Directed by Clio Barnard, written by Anna Symon, and based on Sarah Perry’s book of the same name, “The Essex Serpent” follows the recently widowed Cora (Claire Danes) as she travels to Essex to look for a mythical serpent. Hence the name. She is accompanied by her son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) and assistant Martha (Hayley Squires). There she comes across village vicar Will (Tom Hiddleston) and the two, and their families, get close to each other. Probably a little too close. But when tragedy strikes, Cora’s arrival in Essex is associated with the damage that the Essex Serpent is causing. Cora and Will try to reason with the village folk, but their unwillingness to listen causes a plethora of problems.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Episode 1: Recap & Ending
“The Essex Serpent” Episode 1 opens with Gracie (Rebecca Ineson) and her sister Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) performing some kind of ritual in the marshes of Essex. Then Gracie proceeds to stand in the water and seek penance for the sins she has committed under the influence of some serpent. Gracie swears Naomi to secrecy, the seagulls start squawking, and it seems that something is swimming pretty quickly towards the semi-submerged Gracie. Naomi flees the scene, and we hear Gracie scream at the top of her voice. But Naomi just keeps running away from her.
The narrative then shifts to London, where Cora is waiting for Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) to check up on her dying husband, Michael (Cal MacAninch). Michael directs Cora to read something he has written. Luke examines Michael and suggests that he needs to be operated on if he wants to live. But Michael refuses, saying that he’s going to leave the world just like he entered—unscarred. In private, Luke says that he can operate on Michael by giving him a strong sedative, if Cora consents to it. Cora refuses that proposal too. As predicted, the following day, Martha finds out that Michael has passed away. Cora relays that news to their son Frankie, who addresses Cora’s lack of tears.
While getting ready for the funeral, we get a glimpse of a serpentine scar on Cora’s neck, intersected with shots of fire and someone choking on a necklace. After the funeral, Martha takes Frankie home while Cora goes on a walk with Luke. They talk about the river flowing underneath the city, eels swimming upstream, and something prompts Cora to throw her earrings into the drain leading to the river.
Later on, Cora has a conversation with Martha, who shows Cora a news clipping about the Essex Serpent, and that piques her interest. After a trip to one of Luke’s surgery sessions, Cora, Luke, Martha, and Luke’s friend and colleague, Dr. Spencer (Jamael Westman), go for a drink where they talk about heart surgeries. This motivates Cora to look deeper into the Essex Serpent and then ponder about it on the banks of a river while looking at a boat with red sails on it.
We briefly see Naomi talking to her father, Henry (Gerard Kearns), about Gracie’s disappearance, where it’s revealed that Naomi has lied to Henry that Gracie has gone to Malden. Then we go back to London, where Luke pays Cora a visit to give her a slice of a heart as a gift because of her fascination with his surgery. That’s when he finds out that Cora is off to Essex to look for the mythical serpent. Luke warns Cora that her grieving process is incomplete. To which Cora says, now she can do whatever she wants to do because Michael is dead.
Cora leaves for Essex with Frankie and Martha. Upon reaching there, Cora goes for a long walk where she finds a man (later revealed to be Tom Hiddleston’s Will) struggling in a marsh and screaming. Assuming the worst, she asks him to stop but finds out that he’s only trying to get a sheep out of the swamp. Cora helps him, but they part on a bitter note.
Elsewhere, Naomi and Will’s daughter Jo (Dixie Egerickx) are performing a ritual with a partly dismembered seagull. Will meets up with Henry to check if Gracie has returned. Henry says that Naomi has mentioned the serpent, but Henry thinks Gracie is in Malden with a “friend” (he means boyfriend). Despite the grim state of everything, Henry livens up Will’s spirit by giving him a pair of rabbits, who then reassures Henry that Gracie will be back eventually.
Martha meets up with Charles Ambrose (Nitin Ganatra) to talk about the issues in his constituency. That conversation is interjected by Cora, and that’s where the topic of the vicar looking after Cora is brought up. Via a letter, Luke gets word that Cora is hellbent on finding the serpent. That mild hint of romance is blown away by a patient in need of heart surgery (something Luke desperately wants to perfect), but he fails to save him.
Upon realizing that both Luke and Spencer need a break from the surgeries, they go off to Essex to meet up with Cora, Frankie, and Martha. During a private chat, Cora reveals that a vicar is going to guide her expedition into Aldwinter, the spot where the mythical beast apparently exists.
In the Ransome household, Will and Stella (Clémence Poésy) are seen preparing the dinner table for Cora (and her companions). They ask Naomi to stay, but she refuses. While walking home, Naomi asks Will why, in the scriptures, the serpent seduced Eve. Will says that it’s an allegory and that the serpent is actually the Devil. But Will reassures Naomi that there is no serpent in Essex. Upon reaching her house, Will notices a cross-like structure with skinned rats or baby rabbits hanging from them. Henry says it is to scare the beast away. Will reiterates that there is no serpent. However, as he gazes across the horizon, he notices that the villages have already succumbed to the rumor and are holding vigils to nab said beast.
Cora visits the Ransome household, which is where she realizes that the vicar is the man she met upon reaching Essex, i.e., Will. They proceed to have dinner, which is filled with talk about the serpent, whether it exists, whether it doesn’t exist, etc. Will says that the serpent is merely a symptom of the times they’re living in. Cora says that they are living in a time of great progress. Will says that with great progress comes great fear. Cora misinterprets that as Will’s regression, and Will says that Cora wants to see him as a narrow-minded person; hence she’s reading into the lines in a certain way. The conversation gets a little upbeat as Stella eases the tension and tells Cora to visit the church where there’s a pew with the serpent carved into it.
