Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the ending of The Essex Serpent.For a limited miniseries, Apple TVs The Essex Serpentbased on Sarah PerryThe 2016 novel of the same name contains many provocative questions in its six episodes: What stirs fear in the waters of Aldwinter? What was the size of Cora’s (Claire Danes) recently deceased husband abuse? What is the source of Stella’s (Clemence Poesy) mysterious illness? Does Will, the handsome vicar (Tom Hiddleston), own that dashing wool scarf in other colors?
Let’s try to solve the many mysteries of The Essex Serpent.
When is a snake not a snake? If it’s a big whale.
In the season finale (and presumably the series), a large whale washes up on the shore, and our villagers from Aldwinter assume it was the mythical sea serpent that was supposedly responsible for all of their recent troubles. While Cora and her son Frankie look on, Frankie asks his mother how everyone could have loved to mistake a whale for a snake. Cora sadly explains, “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
So no, there is never a real snake in it The Essex Serpent† This symbolic story is based on the image of the serpent to cover up any consequence of the characters’ alleged sins. Cora, as a woman and outsider, is of course blamed for the presence of the snakes by everyone. There is no real solution to this side of the story. If the villagers have changed their tune about Cora now that they’ve seen the decidedly non-snake beast, we don’t see it.
For all viewers hoping for a more literally monstrous experience, I regret to inform you that The Essex Serpent maybe not your show. The possible ghostliness presented in the first few episodes is later omitted in favor of the various romantic and sexual triangles that arise within the cast of character. Stella’s illness also has no supernatural component, as this author foolishly wondered early on. The Ransome family travels to London to meet Dr. Garrett (Frank Dillane), who confirms that Stella has tuberculosis. Stella tells her husband that she doesn’t want to spend her remaining days in a hospital, so they return home to Essex.
Okay, no snake. Where do all our human characters end up?
This is a strong cast overall, but Poésy is a real standout, giving so much kindness and courage to what could be a pretty thankless role of “sick woman getting in the way of the main novel.” “Love isn’t a weakness,” Will tells Cora before their first kiss, but this feeling really is Stella’s character, more than anyone else.
All to say it’s a disappointment to see Stella die to keep the story tidy enough for Will to get back to Cora in six months. The chemistry between Danes and Hiddleston is there, but the miniseries’ rushed nature doesn’t give us enough time with them to understand their supposedly passionate relationship. When Will begins to confess his infidelity to Stella, she tells him, “Hush.” And then tells him he’s a good man, and that’s the end of the conversation. It’s like Stella is offering forgiveness or even permission for his relationship with Cora, which is why the public can now accept it uncritically.
Then Stella dies and the Ransome family mourns. Will doesn’t write to Cora. In the six-month time jump, Cora is discovered at a dig site and instead receives a letter from Dr. Luke Garrett. We learn that Luke is “finally appreciated” and now serves as head of the medical school. Oh, and he misses Cora. Why we should still have patience or affection for Luke after the way he treats Cora after a failed marriage proposal is as much a mystery to me as, “If there wasn’t a monster in the water, how did Gracie even die?” But I digress.
While walking home, Cora sees Will approaching her on the road. When she points out his lack of letters, he explains, “I had too much to say”, and they smile, and they kiss and all is well. We won’t catch up to Martha anymore (Hayley Squires) or her work for equal housing at all. We don’t find out how Frankie adjusts after what must have been a very strange experience to have lost his father, only to be immediately shuttled back and forth between Essex and London, with his mother barely tolerating any time with him.
While looking at the dead whale, Frankie says to Cora, “I wish he didn’t die,” and I interpreted this as a comment that also applied to his late father. We see Cora’s abuse at the hands of her husband through flashbacks, and we never find out if this violence also extended to Frankie, or even if Frankie knew what was happening at all. Is this one of the reasons Cora struggles to connect with her son? The finale has no thoughts on the matter as we’re headed for a no-cheating-bad-husband kiss.
The Essex Serpent does a great job of introducing us to characters we care about even when their subplots wander wildly beyond the main question, “What’s up with this sea serpent that may or may not exist?” did dr. Does Spencer really have anything to do with the central storyline? No! But Jamael Westman is very good in the role, and I want to see what he gets up to six months in the future. It’s frustrating to end the series with a time jump that only gives us a glimpse into the lives of three of those characters. The first five episodes of the series are often so much more than a standard period romantic drama, and it’s a bit of a drain to see the finale seemingly only dealing with that aspect.
At least for this viewer The Essex SerpentThe ending really only answered the questions I was least interested in. Those who enjoy a sultry romance with fantastical costumes more than spooky underwater monster mysteries may be more enchanted by this story.