One of Apple TV+’s newest original limited series, The Essex Serpent, follows Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), who is newly widowed. With her abusive husband now dead and gone, Cora is finally free to meet strangers and explore the world after being trapped for so long. Her primary passion is natural history, a field that she falls even more in love with after striking up a friendship with Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), her husband’s surgeon, and a man with consuming ambitions of his own: he wants to be the first physician to perform a successful cardiac surgery.
Encouraging Cora’s freedom, Martha (Hayley Squires), Cora’s close friend and a member of the household staff, shows her a recent newspaper article claiming that a monstrous serpent has been spotted along the Blackwater marshes in Essex. Cora can’t help but be immediately intrigued and decides to go there to research and perhaps see it for herself.
But Essex is not London: as Martha wisely observes: “It’s witch-burning country.” The land is as wild and dark as the people. During her stay, Cora is introduced to Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) and his family. Will is the local vicar and a firm believer that the serpent is nothing but a myth.
“The beast is calling you.” But Cora won’t leave such an endeavour alone, and her eagerness clashes with Will’s religious conviction. And when the corpse of a local girl turns up in the marshes, Cora finds herself in the middle of a strangeness bigger than herself.
Based on the 2016 novel by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent is an atmospheric gothic mystery that explores the blurred lines between belief and reality, God and the devil, science and myth. The costume, tones, and overall aesthetic share similarities to that of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, a film in which Hiddleston also starred.
Episode one’s beginning scene is very clever; between the background music, the eeriness of the unknown that is portrayed with a young woman being swallowed by the sea, to the opening credits that follow, it all comes together to draw viewers in very quickly.
Though it is set in England’s Victorian era, most of the story occurs in a small superstitious village. The location is beautiful and sinister, paralleling the plot’s themes and providing a refreshing rural backdrop not typically seen in British period pieces.
The cast is terrific, and Danes and Hiddleston, two well-known talents, carry the show effortlessly. From the first few instances that their characters cross paths, we can sense something is stirring below the surface, much like the marsh itself. Kiera Knightley, the reigning queen of period dramas, was initially cast as Cora but had to drop out due to personal reasons. Although it’s obvious she would’ve been perfect for this role, Danes is just as lovely. The supporting cast of Dillane, Poésy, and Squires hold their own as well. All these performances provide depth to the characters and their motivations.
The series consists of six episodes, all approximately 50 minutes long. It’s lovely to see all the feminine influences that went into the creation of this series. The director and many writers, producers, and cast are women. Women, after all, are often the beating heart of cinematic artistry.
Whether you’re a fan of period pieces or not, the series is worth a watch. It’ll put your personal philosophies to the test, asking audience members the most critical questions: Are monsters real? What do you dare to believe?
Bb Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95