The Essex Serpent roils with suspicion and secrets [Apple TV+ recap] | Cult of Mac

The Essex Serpent roils with suspicion and secrets [Apple TV+ recap]

By

The Essex Serpent recap: Things are getting messy in Essex.★★★★☆
Things are getting messy in Essex.
Photo: Apple TV+

New Apple TV+ series The Essex Serpent is knee-deep in conspiracy and suspicion already. The English townspeople think Naomi Banks is some kind of witch, and they don’t think much better of interloper Cora Seaborne, either.

This week’s episode, entitled “Falling,” goes to place unexpected and expected — and both are as exciting to arrive at.

The Essex Serpent recap: ‘Falling’

At the end of episode two last week, we saw Naomi (played by Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) and Jo’s (Dixie Egerickx) classmates seize up and faint with hysteria. They accused the girls, Naomi specifically, of possessing and compelling them.

The whole Essex countryside has been buzzing with fear and panic since Naomi’s sister, Gracie (Rebecca Ineson), went missing for a few days — then turned up dead in the marshes. The only sane witness to the events was Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), who had chosen that day to visit the local schoolhouse to talk about her suspicions regarding the local legend the Essex Serpent. So she saw everyone fall about in a display not dissimilar to the children of Salem when they accused their elders of witchcraft.

Martha (Hayley Squires) tries to tell Cora that it’s not her fault, but she won’t believe it. Cora saw the terror in their eyes. She’s come to Essex to find the truth behind the rumors gripping the town, but she finds more and more bizarre behavior everywhere she looks. Jo’s parents, Stella (Clémence Poésy) and Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), have little choice but to ask Cora what she saw in their effort get to the bottom of their daughter’s sullenness since the incident. They won’t let Naomi back into school, either.

Cora: Heretic or sleuth?

Meanwhile, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) is back in town trying to secretly woo Cora, but he doesn’t know what’s happened since he left. He suggests poisoning or fever, a la Salem, but they won’t get any help from the locals divining such a thing. They all think Cora’s a heretic who has brought sadness to the community.

Luke is still convinced that most of this is an outgrowth of Cora’s grief over her dead husband, Michael (Cal Macininch). But he sees that her passion for divining natural truths about the world might outweigh the grieving. So he encourages her to keep following her heart.

Luke and Cora think they might be able to help Jo, who hasn’t spoken since Gracie turned up dead. Luke suggests they hypnotize her to get her to start speaking and thinking about everything in a more healthy fashion. They don’t ask Will’s permission, because he’s not around. He’s too busy swimming out to sea to try and find some evidence of the serpent for himself.

When he walks in on the little session, he almost throttles Luke. Everyone’s on edge. Naomi is attacked in the street by a young man. When she resists, he shouts, “I thought you were a slut like your sister!”

I’m disturbing you

When Cora tries to explain herself to Will, something funny happens (and I don’t just mean funny haha, though that’s also true).

She hands him a note and explains that she wanted him to read it in private.

“I wanted to apologize,” she says.

“Do you?” he asks.

“No, why should I apologize when I don’t think I did anything wrong?” she answers.

“Well I can’t wait to read it,” he says. Savage.

Will follows Cora out onto the marshes to talk, and winds up grabbing her collar and almost kissing her, while his wife watches from the window. Hoo boy.

Redemption for Tom Hiddleston

The Essex Serpent recap on Apple TV+: It's great seeing Tom Hiddleston portraying such an interesting character.
It’s great seeing Tom Hiddleston playing a character other than Loki.
Photo: Apple TV+

A word about Tom Hiddleston. The actor first came to my attention not as the horn-bedecked antihero Loki in a thousand Marvel properties but as the sad-faced and strident antihero in Joanna Hogg’s early films Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition.

Hiddleston made a case for himself early as the kind of person who can crack through not merely Hogg’s sedate milieu of upper-crust resentment with his indefatigable personality, but someone who understands what film acting is meant to be. Anyone can say the lines. Not everyone can exist convincingly.

I loved watching Hiddleston in Terence Davies’ achingly beautiful The Deep Blue Sea, in Ben Wheatley’s madcap J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, and in Guillermo Del Toro’s chilly gothic Crimson Peak.  But he hasn’t given a performance in a piece of media I’ve wanted to watch in … a number of years.

To see him take center stage in Essex Serpent — in which he fully imbues the potentially too-perfect vicar with very human failures of resolve, resentments and forbidden longings under the sweaters and scarves — it’s like it’s 2011 all over again. Leave it to Essex Serpent director Clio Barnard to bring out the bodice-ripping hero in Hiddleston after so long, and so profoundly felt, an absence from good material.

… but what about Claire Danes?

Which is kind of a shame because Claire Danes seems all wrong for this. She’s an excellent actress, don’t get me wrong. I love watching her, but she’s an incredibly self-assured performer, someone who can’t communicate that she’s genuinely aware that she oughtn’t be intruding. She’s too purposeful, too powerful.

The reason that she works in Temple Grandin or Homeland is precisely why she makes an odd choice for the role of Cora Seaborne in The Essex Serpent. Cora’s meant to be someone who stumbles into a mystery, an affair, a town. Danes projects awareness and self-awareness. She can’t be the clueless intruder.

For instance, it was basically clear from the start that Danes and Hiddleston had to wind up in each other’s arms. But the funny thing about it is that they creative team also styled her to look exactly like Clémence Poésy. That means Hiddleston’s rector is exchanging one wife for another in Freudian fashion. It’s very odd to see it happen, because it’s not like his very-understanding wife is dead or anything.

None of this gets in the way of my enjoyment of The Essex Serpent, per se. But it is one of those itchy situations you’re always pondering when you should be fully invested in the drama.

★★★★☆

Watch The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+

New episodes of The Essex Serpent arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+


Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.