The ending of “The Essex Serpent” Episode 1, though, doubles down on the grim tone of the show by revealing that Gracie isn’t in Malden, thereby prompting Henry to go out looking for her. At the church, Cora (who, BTW, reveals that the bloody head of a sheep has been found in the marshes) has a chat about the serpent with Will. The curate, Matthew (Michael Jibson), insinuates that there’s a serpent and it has taken Gracie, and then urges Will to get ready for the church’s proceedings.
When Cora goes to sit in the pew with the serpent carved into it, Matthew tells her not to do so. Will says otherwise. Cora sits in the serpent-carved pew and gets disapproving glares from the village folk. She gets overwhelmed when everyone starts singing hymns, and we get hints of her abusive relationship with Michael. That’s interrupted by the news that one of Gracie’s belongings has been found in the marshes. Cora, Will, and the rest go out searching for Gracie. Cora finds Naomi crouching over Gracie’s dead body. The villagers take that as confirmation that the serpent is real.
Episode 2: Recap
Cora dreams of drowning in a river while a serpent-like creature comes to eat her. She wakes up clutching her scar, and Martha hugging her in order to calm her down. While Henry and Naomi hold a funeral for Gracie, Cora decides to shift to Aldwinter, probably to investigate the myth about the serpent. And she drags Martha and Frankie with her to the cottage in Aldwinter. Luke tries to dissuade Cora from doing so. But she doesn’t listen to him and moves into the cottage with Frankie, while Martha momentarily travels to London with Luke and Spencer. Martha, Luke, and Spencer talk about Communism, and Luke tries to associate Martha’s rebellious nature with Cora’s newfound sense of freedom. Martha shuts Luke down by saying that now Cora is free, so she does what she wants.
Cora and Frankie settle into their cottage while the village takes out a funeral procession for Gracie. At a tavern, the village folk drink and chat, but things go fairly silent when Cora barges in. She is forced to feel awkward because of this, so she leaves, and Will goes after her to assure her that she is not exactly unwelcome there. After that, Will walks Cora to her cottage, where Cora insists that she doesn’t mean to disrupt the peace and harmony of Aldwinter. Will says that she’s merely trying to find out the truth, and he approves of that.
In London, Luke, Martha, and Spencer come across Sali (Deepica Stephen) and Nev (Yaamin Chowdhury), two immigrants from India. Nev is injured with a piece of shrapnel piercing his heart, which means that Luke has to perform the heart surgery that he has been dreaming about. After a tense few hours, they find out that Luke and Spencer have successfully saved Nev, and that he’ll make a full recovery soon.
Cora pays Henry and Naomi a visit to offer her condolences. She tries to make them talk about the serpent. But Henry technically shoos her away. At the spot where Gracie was found, fishermen are seen building some kind of barricade between the marsh and the river because they think that’s going to trap the serpent. Cora and Frankie walk to Cracknell’s (Christopher Fairbank) house to return his chicken to him. That’s where they meet Matthew, and he warns them to be careful about Cracknell because he doesn’t go to church. Frankie says that they don’t go to church either. While talking to Cracknell about the myth, Cracknell utters the most important line of the miniseries, i.e., if one doesn’t believe in God, then they can’t believe in the Devil (the serpent) either.
While talking to Naomi, Will again tells her that there’s no serpent and that Gracie simply drowned. Cora and Frankie pay a visit to the Ransomes. Cora meets up with Will, where they chat about each other’s knowledge and fascinations. Stella and Frankie bond over their shared love for collecting random items. Frankie inquires about Martha’s whereabouts and when she’ll return to Essex. Cora says she’ll probably return soon. Martha is seen talking to Spencer about Nev’s health and how he has to go back to work or else he and Sali will fail to pay their rent and face eviction. Later, Martha even takes Spencer to where Sali and Nev are living to motivate him to motivate Charles to push for affordable housing since that is Charles’s constituency.
While Cora and Will are taking a walk on the beach to the location where Will found a fossil, Will talks about prioritizing purpose over achievement (because there’s a difference between the two). The conversation then shifts to how a fossil can indicate the existence of a mythical serpent to, the process of shining a light on the collective ignorance of their childhoods to Cora’s abusive relationship with Michael (he apparently said he wanted to break Cora and then mend her with gold; something that is symbolized by the red and gold vase in Cora’s house). As the sun begins to set (I assume), through the brilliance of reflection and refraction, Cora and Will get a glimpse of the red-sailed ship.
‘The Essex Serpent’ Episode 2: Ending Explained – Does Naomi Have A Panic Attack or Is She Possessed?
Cora and Will are seen diving deeper and deeper into the myth of the serpent and the science behind refraction, respectively. Martha returns to Essex and is welcomed by Cora. They travel to the cottage, where Will is waiting for Cora. Will shares his findings on refraction with Cora, and they realize that something that they see as science, others will perceive as a sorcery. As Cora leaves to help Martha settle in, Will wonders if there’s something actually strange going on. Cora says that there isn’t. A fleeting shot of the marshland shows that the building of the barricade has finished, which indicates that it doesn’t matter what Will or Cora think; the village folk believe that something strange is afoot.
Matthew informs Will about the same, as well as about the night vigil to catch the serpent. Will asks him, that if they catch the serpent, what are they going to do then? Matthew spews some nonsense about reassuring the people that they’re together in their fight against the serpent. Will suggests that Matthew let Cora impart her knowledge about naturology to the children in order to give them some clarity about what’s at stake (and what’s not). Matthew tells Will to do things his way and “let the devil in.” Naomi is visited by a seagull at night, which is considered a bad omen of sorts. The following day, during Cora’s class about fossils and the existence of the sea monster, Naomi suffers a seizure, leading her classmates to believe that she is the one who’s summoning the serpent. Whereas the reality is that she hasn’t fully recovered from the loss of her sister.