The Essex Serpent and the paleontologist who wanted it

Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent was all over the place tonally. Parts of it felt like a horror story, parts of it were about an amazing woman ahead of her time, and parts of it were love story. The way people act out of ignorance and superstition when they fear the unknown created much of the action. Women’s autonomy was also key.

The Essex Serpent revolved around Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes). When the series begins she is recently widowed from an abusive husband. Neither Cora nor her son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) spend much time missing him.

Hayley Squires in The Essex Serpent

Cora lived in Victorian London with her son and Martha (Hayley Squires) who was both friend and employee. Martha was obviously in love with Cora. As the story moved along it became apparent that everyone Cora met fell in love with her.

Meanwhile off in Essex, living in a cloud of fog and ignorance, were a group of villagers who were convinced a sea serpent was there to punish them for their sins.

Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent

The pastor there, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), was a voice of reason. He often lost his arguments for reason to the voices of fear and ignorance. He had a wife, Stella (Clémence Poésy), and a daughter, Jo (Dixie Egerickx), who thought she saw the serpent. Jo’s friend Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) also spotted the serpent and tried to placate it with spells and prayers.

Cora was a paleontologist. She reminded me of Mary Anning in Ammonite and actually referred to her at one point. She also reminded me of Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack). All three were very smart, outspoken, proto-feminists who were ahead of their times. Cora Seaborne was a fictional character, however.

News of the scary serpent terrifying the villagers in Essex made the London papers. Cora, Martha, and Frankie headed off to Essex. What self-taught paleontologist could resist such an attraction?

Before Cora left London, she met a groundbreaking doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane). His medical expertise and advancements affected a number of characters in the story, including Stella Ransome. He immediately fell in love with Cora, naturally. He followed her to Essex, gave her gifts – it was a whole courtship ritual.

Cora arrived in Essex with a load of fossils, a lot of questions, and talk about living fossils that scared the villagers even more than they were already scared.

Claire Danes and Caspar Griffiths in The Essex Serpent

Essex was marsh and bog and mud and ocean. More people saw whatever was in the ocean after Cora arrived. The villagers thought she was responsible for bringing the serpent.

Add Will Ransome to the list of people in love with Cora. Yes, he was married. This time, Cora felt more than friendship for the totally inappropriate reverend. She was hot for him, too.

The problem with the series was things were glanced at and then the story scurried off in some other direction. There was the science versus religion idea, there was the human reaction to the unknown, there were people in love and people with broken hearts, there were social issues around poverty, there were issues around dying and suicide, there were medical advances, there were paleontologists digging up fossils from a cliff in Essex. There was a lot and it didn’t all feel like it belonged together.

On the other hand, the cast was terrific, the scenery was gorgeous, and the mystery in the water was solved.

The entire series was directed by Clio Barnard. It was based on a novel by Sarah Perry, adapted by Anna Symon. All six episodes are available now on Apple TV+.

Were you Team Martha, Team Luke, or Team Will? I confess my team didn’t win.

2 thoughts on “The Essex Serpent and the paleontologist who wanted it”

  1. I have had this book on my “to be read” pile for quite a while – interesting to know they’ve made a movie of it. I had no idea! Thanks for the review!

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