The Essex Serpent, a six-part miniseries on Apple TV based on Sarah Perry’s 2016 book of the same name, asks a lot of intriguing questions for such a short run: What is making the water in Aldwinter scary? How bad was the abuse Cora’s (Claire Danes) husband did to her before he died? Where did Stella’s (Clémence Poésy) mysterious illness come from? Does Will (Tom Hiddleston), the handsome vicar, have this stylish wool scarf in any other colors?
When Is a Serpent Not a Serpent? When It’s a Big Whale.
In the season (and probably series) finale, a big whale washes up on the beach, and the people of Aldwinter think it was the sea serpent that was supposed to have caused all their problems. As Cora and her son Frankie watch, Frankie asks his mother how so many people could be so sure that the whale was a snake. “People fear what they don’t understand,” Cora says sadly.
So, in The Essex Serpent, there is never a real snake. This story is full of symbols, and the image of the serpent is used to hide any bad things that happen to the characters because of their supposed sins. Since Cora is a woman and not from the town, everyone thinks she is to blame for the snakes.
This part of the story doesn’t have a real ending. We don’t think the villagers have changed their minds about Cora now that they’ve seen the beast that is not a snake.
If you were hoping for a more monster-like experience, I’m sorry to say that The Essex Serpent might not be the show for you. Later episodes don’t have any of the possible creepiness from the first few episodes. Instead, they focus on the romantic and sexual triangles between the characters.
Stella’s illness does not have anything to do with the supernatural, as this author foolishly thought at first. The Ransome family goes to London to see Dr. Garrett (Frank Dillane), who confirms that Stella has tuberculosis. Stella tells her husband that she doesn’t want to spend her last days in a hospital, so they go back to Essex.
Alright, No Serpent. Where Do All Our Human Characters End Up?
The whole cast is good, but Poésy stands out because she brings so much kindness and bravery to the role of the sick wife who gets in the way of the main love story. Will tells Cora before their first kiss, “Love is not a weakness,” but this is Stella’s character arc more than anyone else’s.
All things considered, it’s a shame that Stella had to die so that Will could find his way back to Cora in six months. Danes and Hiddleston do have chemistry, but the rushed pace of the miniseries doesn’t give us enough time for them to understand how passionately they are supposed to love each other.
When Will starts to tell Stella that he cheated on her, she tells him to “hush.” And then tells him he’s a good man, and that’s the end of the conversation. It seems like Stella is forgiving or even approving of his relationship with Cora, so the audience can now accept it without questioning it.
Then Stella dies, and everyone in the Ransome family is sad. Will doesn’t write Cora any letters. During the time jump of six months, Cora is found on a dig site and gets a letter from Dr. Luke Garrett. We find out that Luke is now the Head of the Medical School, which means that he is “finally appreciated.” He misses Cora, too.
Why we’re supposed to still like Luke after seeing how he treats Cora after his failed marriage proposal is as confusing to me as “Well if there wasn’t a monster in the water, how did Gracie die?” But I digress.
Cora sees Will coming toward her on the road as she walks home. When she points out that he hasn’t written any letters, he says, “I had too much to say.” They smile and kiss, and everything is fine. We don’t see any more of Hayley Squires’s character Martha or her work for equal housing. We don’t find out how Frankie is doing now that he has lost his father and is being taken back and forth between Essex and London by his mother, who doesn’t seem to like spending time with him.
Frankie tells Cora, as he looks at the dead whale, “I wish it hadn’t died.” I took this to be a comment about his dead father as well. In flashbacks, we see how Cora’s husband hurt her, but we never find out if he also hurt Frankie or if Frankie knew anything at all about what was going on. Does any of this explain why Cora has trouble getting along with her son? The ending doesn’t say anything about it because it goes straight to a kiss that doesn’t involve cheating on a sick spouse.
The Essex Serpent does a great job of introducing us to characters we care about, even when their side stories wander wildly away from the main question of “What’s up with this sea serpent that may or may not exist?” Did Dr. Spencer have anything to do with the main plot? No! But Jamael Westman does a great job in the part, and I can’t wait to see what he does in six months.
It’s annoying that the series ends with a time jump that only shows us a small part of three of the characters’ lives. The first five episodes of the show are often so much more than a typical period romantic drama, so it’s a little disappointing that the final episode seems to only be about that.
At least for me, the ending of The Essex Serpent only answered the questions I cared least about. This story might be more interesting to people who like sweet romances with great clothes more than scary underwater monster mysteries.