Science versus Ignorance: Clio Barnard’s The Essex Serpent

by Bryan & Heather

Claire Danes. Tom Hiddleston. A moody, Gothic British period drama. It was really only a matter of time before we checked out The Essex Serpent on AppleTV+. Intrigued by the mysterious premise of a small Essex fishing village haunted by the specter of some kind of malevolent sea creature, we queued it up as our first true period piece of 2023. What awaited us was a perplexing confrontation of progress, traditionalism, and oddly consequence-free drama.

The Essex Serpent follows Danes’ character Cora Seaborne as she finds herself after her abusive older husband dies. Leaving 1893 London behind, Cora’s passion for paleontology leads her to pursue rumors of a sea serpent to the sleepy Essex fishing village of Aldwinter. While the local vicar Will Ransome (Hiddleston) proves surprisingly modern and a fast friend, the rest of Aldwinter proves provincial and highly conservative, eventually succumbing to fears that the elusive serpent is the Devil himself and punishing the towns’ sinners for their transgressions. As she attempts to convince the townspeople of a more natural explanation for their problems, Cora also navigates her one-sided relationship with brilliant young doctor Luke Garett and the growing mutual affection between herself and the married Will.

While it certainly nails the mood it’s aiming for, The Essex Serpent’s history is a bit more questionable. We were initially struck by the peculiarity of some of the costuming, with Will often sporting sweaters more reminiscent of the 1930s and Cora partial to a particular piece that seemed like some odd combination of sweater and Victorian dress. Moving past the superficial, however, the themes of The Essex Serpent seemed displaced by a couple centuries. There was certainly a conflict between the forces of scientific “progress” as championed by Pasteur and Darwin and traditionalism in Victorian England, yet to have a coastal village not far from London devolve into Salem-style accusations and mass hysteria seemed not only anachronistic but patronizing–an effect only enhanced when a town full of fishermen believe that what is clearly a beached whale is their malevolent serpent, dead at last.

Unfortunately, the history is not the only unfulfilling element of The Essex Serpent. Numerous story threads seem to sow the seeds of a whole host of relationship dramas, yet none of them every actually come to pass; the main characters all receive uniformly happy endings in a way that feels rushed, if not unearned. At the same time, the mystery of the serpent is left totally unaddressed, apparently the concoction of Aldwinter’s collective hysteria despite definite implication that something else is at work in early episodes. When take together with its complications as a period piece, these deficiencies of storytelling rendered the Essex Serpent  fairly lackluster for us. Those enamored with Gothic drama, the show’s stars, or fairly low-stress television might enjoy it, but it is by no means a must-watch for students of history–or anyone else.

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