Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston hunt their monsters in The Essex Serpent

Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent

Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent
Photo: AppleTV+

Early Apple TV+ The Essex Serpent, Victorian wife Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is delivered from her husband, a bully who once, during sex, branded her with a red poker on her neck (leaving an S-shaped scar). The sadist dies, apparently of throat cancer, despite the attempted intervention of brilliant young doctor Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane). Suddenly freed, Cora feels both grief and immense relief. In a sense, the monster is dead.

But elsewhere at the same time, another was born: a legendary Leviathan who hunts the brackish waters of Essex on the marshy east coast of England. The dragon-like beast hunted the locals in 1669, and now, more than 200 years later, villagers fear it has returned. When amateur naturalist historian Cora reads newspaper articles about the snake, she leaves her London mansion and heads for the remote fishing village of Aldwinter. Snake fever is spreading, and faster than you can shout “witch!” Cora is blamed for the problems. This lavishly shot and gracefully performed series charts the collision of two worlds: Cora as a sophisticated, science-loving Londoner, and the isolated English village where paganism and puritanism threaten to tear apart the social fabric, despite the efforts of the kind curate. Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston).

If you haven’t read Sarah Perry’s best-selling 2016 novel, on which the series is based, you’ll be simmering in amiable suspense for its well-paced six episodes. Is there a supernatural beast – or a living dinosaur – out there in the water? Will Cora and Will give in to their obvious attraction? And if not, will she default to the flirtatious, swaggering Dr. Garrett? And what about his attachment to his brusque socialite maid, Martha (Hayley Squires): is that platonic or something more?

For a series that wants to have its eel pie and eat it too, The Essex Serpent Balances folk horror and romantic threads reasonably well, and that’s thanks to beautiful scripts by Anna Symon, cinematic direction by Clio Barnard, and a strong cast. Headlining her first series since Country Wrapped in 2020, Danes brings her flair for raw feelings and palpable angst, adding to her portrayals of Temple Grandin and Carrie Mathison another extraordinary woman battling against the limits of her time. She has simmering, playful chemistry with Hiddleston (although the pensive, witty dream ship would likely have chemistry with a patch of foam). Dillane adds vital humor and sass as the cocky doc; and Squires sustains a somewhat plodding subplot about improving housing for the poor.

Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent

Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent
Photo: AppleTV+

The meat of the series involves the intertwining of social and intellectual bonds between its two central characters. As a provincial priest, Will is humble and educated, and though he is skeptical of scientific endorsements, he places his faith in a rational and loving god. For her part, Cora believed in science, even if, in the 1890s, that required a leap of faith. Amid philosophical discussions about whether the Church of England or Darwin is the surest path to rationalism and social order, there remains the question that arises: is there really, you know, a monster over there in the water? Or is it just a metaphor for things unknown, in nature and in the human heart?

Barnard and cinematographer David Raedeker bring 19th-century Aldwinter to life with a brooding palace of marshy grays and greens, a misty, waterlogged area that’s half water, half land, with brooding islanders and unwashed that skin moles and hang them on crossed branches to ward off evil spirits. In this moist realm, the very ground seems to suffocate and reek of rotting fish. For a show with “snake” in the title, it won’t surprise you that S-shapes dominate the visual vocabulary: aerial shots of Essex’s waterways snaking around shards of earth, Cora’s aforementioned scar, and even streams of blood pumping from a heart as Dr. Garrett operates.

One hesitates to praise the show with a Masterpiece Theater tag, but there is some tea and cookie comfort in The Essex Serpenthis patience and restraint. (Even a spontaneous shag on the moors is handled discreetly). “Love is not over; it is not confined to marriage; there are so many ways to love,” Cora tells Will, explaining how friendship and Eros can meander like coves and islands. For those who need a break from Bridgertonlooks smoking or Greatof cynicism, try to immerse yourself in this humanly gothic tale. The water is cold but refreshing.

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