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The Essex Serpent Is Caught in the Coils of Misogyny
An atmospheric love story can't quite escape stereotypes.
Apple TV’s The Essex Serpent is an atmospheric, melancholy mystery/love story about abuse, repression, and renewal. Based on a 2016 novel by Sarah Perry, the six-episode series is well-acted and beautifully filmed by director Clio Barnard. But its critique of misogyny is confusedly undermined when it blames its central character for inspiring love.
In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is released from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage when her wealthy husband dies of throat cancer. Her husband’s doctor, the brilliant surgeon Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), is eager to start a relationship with her. But instead Cora decides to pursue other passions. An amateur paleontologist, she is fascinated by rumors of a giant serpent in Essex, which she believes might be a prehistoric creature passed over by evolution. Along with her son Francis and her socialist servant Martha (Hayley Squires), she travels to Essex. There she meets the local pastor Will Ransome (Thomas Hiddleston) who is trying to keep his parishioners from descending into a serpent-inspired panic of superstition and fear.
Barnard luxuriates in panoramic views of the Essex swampland, shrouded in mist, and she loves images of fisherman wading in the mud, pulling eels from the murk. The serpent serves as an ambiguous symbol, somewhere below the dark water. It’s death and it’s the unknown, the old fears and the new, frightening possibilities of progress. As the townspeople turn against Cora and her paleontological questions, that phallic, enormous, invisible serpent is also the memory and influence of her husband and his violence, winding around her to keep her in her place, marking her like Eve with blood and poison and sin.
Part of that sin is her attraction to Will who is married to Cora’s new friend Stella (Clémence Poésy). Will’s exquisitely stubbled visage vacillates between lived-in wisdom and stricken passion. Nice-guy Hiddleston grappling with a love too enormous to fit in the small pond of his life is if anything even more likely to set fan hearts throbbing than raffish bad-boy Loki Hiddleston. For her part, Danes’ sharply mobile features lights up in a mix of wonder and terror whenever Will shuffles into view. Small-as-life romance has rarely felt so suffused with depth.
Will isn’t Cora’s only romantic option. Luke remains in touch with her and eventually follows her to Essex. And Martha, with whom she sometimes sleeps to drive away nightmares, would clearly like those bedroom trysts to lead to something more than comfort.
Yet despite Luke and Martha’s desperate signaling, Cora continues to see both of them as friends rather than potential lovers. That’s not that surprising; she’s just escaped a grueling marriage. She desperately wants emotional support and intellectual stimulation. But she’s leery of physical relationships, and understandably so.
Yet Luke and Martha do not understand—and the series takes their side. The script all but accuses Cora of placing Luke, and Martha too, in the friend zone. Her offers of companionship are not just rebuffed, but treated as culpable.
Luke and Martha act as if she’s insulting them by offering a close relationship without physical intimacy; they say at various points that she doesn’t know how to love, or doesn’t know what to do with love. That’s both untrue and a callous thing to say about someone who is trying to get her life together after an abusive relationship. Cora is encouraged to apologize repeatedly, as if she’s the one at fault for not wanting to have sex.
Philosopher Kate Manne has argued that misogyny is the idea that men (and in this case women too) are entitled to women’s attention, sexuality, bodies and affection. Luke and Martha behave as if, because they are friends with Cora, and because they love her, they have a right to a sexual and romantic relationship with her. By Manne’s definition, that’s precisely how misogyny works.
Neither Cora nor anyone else in the series effectively pushes back against this idea or rejects it. Instead, the series suggests that Cora is taking advantage of her friends by offering them what she wants to give, rather than what they believe they deserve.
The townspeople believe Cora is a witch; that’s absurd, and we’re supposed to see it as absurd. But at the same time, we’re supposed to condemn Cora for her ensorcelling attractions. The Essex Serpent promises to bring the drowned, ugly things into the light. But some of them are still coiling down there. It’s an unsatisfying and unfortunate oversight.
First published May 2022.
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