Fear grips the coast of England in Apple TV+’s new miniseries The Essex Serpent. But does fear divide people, or unite them? The first two episodes, “The Blackwater” and “Matters of the Heart,” give us a more complicated answer to that question.
Based on a 2016 novel by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent opens in 1890s London and follows Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a recent widow. Intrigued by news of a giant serpent haunting the Essex village of Aldwinter, Cora leaves London to investigate. Meanwhile, pastor Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) tries to calm the people of Aldwinter, who fear the mystical terror lurking beyond the shoreline. When Cora and her young son (Caspar Griffiths) come to town, Will and his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy) welcome her with a warmth otherwise lacking in the frigid town.
The marriage of contrast and contradiction is the heart of the series. Aldwinter’s muted grays and blues are punctuated by stark reds in Cora’s coats and scarves. Will privately states that as a pastor he cannot be doubtful, yet tells his congregation that he too “lives with doubt and fear.” Will’s unshakeable devotion to Stella is rocked by Cora’s boldness.
Though Aldwinter is haunted by sightings of “the Essex serpent,” the true conflict lies within Cora and Will. Cora, a keen scientist, and natural historian, only trusts what she can see for herself. Will, as a man of God, sees reason as a counterpart to faith. The pair debate over the existence of the serpent as a metaphor for evidence versus belief. Their lively discussions unite them despite their differences of opinion, and their burgeoning attraction cannot be ignored for long.
The elements of The Essex Serpent move like a living tapestry, or perhaps like the mystical serpent itself. Clio Barnard’s direction is full of life and passion. Jane Petrie’s costumes are architectural masterworks of cloth and thread, with puffed sleeves and sweeping coats that trail across the landscape. Danes and Hiddleston (in his first non-Marvel role in quite some time) are an electric match of wits. Poésy’s friendly Stella is a beam of light against the Aldwinter fog.
The only flaw in The Essex Serpent so far is the lack of clear integration between the main plot and two subplots focusing on Cora’s friends in London. Her son’s nanny Martha (Hayley Squires) is a socialist exploring housing reform, while Cora’s friend Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) experiments with surgical methods. As Cora is not central to either plotline, their purpose alongside the main story is not immediately clear. Still, both touch on subjects not often seen in 19th century period dramas, and provide interesting historical perspectives.
The Essex Serpent is a rewarding watch for fans of the novel. Decorative details are nods to the book: Stella’s clothed in dreamy shades of blue, and Cora’s address is the same as in the novel. It incorporates the details of the book without alienating those who have not read it. It’s a masterful way to execute a book adaptation.
Anchored by engaging performances, The Essex Serpent takes its time to build the tension, giving its unsettling, enchanting story room to unfold. Let The Essex Serpent slither onto your watchlist, and prepare to be ensnared.
The Essex Serpent drops new episodes Fridays on Apple TV+.