The finale of The Essex Serpent doesn’t quite stick the landing, moving away from what made the series so intriguing and muddying the waters too much.
This review contains mild spoilers for the Season Finale of The Essex Serpent (‘Surfacing’).
After last week’s somewhat lacklustre episode 5, it felt like the main job for the finale of The Essex Serpent was to tie up its loose ends and, perhaps more importantly, definitively decide what kind of show it is. Is it a mystery or is it a romantic drama? Will we finally see the ‘serpent’, or is the ultimate mystery that of human nature? Episode 6 makes an attempt to answer these questions, but the ending doesn’t reach the heights of its beginnings.
As her health deteriorates rapidly, Stella (Clémence Poésy) receives a welcomed visit from Cora (Claire Danes) and her son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), despite husband Will’s (Tom Hiddleston) initial misgivings. The messy web of Cora and Will’s relationship is soaked in the grief over Stella’s diagnosis, and the surprising reveal of the ‘serpent’ settles a town that has faced immense hardship. In London, Luke (Frank Dillane) struggles to come to terms with his new reality after the attack and Martha (Hayley Squires) mourns the loss of a proposed social housing bill, but finds hope with Dr Spencer (Jamael Westman) and his family fortune.
The Essex Serpent started with a rumbling, slow-build of eerie tension that was almost cloying with its atmosphere and intrigue. However, the series ultimately ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. Despite being visually stunning, rich in its sense of place and time and really thoughtfully directed by Clio Barnard, by the finale it feels as though it has slightly lost its grip. There’s little exploration of some of the more interesting themes – theology vs. science, mental health, the nature of trauma and grief and their impact on love – and it ties itself up in a way that’s narratively neat but emotionally unsatisfying.
There have been moments when the show has flirted with some really fascinating ideas. The ‘existence’ of the serpent felt like a metaphor for an exploration on religious fervour, the fragility of fear and the scary prospect of progress and change. But the series sort of tossed that by the wayside and attempted to pursue this thematic concept through Cora’s relationships and traumatic past, and wasn’t completely successful in it. Cora felt underdeveloped and, dare we say it, irritating by the end. Which is such a shame as the character had such potential as a figure who embodied this idea of fearing evolution: a woman, and a woman of science no less, who thought on her own and was willing to speak her mind. Danes, as always, offers a layered performance, and her chemistry with Hiddleston, Dillane and Squires gave the sense of a nuanced woman who had an interesting story; it’s just a shame it got a bit muddled in its execution.
The show lost a bit of momentum when it shifted away from Essex itself. The ‘witchy undertones’ we mentioned in our review of episode 3 were also really interesting, and yet were never developed any further than a mere mention. As was the notion of the serpent being an allegory for evil: while its use as a metaphor for the fear of change was effective, it was underutilised and felt rushed, and the reveal of the ‘serpent’ felt ultimately underwhelming. The mystery of Naomi’s (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) disappearance is barely touched upon after the fact, and the focus on Martha’s well-intentioned but otherwise superfluous quest for socialist justice could have been lost in order to give that storyline a bit more depth. The series could have emphasised the metaphorical aspect of Cora by having shades of it within the other female characters in the show and exploring them further, instead of pushing the romance to the forefront when it was perhaps the least interesting aspect of the show’s muddy narrative web.
Overall, The Essex Serpent is a show of ups and downs. It has intriguing ideas, but the execution of them fell somewhat flat. The performances are all really engaging, but the characters could have used a bit more development to avoid feeling a tad one-note at times. And rather than being a fascinating mythical creature, the titular serpent ending up being somewhat of a red herring. It held such promise, but struggled to deliver on it by the time it got to its conclusion.
The Essex Serpent ‘s Season Finale is now available to watch on AppleTV+.
WATCH THE ESSEX SERPENT: SEASON FINALE:
Don’t miss our monthly updates with film news, movie-inspired recipes and exclusive content! You’ll only hear from us once a month. #nospam