It’s impossible not to believe there’s a gigantic creature in the depths of the waters as a submerged shape surges towards a young woman in the opening scene of the Victorian-era series The Essex Serpent. That’s all you see, but it’s hard not to imagine the aquatic beast suddenly breaking the surface in a very spooky way. A sea serpent, to be sure. A gigantic legendary creature that will lunge at the woman, leaving her no resort but to cower as it devours her whole. That very image is the one that will feed the fears of local inhabitants and enthrall visitors to the village who are attracted by the mystery of the giant serpent. The same mystery that will attract viewers to this series, which recently premiered on Apple TV+. It is also what obsesses the character played by Claire Danes, in her return to TV after the ending of Homeland. She plays a woman starting life afresh upon the death of a husband who was abusive, as will be revealed in flashbacks. Relishing her freedom after his burial, she decides to indulge her passion for the natural sciences and temporarily exchanges London for Essex and the mystery of its giant serpent.

Therein lies a thorny problem, since the viewer, like Clare Danes’ character, is now fixated on whether the serpent is real or not. Having captured their attention with this mystery, it is a challenge for the series to then direct their interest to other areas, which is what the series intends, and which was also the intention of the novel by British writer Sarah Perry on which the series is based. In reality, The Essex Serpent is about a clash between science and faith that ends up developing into a story of deep romantic yearning between Claire Danes’ character, who is determined to use science to prove the serpent exists, and the character played by her co-star Tom Hiddleston, the local priest who believes it is mere superstition. Lying at opposing poles in regard to this central intrigue, and consequently fated to fall for each other, the two characters face off in a scientific-religious duel with dialogues that hint at other simmering passions that will end up emerging when the tension in the village also reaches breaking point.

‘‘The Essex Serpent’.

Although Keira Knightley was originally slated to star in this series, Claire Danes turns out to have been the ideal actress for this story. The zeal with which she imbues her character contrasts perfectly with his reserve, fostering impassioned performances further accentuated by the wild backdrop of this series. It has a gothic feel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights but with a building sense of the constant, ominous presence of a mythic creature, an invisible being that casts its shadow over the whole landscape. The problem ends up being precisely this mystery. It becomes very apparent towards the end of the story that The Essex Serpent has been using it as a pretext. Even if those viewers most absorbed by the mysterious aspect of the series are in the end rewarded by finding out what’s really going on, the reveal seems far too understated. It’s hard not to feel the mystery of the serpent was just a hook to draw the viewers into the story. On the other hand, the romantic part of the story is much more elaborate and its denouement much more satisfying. The upshot is that as a mystery series, which is what it seems to be at the start, it could be considered disappointing. That caveat aside, it can nevertheless be recommended as a series about a passionate relationship that is portrayed by two superb actors and one that, above all, will appeal to lovers of period drama.

Toni de la Torre
Toni de la Torre. TV series critic. Toni works in ‘El Matí de Catalunya Ràdio’, El Temps, Què fem, Ara Criatures, Sàpiens and he also collaborates in TV3 magazine show ‘Tot es mou’. Author of several books on television series and a lecturer at the Barcelona Screenwriters and Showrunners school and in his free time, he likes to give conference on series. Highlights include Premi Bloc de Catalunya 2014.