The Essex Serpent
Developed by Anna Symon
Executive Producers: Clio Barnard, Anna Symon, Jamie Laurenson, Hakan Kousetta, Patrick Walters, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
(Rated TV-14, 2022)
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Essex Serpent.**
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Apple TV+’s new six-part limited series, The Essex Serpent, based on Sarah Perry’s bestselling and award-winning 2016 novel of the same name,1 is a bit more nuanced than the standard prestige television fare, being less a series of intersecting parallel plots and more about combustible characters with nebulous motivations who collide at key points. Emmy Award-winning Homeland (2011–2020) alumna Claire Danes leads the cast as the fiercely headstrong emotional train wreck that is Cora Seaborne, supported primarily by Tom Hiddleston as the earnest but blundering local pastor, Will Ransome. The heavily metaphorical plot about a potential sea serpent haunting the waters of Essex, England in 1890 is far less significant to the actual narrative, which is more interested in the connection formed between these two emotionally compromised people.
Of Monsters and Men. The set-up of The Essex Serpent seemingly promises viewers a gothic monster tale. But what lurks beneath the muddy waters of Essex, it turns out, is far less interesting than what lurks in the hearts and minds of people caught in the throes of monster mania.2 Cora has only recently been freed from an abusive husband (Cal MacAninch) due to his untimely death. Adrift in the world with her son, Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), and his nanny, Martha (Hayley Squires), her amateur interest in paleontology draws her to the coastal county of Essex when rumors of the sea serpent have begun spreading.
An outsider less concerned with the goings-on of the fishing village there than satisfying her own curiosities, Cora quickly draws the suspicions of the local people due to her flagrant disregard of their customs, as well as her issue with complying to the wants of males. This all rears its head when she defiantly chooses to sit in a pew at the local church with a carving of a serpent in its wood. Given the happenings in the town, the people are superstitious and have been avoiding that pew. Her decision sparks off a firestorm that threatens to explode into a full-on conflagration as the series progresses.
Her decision to attend the church service comes at the request of soft-spoken Will, with whom she has struck up a kind of friendship. She has gotten to know his family and his wife, portrayed by a truly stunning Clémence Poésy, who has come a long way since her days as Beauxbatons Academy’s Fleur Delacour in the popular Harry Potter film series. Her mesmerizing performance as the unshakable and graceful (perhaps to a fault) Stella Ransome is a career-best performance.
The forbidden romance that develops between Cora and Will is the backbone of this series. More than the conversation regarding the serpent and its implications for discussions of science, myth, and religion, the storms raging in the hearts of these two lonely individuals are where this series mines all its dramatic tension. The serpent in the water becomes decidedly less interesting than (but no less interesting a metaphor for) the dark tempter strumming the heartstrings of Cora and Will.
Of Science and Religion. The show makes admirable use of its period setting (Victorian England) to explore the age-old debate between science and religion.3 Though Will is a level-headed churchman, he continues the trend of so many modern fictional television preachers who conspicuously never talk about Jesus. Look, Hollywood, please (I am practically on my knees here) — please — consider writing a man of faith accurately just once. Make them flawed, sure, but put in their mouths the words that these kinds of devout believers would actually say. This is an announcement! If this is too much, just call me, I will gladly run interference.
I digress, but the point here is key. Will is presented as a well-educated and devout clergyman who, sometime before Cora arrived, fell into simply going through the motions of life. He is married with a couple of kids, but his personal growth has stalled and despite being a pillar of the community is shown to be a very lonely person. Perhaps it has something to do with his love of reading and intellectual acumen, which gives the series one of its best scenes when Cora discovers his impressive book collection and begins to probe his motivations for living such a small and simple life when he could have been living in high society. Though he does not believe in the sea serpent and expresses the quite liberal position that the story of Eden in Scripture is purely allegorical, he finds his intellectual equal in Cora, a Darwin fangirl who believes there is overwhelming evidence for the creature (a “plesiosaur,” she insists) and that evolution is the key to understanding it.
The show gets some mileage out of the back-and-forth on the subject, but it would be a mistake to characterize the series as being “about” this discussion. No, the debate is the means into the story, the thing that touches off the heady intellectual sparring between Cora and Will. He is a gentle man of quiet intelligence, the opposite of the rough brute that Cora used to be married to, and she the bold, whip-smart woman who is, in many ways, Will’s scholarly superior. Less worried about keeping her dignity than proving a point, she is the opposite of the reserved Stella, who handles every situation — including the revelation of the fact that she is dying of tuberculosis — with refined elegance.
Of Love and Infidelity. I was speaking with a new friend recently, a self-professed evangelical. I knew he was married, so I asked about his wife and her faith. He replied, “She doesn’t really like Christians.” To say I was intrigued was an understatement. The basic math just did not add up — she did not like Christians, yet she was married to one. I pressed the issue ever so slightly, and he went on to say that her father had been a pastor who had an affair and splintered the family, an experience that devalued the integrity of her father’s faith. This is a story that many, it seems, relate to more than they should. In the past five years, surveys have continually appeared to reflect that evangelicals, by and large, are of a divided mind when it comes to boundaries between the sexes and marital commitments — which really should not surprise anyone considering the current state of American culture.4
To its credit, The Essex Serpent handles the little compromises that lead to the fateful moment between Will and Cora quite well. This is not a moment of weakness that comes tumbling out of the clear blue sky, but a series of small, intentional decisions made on the parts of both human beings that add up to something tragic. These are strong characters by virtue of the fact that they are very weak human beings, fully aware that what they are doing is wrong; but the heart wants what the heart wants.
