Apple TV+ period drama The Essex Serpent draws to an orderly close this week after five episodes of disorderly conduct, serpents (both metaphorical and real ones), love, death, betrayal, discovery and friendship.
The miniseries ends on a note that’s a bit of a letdown for how nicely it treats its pack of sinners, but I guess sometimes you have to give “the people” what they want. Ultimately, a great old-school tale of adventure and lust settles for neatness. Though that’s a hair upsetting to me, it was well worth the time it took to get here.
The Essex Serpent recap: ‘Surfacing’
Season 1, episode 6: In the season finale, titled “Surfacing,” Cora Seaborne (played by Claire Danes) and Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) both wake up hungover with messes to clean up. Luke has to fix his hand, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong. Cora’s smashed nearly everything in her house in frustration after Martha (Hayley Squires) finally came out and said what she’s known all along: It is very, very hard to be in love with Cora, who takes and takes and takes from the people closest to her without giving love back fully in return.
Stella (Clémence Poésy) is succumbing to a kind of zenlike state of despair since her tuberculosis diagnosis. Rather than die of TB, maybe the better thing to do would be to give herself to the Essex Serpent that’s apparently claimed the lives of Gracie (Rebecca Ineson) and Naomi Banks (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu).
But before that, she has one favor to ask of her husband Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston). She wants to see Cora and her son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) one last time.
Luke is in emotional agony after his embarrassment last night and is cruel when Dr. Spencer (Jamael Westman) tries to comfort and help him. Spencer’s also got his own future to worry about. He bought the building where Sali (Deepica Stephen) and Nev (Yaamin Chowdhury) live after Charles Ambrose (Nitin Ganatra) disappointed them by not going to Parliament with a social housing bill. He did this, they all suspect, to please Martha in hopes of winning her heart forever.
Cora comes to Luke’s house to cheer him up and suggests that he move in, as friends, not lovers or husband and wife. He rightly sees that this is no way to live — not while he loves Cora and Cora loves Will.
Cora’s obtuseness here is ill-fitting, given what we know about the character. She has to know that he’d see this as a consolation prize.
Nice, tidy endings
Luke eventually calms down and lets George attend to him while he recovers. Then George goes to Martha with a proposal. She thinks its marriage and puts her foot down. (“Marriage enslaves women!” she says. “It’s an obstacle to revolution!”). However, he wants her not to be his wife but to run an organization he’s founding with his trust fund dedicated to equitable housing.
That’s everything wrapped up except Stella, Cora and Will.
Cora finally returns to Essex to see them. Stella tells Cora that she’s ready to die. Will isn’t ready to lose her, and he tells Cora that whatever happens, if she dies, he’ll always be in love with his wife. It’s a warning as much as anything; if they end up together, Will will always pine for Stella and blame himself for her death. If they were to be together, Will would only be half the man Cora once knew.
While they walk together and talk, Stella takes Frankie out to the marshes, asking if he wants to see the serpent. She fills a boat with a host of offerings, leaves him on the shore, gets in the boat, then has Frankie push her out to sea. Frankie runs for help and tells Will, who runs out and saves her (not noticing the serpent behind them as they swim away).
Then Naomi comes home to her father. “I’ve seen the serpent,” she says. “I think it’s dead.”
What she saw was, in fact, a huge beached whale, dead on the shore. The whole town comes out to see it. Then Stella dies.
Six months later, Cora is working at an archaeological dig with Professor Marchand (Raul Fernandes) of the Royal Geographical Society. Luke writes to her, reminding her she needs to write to Will, which she does. He replies. But then he takes his reply and puts it in a desk with the dozen other letters to Cora he wrote but never sent. Then he goes outside and who should be waiting for him but Cora.
This is all phenomenally convenient, of course, to have everything wrapped up so tightly and everyone (except for conveniently martyred Stella) getting exactly what they want. It’s kind of a bummer to have so much fun splashing around in the muck of human frailty, and then have everyone neat and tidy a few hours later.
However, I’m not actually complaining because getting here has been such a devilishly fun ride. The idea of watching a socialist veer between two different doctors, one a burgeoning philanthropist, the other a drunken genius maniac, is something I will not be taking for granted. And it wasn’t even the main plot thread!
You never wrote
The stuff with actor Hayley Squires was always going to be more interesting than the Claire Danes plot because Squires — Shirley Henderson 2.0 in all the best ways — is a more interesting screen presence. She wears the skin of Martha much more closely than Danes did Cora’s.
Danes unfortunately seems to have found Cora too easy to perform in shorthand. So, even though we see her cry and scream and break things, it never feels like Cora Seaborne came alive and stopped being a character. Martha, however, did.
So did Luke Garrett. Frank Dillane and Squires don’t have star personas to quit (not that Daines isn’t frequently amazing in so much of what she chooses to be in). Those actors can afford to throw themselves into their roles with a little more unguarded gusto.
Tom Hiddleston’s performance is situated between them, very committed to the idea of the conflicted Will Ransome but, alas, given too few moves to make. He fell for Cora too soon, and then we just waited for him to make that outwardly clear in word and deed. And then he can do little but suffer for the remainder of the show.
Director Clio Barnard does a very nice job handling an unfortunately neat conclusion. But the best parts of The Essex Serpent happened when we could see people trapped in the same room with the objects of their ire and affection, and we got to watch them work out in real time what to do without breaking the strict moral code of the time.
If the conclusion feels like a letdown, it’s only because the beginning and middle were so thrilling and free. Still, not even my complaints about the denouement can spoil what has been a lovely series. I might just watch The Essex Serpent again.
Watch The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+
You can stream all six episodes of The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+.
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.