disappointing. Cora’s moping – Danes does excellent ‘I’m upset’ face acting, but it starts to feel repetitive – has a whiff of ‘emo teenager’ to it and it makes the character feel irritating and not compelling as a central figure. Will’s guilt over his feelings for Cora is in danger of feeling a bit stale, especially since Hiddleston barely gets the opportunity to do anything but stare morosely into the middle distance. And Luke’s persistent pursual of Cora feels like a step back after last week, like the series is pushing him towards the role of the sympathetic scorned lover, rather than the grounded, intelligent, smarmy-but-gets-away-with-it rake he felt like to begin with.
Episode 5 has, unfortunately, lost the momentum and intrigue that had built so steadily over the course of the series so far. Aside from some brief scenes – a pre-credits, rain-soaked but fruitless hunt for Naomi over the grey marshes and Jo’s (Dixie Egerickx) plea over a fire as the episode draws to a close – the mystery of the serpent is summarily ignored. Martha’s cause for social justice feels like a weird aside and unconnected to any of the rest of the series’ thematical endeavours. Preacher Matthew’s (Michael Jobson) throwaway line about sin is meant to remind the audience of the simmering fear and paranoia that still exists in Essex, but instead feels discordant and out of step with where the rest of the episode.
For The Essex Serpent to have started so excitingly, only for its slow burn, creeping sense of dread and the ‘is-there-or-isn’t-there something in the water mystery’ to have evolved into an unimaginative love triangle is frustrating. Perhaps the finale will bring the serpent back to the fore and the series will return to the heights of episode 1 and finish on a high, but perhaps it won’t. It feels like a misstep for the series to draw away from what made it so intriguing, but there’s still the chance it’ll right itself. And maybe this review will feel irrelevant next week after the finale, but for now The Essex Serpent feels less like a metaphorical monster and more like a damp squib.
Episode 5 of The Essex Serpent is now available to watch on AppleTV+.
WATCH THE ESSEX SERPENT: EPISODE 5:
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