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CRITIC’S CORNER: Science vs. Religion, Feminism vs. Patriarchy

The Essex Serpent, Apple TV, 2022

By Doly Mallet

Knowing the title and the context of The Serpent of Essex, set in the Victorian era, one can assume that this drama will address topics such as repressed sexuality, sin, and how history has often blamed women.

The story evokes tales such as The Scarlet Letter or The Salem Witch Trials. In this case, Claire Danes plays Cora, a widow abused by her husband, who enjoyed both hurting her and giving her expensive jewelry. When she finally finds herself free, she decides to pursue her dream of studying biology, so she goes to Essex, a small village where a giant sea serpent, like the one in Loch Ness, supposedly lives.

When she arrives, she discovers that superstitions abound, that a girl has disappeared, and that the locals believe that the serpent is the Devil, punishing them for their sins. Fortunately, and surprisingly, Reverend Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) does not share their magical thinking and tries to be the voice of reason. Cora and Will bond immediately, as they are probably the only highly-educated people in the area and its surroundings. However, he is married to Stella (Clémency Poésy), the epitome of the perfect wife. People start gossiping and claim Cora is a witch who put a spell on the Reverend. Also, more people are dying and disappearing, which in their view is her fault as well.

Based on the novel by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent is your typical Gothic romance filled with suspense, forbidden love, and mystery. Oh, and yes! There are love triangles, not only because of the Reverend’s wife, but also because of Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), a genius scientist who falls for Cora.

This six-episode series is very enjoyable to watch. Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes have great chemistry, and even the supporting characters are interesting. A good example of this would be Martha (Hayley Squires), Cora’s housemaid, a communist who wants to change the world.

Different women in the story–Stella, the wife; Martha, the singleton, and Cora, the widow who falls in love for the first time– are powerful and fight for what they want:

The portrayal of extremist religion as superstition is evident, and this is mixed in with patriarchy (the serpent tempted Eve; therefore, women are always guilty of falling for temptation). However, many men portrayed in the series act in a reasonable manner, so the criticism is directed more toward a system of old beliefs that are ridiculous and do not allow people to grow and evolve.

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In the end, it seems like The Essex Serpent does not intend to provide any social message, but rather to entertain the audience. Still, it raises questions that will lead us to reflect. Therefore, the show will probably open our eyes to different issues.

Doly Mallet is a bestselling author and a professional film and TV critic.


IG: @dolymallet

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