I have not read “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry, so I don’t know if the snake it’s named for is real, a metaphor, regional folklore, or some combination of the three. I do know that the six-part Apple TV+ adaptation stars Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston, gives off some serious “Wuthering Heights” vibes, and is built around love triangles and sexual tension you could cut with a knife. Honestly, that’s all I need to care about this show.
Adapted by Anna Symon (“Mrs. Wilson”) and directed by Clio Barnard (“Dark River”), the Victorian-set “Essex Serpent” follows the newly widowed Cora Seaborne (Danes) as she makes her way from London to Colchester, after hearing rumors that a mythical serpent has been sighted. For the first time since she met her emotionally and physically abusive husband, she’s able to pursue her passions, make new friends, and generally do as she pleases. Accompanying Cora on her adventure are her elementary-aged son and Martha (Hayley Squires), Cora’s socialist confidant. Martha works for Cora, although it’s unclear what her exact job is — the two are also so close that, watching the first two episodes, I wondered if they share a romantic history as well.
In any case, Cora, a natural history buff, starts asking around about the serpent, inspiring the ire of the locals and the frustration of Will Ransome (Hiddleston), a buff vicar. In an interesting spin on the whole rational thought v. faith dichotomy, man-of-the-cloth Will believes there’s a reasonable explanation for the serpent, that it’s something that’s been conjured up due to paranoia and fear of the changing times. On the other hand, Cora, a devotee of science, is more open to the possibility that the serpent is an ancient creature that somehow avoided evolution. The two of them are basically 1893’s Mulder and Scully.
Cora and Will don’t agree on much, yet they do like and respect one another, and their arguments have an underlying sexual spark. From the moment they meet, when a gruff, sweaty Will is trying to free a sheep stuck in the mud and flexing every muscle he has to do so, the pair have an undeniable connection. Unfortunately, this is complicated by the fact that Will is married and Cora has a flirtatious friendship going with Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), a doctor back in London.
You can probably tell, but I’m much more into the romance novel aspects of “The Essex Serpent” than its central mystery. (Although, whether it’s figurative or literal, the fact that the story revolves around a snake — symbol of temptation and, uh, other stuff — means I probably should be more interested.) The townsfolk succumbing to hysteria, a witch hunt-in-the-making, discussion of living fossils — eh, that’s fine. But Danes and Hiddleston traversing Essex’s harsh terrain, all windswept hair, pink cheeks, and breathlessness as they debate science, faith, and myth — that’s what I’m here for.
The first two episodes of “The Essex Serpent” are now available on Apple TV+. New episodes premiere Fridays.