Is a giant creature trawling the waters near a British village, just waiting to attack anyone who happens to get lost in the fog? That’s the mythical — or is it? — query at the start of The Essex Serpent, Apple TV+’s period drama based on Sarah Perry’s novel of the same name.
The series stars Claire Danes (Homeland) as Cora Seaborne, a London wife and mother whose husband dies within the premiere’s first few moments. (The streaming service released two episodes Friday; this recap covers the first.) It soon becomes clear that Cora’s husband was abusive; a scar twisting its way around the side of her neck is the result of his branding her one night in bed.
After Mr. Seaborne’s funeral, his young and friendly doctor, Luke Garrett (played by Frank Dillane, Fear the Walking Dead), goes for a walk with Cora. Along the way she tells him that “Natural history is my passion.” and that, although her husband liked to buy her expensive jewelry, she isn’t interested in such things. She is very interested, however, when her maid/friend Martha (Hayley Squires, Channel 4’s Adult Material) shows her a newspaper story about a “sea dragon sighted in Essex.”
So Cora and Martha pack up, grab Cora’s young (and definitely not passionate about natural history) son Frankie, and travel to Essex to investigate. While Cora is walking by herself by the water soon after their arrival, she comes across a man struggling to free a sheep from the bog that winds its way throughout the village. She jumps in to help, and though he’s grateful after they’re successful, he soon realizes that she’s just another person come to the village of Aldwinter to search for the local version of the Loch Ness Monster. He says there’s nothing to see, and tells her to go home.
We learn that the man Cora met is a vicar named Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston, Loki), who is trying to keep his congregation’s hysteria about the serpent in check. He’s a rational person who says the tale of the giant snake is nothing more than a myth. But what he and Cora don’t know — and we do — is that one of his young, female parishioners went missing after she and her sister went down to the water with a crucifix in hand.
Though they don’t realize it, Will and Cora have a mutual acquaintance who asks the vicar to invite Cora, Martha and Frankie to dinner. Though slightly chagrined, Will is much more cordial to the young widow when she shows up to share the meal with his family and children. Of course, the serpent is a topic of conversation. “The serpent is not real,” Will asserts. “But what if it is?” Cora wonders, hypothesizing that the creature might be a dinosaur that somehow escaped evolution. He counters that times of great change bring fear, and the serpent story is a manifestation of that. “I’d rather believe in a creature that people have actually seen than in an invisible god,” Cora says.
The conversation is spirited but not confrontational, and when Will’s wife invites Cora to stay the night so she can see a carving of the serpent on a church pew the next morning, Cora agrees. (Frankie and Martha, however, head back to town.)
At the service, Cora is delighted to see the carving and happily sits in the snake pew — but no one will sit next to her. As Will preaches (“Don’t be scared. It’s when we’re most lost that the source of light is closest.”) she has flashbacks to her husband hurting her; the vicar notices Cora crying as the congregation sings a hymn. But then everything is interrupted when a friend of the missing girl’s father bursts in to say that the girl, named Gracie, wasn’t in Essex as hoped.
The men of Aldwick form a search party, calling Gracie’s name as they walk through the fog. Cora joins them but gets separated from everyone rather quickly. Then she hears a young woman crying and sees something at a distance; when she approaches, we see it’s Gracie’s sister, Naomi, weeping over Gracie’s partially decomposed corpse. As people murmur that the devil has arrived, and Cora cries as she witnesses the group’s collective grief and fear, Gracie’s devastated father puts a finer point on it: “The serpent has come!”
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