The Salem Witch trials took place in the 17th century. The Essex Serpent takes place during the Victorian era, or the 19th century. A two-century difference – the same difference that separates us now, in 2022, from the Victorian era – yet, given the right conditions, a witch hunt can spring up anytime, which is exactly what happens when a young girl goes missing in The Essex Serpent.
Her name was Gracie (Rebecca Ineson), and according to the people of Aldwinter she was taken for her sins by a serpent that lives in the marshes. To Cora (Claire Danes), however, the serpent could be the next, great scientific discovery, which is why she decides to pick up her life in London and move to Essex, to investigate.
Until recently, that’s not a move Cora could’ve made. Her abusive husband (Cal MacAninch) would’ve never allowed it but, following his death, Cora decides to make the most of her newfound independence. Trouble is her timing couldn’t be worse or – to the already superstitious townsfolk – more suspicious.
Like a cross between Penny Dreadful and The Knick, The Essex Serpent toes the line between science and the supernatural, as Cora’s attempts to help the town, by offering them explanations, only seem to make matters worse. Basically, the show is about what happens when a character who’s lived under her husband’s thumb for too long finally breaks free but chooses the worst possible place to start over. Aldwinter might have the fossils Cora loves, but it doesn’t have the people who’ll accept Cora for her lack of social graces. That’s what makes Danes so dynamic to watch. There’s this disconnect between the renaissance her character is having and the inappropriateness of the setting that’s electric. Cora’s presence should be harmless, yet it’s not, and watching her navigate that minefield (fairly poorly) never gets old.
She also looks plain cool doing it. Mary Anning might not be a household name – she’s the woman who inspired the tongue twister “She sells seashells by the seashore” – but that’s exactly who Danes embodies in this series. She’s an unapologetic, female paleontologist and Jane Petrie’s costumes are both practical and fashionable, from the dresses (which Cora wears multiple times) to the suspenders and wide-brimmed hats she wears when she’s working on a dig.
Other successful characterizations include Frank Dillane’s Luke, as an egotistical surgeon who (when not drunk) shows a surprising amount of maturity. The show also does a great job unpacking the complicated friendship between Cora and her servant, Martha (Haley Squires), who’s a Communist.
If the series has a flaw, it’s in the amount of attention it dedicates to Cora’s relationship with a married vicar (Tom Hiddleston). As much as Hiddleston looks completely at home in the marshes, his character, Will, never really comes together. He’s not the new guy in town (Cora and her son, Frankie (Casper Griffiths), are the newcomers) yet you wouldn’t know it from the lack of loyalty he inspires in his parishioners. Part of that has to do with his curate (Michael Jibson) not being on the same page, but part of it just has to do with Will, and his murky motivations.
The show also pays the price for having Cora leave Aldwinter at some point. It’s the right move for the characters (Aldwinter was getting too dangerous), but not necessarily the right move for the series.
Based on the novel by Sarah Perry, the first two episodes of The Essex Serpent are streaming now on Apple TV+. New episodes will stream weekly on Fridays. I’ve seen all six episodes.