It’s often easier to believe that something magical or supernatural is responsible for an unimaginable feat than that humanity is capable of something people would rather think it wasn’t. This is true both for incredible accomplishments that require hard work and for horrific tragedies and evil that those guided by morality would see as impossible for another human to think up and commit. The pursuit of answers for inexplicable occurrences is usually layered with controversy, and what constitutes definitive proof to one may be meaningless to another. The limited series The Essex Serpent probes the intersection of science and speculation and two dissimilar minds converging on the same unsettling mystery.
Set in the late 19th century, The Essex Serpent begins with a frightening scene that indicates the presence of a mythical creature in the village of Essex. The recently widowed Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) relocates from London to learn more, teaching herself of the legends that exist and the potential real-world meanings behind them. She initially clashes with the pastor (Tom Hiddleston), who takes a more straightforward view that emphasizes a reliance on logic above all else, but the two come to share a more similar attitude towards something disturbing they can’t quite explain.
This six-episode limited series, based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, is moody and gray, evocative of a time period that for some may have been full of enlightenment and promise and for others felt aimless and destitute. As a woman, Cora knows herself to be intelligent but must face an unevolved society around her dominated by men and a sense that they know better, even if they are far less well-read and knowledgeable than she is. She does not want to be told by anyone what she cannot do, but is well aware of the way the world works at that moment.
There is a lingering tension in the air that feels like a storm about to break at any moment without warning. That constant state of unnerving uncertainty may for some viewers constitute suspense, but its pace is such that it requires a deep immersion for its true payoff. Its purposefully slow approach is one seemingly designed to intensify its intrigue, inviting those with patience to unravel its layers and to discover, with its characters, what lies at the center of its trip to a place that sometimes feels like an old-fashioned version of The Twilight Zone.
At the core of this series are two talented performers who have made their mark on television. Three-time Emmy winner Danes, best known for Homeland, dons an English accent to play a different type of character than the one she has before, just as resolute but ready to approach her goals in a nuanced way. Hiddleston, who anchored one of this season’s best series, Loki, is also more reserved but just as initially combative. Watching the two come to a space of mutual understanding is certainly worthwhile, and the ensemble is enhanced by supporting actors like Hayley Squires and Clémence Poésy.
The Essex Serpent is the latest in a line of Apple TV+ programming that has been debuting at an increasingly frequent rate over the course of the past year. It bears some similarity to two of its most recent projects, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey and Shining Girls, which lack of a sense of urgency at their starts but should reward viewers who choose to invest and spend time with their protagonists. If nothing else, it feels like a true trip back in time where reality was often dependent on what could be seen and believed and not studied or proven.
The Essex Serpent premieres with two episodes on Friday, May 13th, with new episodes dropping each Friday after that on Apple TV+.