A Psychopath is a Sadistic Narcissist. He is obsessed with himself. He can go to any length to make himself happy. Even if it requires slitting throats. However, A Narcissist, not always screws himself, but also the ones who get obsessed with him, whether in good fate or bad. The Serpent comparably is the tale of one such Narcissist Serial Killer Charles Sobhraj and his obsessor Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg.
Based on the real-life incidents of Asia’s most notorious killer, Charles Sobhraj, The Serpent tries to depict his life from the beginning to the end. However, not in that particular order. The series is divided into 8 episodes of one hour each. At the center of the series, there are two highlighted characters, the protagonist and the antagonist, thus, following a classic Good Boy Bad Boy narrative.
‘The Serpent’ Summary
The plot quickly establishes Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) and his partners in crime, girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), and sidekick Ajay Chowdhury. The trio deal in gem business in Bangkok, however, how they acquire these precious gems is nothing ethical. Charles hunts for the Hippies who visit the country and becomes friendly with them. He then poisons them with dysentery drugs (Mogadon mixed with Kaopectate) causing instant diarrhea and stomach poisoning. Charles very admirably offers them help and keeps drugging them, in order to steal their belongings and forge their passports. When these people are of no use to him, he kills them silently.
Charles was at the height of his criminal empire in 1975 when the missing report of a young dutch couple reaches Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, posted in Bangkok.
Herman becomes obsessed with Charles and leaves no stone unturned to catch the notorious serial killer. However, the interesting thing throughout is that Charles is an incredibly intelligent criminal who leaves no clue behind. At some point, he tells Ajay, his accomplice, “Nobody has ever caught me, Ajay.” Hence, Charles not only feels proud of his clean slate but also makes sure he never leaves a trail behind for anyone to follow. It is because of such ace criminality, Herman makes it his life motive to catch Charles Sobhraj and put an end to his crimes.
The narrative moves to and fro in time, showcasing different time periods in Charles’s life majorly to unroll how from where he started and why? The question why is lingered till the end, that creates a curiosity in the viewers who are trying to decipher, “Why this man kills?”
Major Spoilers Ahead
Charles Sobhraj – Vanity Powerful Enough to Defeat Anything
Charles was a charmer, a seducer, a persuading narcissist who would make you feel like a deity to fulfill his own self-interest. Throughout The Serpent, Charles used phrases portraying himself as the supreme being. He often told his girlfriend, Marie, that he made her beautiful. Even the targets Charles hit on were allured by his charisma. In a single look, Charles can trace down anyone’s weakness and he was proud of his talent. Nadine Gires who smuggled gems for Charles told Herman about Charles, “I was lonely and I think that is what he saw. That he looked for it in the people he met.”
Charles reaped this weakness in people and he did the same with all his love interests. For Charles, love was not a feeling but a lookout for a companion who would assist him in his crimes. Maybe, he just needed a slave. On the subject of love, Charles’ mother tells Marie, “Loving such men is a curse. For them, love is only a thing that other people feel. They watch and learn expertly how to mimic it.”
Charles always lived like a celebrity but he didn’t want to be famous. Popularity was risky for his business. He maintained an aura around the people he met, and finally killed them, thus looking out for new followers. Money was a necessity but it wasn’t everything for Charles. To play his tricks, charm people, and be accepted, was his motif. However, The Serpent masterfully showcases the character’s needs. Why did Charles want to be accepted and why did he kill people after they accepted him? This is the most complex layer of his character.
Charles Sobhraj was a half breed. Son to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother, he moved to Paris with her mother after her second marriage. The series hints that Charles had a difficult childhood in Paris. He at one point tells Marie that he wasn’t even allowed to be a member of the country (France). Everything he ever wanted, he had to take it. For the same reason, maybe, Charles targeted the white hippies from European countries mostly. While he befriended an Indian guy (Ajay) and prized a Canadian and an Asian girl.
Charles felt that hippie culture is another form of imperialism where white people travel only to acquire. Each experience is taken home to wear like a piece of fake, tribal jewelry. Any Asian who interacts with these Hippies gets colonized and Charles won’t be slaved by them anymore. To end his own slavery and their imperialism, Charles killed them.
Charles’ whole character graph is centered around a single country, that is France. He married a French woman, hated the country as well and finally came back to France as a Free Citizen. The Serpent subtly underlines Charles’ conflict with the country with which he had a love-hate relationship.
Herman Knippenberg – The Obsessed Hunter
Herman never matched Charles’s intellect and methods. He was far too naive to understand any of that. However, he was resilient. He noted down each and every clue about Charles, he can get his hands on. He was the studious Geek who followed Charles’s actions. Thus, when an international criminal police organization gets hold of Charles but lacks proof to prove him guilty, Herman steps in. Herman hands over to them, his life works that included cartons of information about Charles.
The character of Herman Knippenberg is not interesting because he plays an active role in catching Charles, but because he silently traces all his actions and spends his life dedicated to Charles Sobhraj. He screws up his profession and personal life just to get this man. Nevertheless, Herman didn’t directly put Charles on trial, hence, in the end, Charles gives him a chance to end this cat-and-mouse chase. Herman proves himself as Charles’ biggest obsessor and Charles spends his days in prison.
‘The Serpent’ Ending Explained
In the end, Charles is granted a new French passport and returns there to live as a free man. Years later, Charles returns back to Kathmandu, Nepal where he was suspected of two murders. Charles’ decision to return to Nepal is still a matter of conjecture and known only to him. In December 2020, he remains imprisoned in Nepal.
I believe Charles wanted to give Herman Knippenberg a chance to catch him and Herman didn’t disappoint Charles. Thus, putting an end to their affairs. The story circle is fulfilled.
The Serpent is an intriguing watch. It is as alluring as its antagonist, Charles Sobhraj, and keeps you hooked with shuffling timelines. The viewers are exploring till the end, the reasons why Charles Sobhraj committed all those murders because money wasn’t his escape. Charles wanted to put a show his charisma to the world, and he did.
The series named after him (Charles was popularly known as The Serpent) doesn’t shy away from glorifying him, but it isn’t pejorative. The man lived a Glorified Life, at least, in his own mind. A special mention for Tahar Rahim who has incredibly portrayed the skin of Charles Sobhraj.
The Serpent is a 2021 limited series based on the life of serial killer Charles Sobhraj. It is streaming on Netflix.
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