how much you appreciate The Essex Serpent, an Apple TV Plus adaptation of Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel, may depend on how much you like seeing Tom Hiddleston brooding in a misty field while wearing cozy woolen sweaters. For many people, that will probably be enough. (That was for me.) But thankfully, the six-episode series offers so much more than just beautiful hair in the wind – it’s a taut, heartfelt exploration of grief and belief and how great those two things are. may bother you. Big sweaters are just a bonus.
The show mainly follows two characters. One is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a recent widow and aspiring natural history researcher who has a pretty strong fixation on sea serpents. She spends her free time researching them via old books, maps, and newspaper clippings. When rumors arise that a snake is terrorizing a small fishing village in Essex, she – along with her young son (Caspar Griffiths) and friend/housekeeper (Hayley Squires) – boards a train from London to investigate.
What she finds when she arrives isn’t a snake — at least not at first, no spoilers there — but rather a town that’s gradually going mad with fear. A missing child has everyone on edge, blaming the mythical creature that many believe attacks the most sinful of the group. While bad things continue to happen to almost everyone, tragedies are inevitably blamed on the beast. One of the first people Cora meets in town is Will Ransome (Hiddleston), a local pastor and one of the few people who doesn’t think the serpent is a bad omen from God.
Initially, The Essex Serpent leans quite heavily on some well-worn tropes. When Cora and Will first meet, they have no idea who they are, and even though she helps him save a goat from a certain fate, he’s still a big jerk. Later, when they’re properly introduced so he can help her with her research, it’s the classic rom-com moment when she’s surprised to realize that “Oh, that’s the person who’s been so rude to me earlier.” It’s not the most original way of bringing two characters together, but at least the show quickly moves past it. It helps that Danes and Hiddleston have antagonistic chemistry that’s a lot of fun to watch, even with the familiar setup.
The other, much more interesting subject on which the show is based is the debate between faith and science. Cora’s desire to find a logical explanation for the snake – she spends a lot of time putting on nice outfits to dig for fossils – comes into direct conflict with most of the townspeople, who are becoming increasingly convinced that it is the work of a vengeful divinity. What makes the dynamic particularly interesting in The Essex Serpent is Will, who is stuck in the middle. He’s a man of faith who also can’t accept supernatural explanations for anything that affects the city, leaving him to question his beliefs a bit and how he can help the community he’s got. it serves.
To add even more drama to the proceedings, the show ends up being much more about interpersonal relationships than existential ones (although the snake and religion remain key elements throughout). The Essex Serpent puts a lot of very beautiful people in a very dark place and then lets you watch them try very hard not to be overtly excited for each other. Cora is finally experiencing something close to freedom now that her abusive marriage is over, and she finds herself caught between Will (who is not only a pastor but also married with two children) and Luke (Frank Dillane), a charming young physician who also happens to be a pioneering force behind the nascent field of open-heart surgery.
Much of the show is about watching the three of them navigate this awkward dynamic while being too British and polite to just come out and say how they feel. This is balanced with all of the aforementioned struggles like finding a mythical sea serpent or perfecting some sort of drastic surgery. It’s a slow burn of a show, only revealing its true intentions after a few episodes. But once she found her place, The Essex Serpent becomes a drama that treats its subjects with a refreshing honesty that makes them all the more interesting. Falling in love and falling in love is always messy, but especially when the world around you is also a complete mess. The Essex Serpent captures this perfectly. And at six episodes, it does so without overstaying its welcome.
Really, it’s a show about the beautiful chaos that comes from conflict, whether it’s between science and faith, love and hate, or putting a bunch of pretty people in a dark, depressing small town. Thus, the cozy sweater is a metaphor for The Essex Serpent as a whole: Its dingy, worn exterior hides something much more intriguing underneath.
The Essex Serpent starts streaming on Apple TV Plus on May 13.