‘The Essex Serpent’: Claire Danes Chases Monsters, Real and Imagined, in Richly Layered Apple TV+ Drama

The best monster stories are really about people. Creatures created in our imagination tend to channel how we feel or see the world. As its title promises, “The Essex Serpent” has a monster swimming around its story, which is more about traumatized minds, fearful emotions and longing. It’s Jane Austen meets the Loch Ness Monster, filmed with the seriousness of arthouse cinema. Not surprisingly, this six-part Apple TV limited series is based on an award-winning novel by Sarah Perry. Its layers can get as rich as a literary text, which could prove challenging for viewers expecting some sort of sea adventure. Atmosphere and mystery are the driving force of this adaptation.

Claire Danes plays Cora Seaborne, a Londoner who has just been freed from an abusive marriage by the death of her husband.  Luckily, the dead abuser has also left Cora wealthy. This gives her the freedom to pursue her interest in paleontology. It’s the late 1840s and Cora is fascinated by Darwin. Even her live-in maid, Martha (Hayley Squires), is being radicalized by reading Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto. When Martha shows Cora a newspaper clipping about a supposed sea creature out in Essex, near the town of Aldwinter, Cora is convinced this might be a surviving dinosaur species, particularly a Plesiosaurus. She leaves for Aldwinter, with her son and Martha. When she arrives she meets the local vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who is married to Stella (Clémence Poésy). Will is not too keen on the idea of a large serpent swimming around Essex, but the town has been shaken by the recent disappearance of a girl named Gracie (Rebecca Ineson), who we saw out in the marshes at the beginning of the episode with her sister, Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu), before vanishing in the mist. What follows is a clash of modernity and tradition, as Cora and Will grow forbiddingly closer.

Under lesser direction, “The Essex Serpent” could have been a mystery modeled after “The X-Files.” The approach of director Clio Barnard and the writing team is to craft Perry’s novel into a drama that is intelligent and human. If one were to stretch comparisons, it’s somewhat similar to Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” and the 1997 movie adaptation starring Jodie Foster, where a rational scientist finds alien life and then battles with questions of faith. The serpent of this story isn’t the main point, but the belief in it. Cora is a rational thinker who remains scarred by her marriage, now she tastes real freedom. There is a hint of romance with a doctor, Luke (Frank Dillane), who treated Cora’s husband in London and joins her in Essex. Yet the man she connects with on a more organic level is the already married Will, who is also a man of faith. He doesn’t believe in a prehistoric creature roaming the nearby waters, but he’s open to the Devil causing some of the ensuing havoc in town. For us, the viewers, the fun is in trying to figure out the case for ourselves. A child did disappear, and another episode opens with a fisherman being attacked by something in the water. Surely, there is some kind of large creature causing trouble.

“The Essex Serpent” is also a great example of atmosphere combined with rich acting. Aldwinter comes alive as a town eternally overcast, with taverns where locals sing and dance. Cora arrives and stirs trouble unintentionally. Her theories frighten a population used to explaining everything away with superstition. For them, the serpent is a manifestation of evil, not a natural animal that has probably made its way to their shores. Noami meets a young man at a tavern but when it proceeds to kissing, she runs away, terrified God is watching. Luke attempts to help get answers to problems afflicting one of Will’s daughters by offering the new practice of hypnosis. Puritan-like ethics tend to generate more tension which is palpable between Cora and Will. 

For Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston, this is a wonderful return to TV prominence. After scoring acclaim for several seasons as a government operative in “Homeland,” Danes gets to explore gothic romance and subdued tension. Tom Hiddleston has poise and vulnerability. He’s that devoted man who suddenly feels the stir of dangerous passion when meeting someone like Cora. Few experiences in life are as unbearable as unrequited love. Both also evoke the pressures of living in a society gripped by hysteria. They seek evidence together and find clues that point to a scientific explanation for the recent attacks, but few are willing to believe. When Cora tries to share her findings at the local school, more superstitious chaos ensues.This story is set in the 19th century, but feels relevant at a time where rational thought is being pushed aside. Eventually “The Essex Serpent” does give answers, which should not be spoiled. Until the end, what it keeps consistent is its emotional punch. Whether the monster is explained or not the greater challenge is for Cora and Will to find peace and true happiness. There is a moment in the finale full of painful, aching longing where Will grazes Cora’s neck, and we wonder if he can possibly go further. Ancient sea creatures can continue to live on in our imaginations, heartbreak is all too real.

The Essex Serpent” begins streaming May 13 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.