The most interesting character in the whole situation is Stella, about whom another two or three articles could be written. Not only is she not an idiot in the foolish sense of the word, but she also is keenly aware of the growing attraction between Will and Cora. And the strength of ego she exhibits in never losing her mind in a fit of rage is something extraordinary. At any given point, one expects her finally to lash out, to make snide remarks, to take Will to task for his infidelity — and perhaps he expects it, too — instead, she lets the guilt that she knows is eating him up do its work. And when Will cannot take it anymore and finally comes around to confessing, she stops him in mid-sentence and does not let him get the words out, itself a terribly efficient way of ensuring he sits a while longer in his own private hell.
All she does is reassure him that he is a good man, which is simultaneously a momentary comfort, as one gets the sense that Stella truly believes this about her husband despite his infidelity, and a turning of the knife even further — in that moment is becomes painfully, gut-wrenchingly clear that he does not deserve dignified Stella or her grace. Her indignation, her outrage, is quiet, steady, even keeled. She knows her days are numbered because of her illness, and she knows that when she is gone, Cora will be there. Hers is a particular kind of rage seldom seen that makes for unusually dramatic storytelling, because never once is the tension resolved right up to the bitter end.
Of Resolution and Irresolution. But the show’s worst misstep comes in its final hour, which is truly a shame, all things considered. Gone out the window is all the rich texture and nuance that defined the first five episodes in favor of a rushed ending that saw Cora and Will quite literally walking away into the sunset together. It was so jarring I immediately broke my own personal rule about adaptations and began researching the ending of the novel without reading it myself. Surely, this could not be how a story that dealt profoundly in irresolution ended. Nothing about those final moments felt natural, or even earned.
Of course, I quickly learned that the series deviated heavily from the book’s original ending.5 Stella actually begins to recover from her illness, leaving the complicated relationship between Cora and Will in a state unresolved. One cannot help but balk at the decisions of the showrunners who decided to shoehorn in a hopelessly by-the-numbers finale to this tale, though it probably came in an attempt to appeal to “modern” audiences with its nonsensical diatribe on different loves. Precious few shows have ever made me talk at the screen, but those last five minutes of The Essex Serpent had me declaring, “This is stupid!” to no one in particular. Cora is a tragic character, to be sure, but there is no sense in which she pays for her nauseating desire to have this married man to herself; Will comes out only marginally better, as he ignores her endless letters for six months before finally going to visit her. What he should have done is say, “There is something wrong with you, stop writing me.” But, alas, there is only walking and smiling and picturesque vistas and me regretting the six hours of my life that I dedicated to this series that I shall not get back.
The book has an unquestionably better ending, but that does not necessarily make The Essex Serpent a story worth the Christian’s time. Hillsdale College’s Kelly Scott Franklin offered a helpful review of the book back in 2017, in which he writes: “Finally, while the Essex Serpent may have a scientific explanation, Perry’s novel leaves open the possibility of another serpent, a force of evil that lurks in the world and in the human heart….But ironically, though Perry’s novel has a clergyman for one of its protagonists, the book completely misses the Good News.”6
Though I have yet to read the book in its entirety, it would seem that both Perry’s novel and its television adaptation have the same problem when it comes to appealing to Christian audiences — that of a clergyman who says and does things that a true man of faith would likely never say or do. Do not misread this, I do not mean that such an individual is incapable of infidelity, the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming; however, the problem is Will’s motivation as a character that is somewhat misunderstood. What is it that carried him to a simple life in Essex, to a life with someone as quietly dignified and kind as Stella, in the first place? What is the force behind all the guilt that he feels for his horrendous transgression that keeps him up at night in the first place? It is most certainly not the cutting eyes of his dying wife who is the very embodiment of the word “meek.”
As Flannery O’Connor once wrote of the American South, Will is hardly Christ-centered, but he is “most certainly Christ-haunted.”7 The problem here is that both Perry and the showrunners leave out Christ. Perhaps it is because no one knows quite what to do with Him — everyone, it would seem, except Stella, who exemplifies that old concept of “loving-kindness” (what is sometimes spoken of as chesed in its original Hebrew context) in fascinating ways. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.
- Novel originally published in the United Kingdom, Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2016); published in the United States as The Essex Serpent: A Novel (New York: Custom House, 2016).
- Philip Hoare offers some interesting thoughts on why the image of the sea serpent continues to haunt the public conscience in Philip Hoare, “From Loch Ness to the Essex Serpent, Why Are Humans So Keen to Invent Sea Monsters?,” The Guardian, Mary 8, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2022/may/08/from-loch-ness-to-the-essex-serpent-why-are-humans-so-keen-to-invent-sea-monsters.
- For anyone interested, Helen de Cruz gives a very good overview of the historical timeline of this debate in Helen de Cruz, “Religion and Science,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2021 edition, ed. Edward N. Zaltaed, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/religion-science/.
- For some synthesis data on these surveys, see Joe Carter, “Survey Reveals Many Evangelicals Are Confused About Adultery,” The Gospel Coalition, April 19, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/survey-reveals-many-evangelicals-are-confused-about-adultery/.
- For all the differences, check out Louisa Mellor, “The Essex Serpent TV Ending Swaps Ambiguity for Resolution,” Den of Geek, June 13, 2022, https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/the-essex-serpent-tv-ending-swaps-ambiguity-for-resolution/.
- Kelly Scott Franklin, “There Is a Serpent, and Not Just in Essex,” The Catholic World Report, September 24, 2017, https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/09/24/there-is-a-serpent-and-not-just-in-essex/.
- Flannery O’Connor, quoted in Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 37.