It's been a while since we've watched a gritty BBC drama and The Serpent did not disappoint. The show follows the real story of a serial killer that preyed on young people travelling throughout Asia in the '70s (mainly India and Thailand on the "hippie trails"), his accomplices, and the junior diplomat who became obsessed with bringing him to justice. As you would therefore imagine, it's full of twists, thrills, and some rather harrowing moments, all of which are expertly directed, acted, and written.
In fact, the whole series is just top-notch. The set design alone is brilliant, with fairly huge areas of Bangkok and other cities being covered, yet always feeling of their era. Tension is played wonderfully, particularly through the use of constant time skips, back and forth to fill in details about certain murders or events as they are discovered by Herman (aka Cloggie 😂), the diplomat. It keeps the audience one step ahead of the action, whilst also keeping us guessing at every new revelation.
But most importantly, the characters are just expertly done. Whether it's Herman's slow descent into paranoia and obsession that ultimately drives a rift through his marriage; Nadine's (the neighbour and witness) uncertain moral standing turning into extraordinary risk-taking; the mystery around Dominique (their drugged slave); the bitter friendship between the veteran diplomat Paul and Herman; or the combination of entrapment and complicity that both Ajay and Marie-Andrée go through in helping Sobhraj/Gautier with his deadly plans, you're never entirely sure where you stand with each character or who will do what next. A perfect example is the moment when the two young Dutch backpackers are killed, in which Marie-Andrée (then Monique) suddenly fully grasps what she's become involved with; we flash forward to Herman learning about a young woman frantically trying to report a double homicide, multiple cases of drugging and theft, but for what felt like an eternity the show cleverly avoided telling us whether it was her or not. The revelation that it was in fact Nadine trying to out Gautier was fascinating, but then immediately overshadowed when Monique returns, seemingly completely ambivalent to the events that had shocked her so much initially.
The central thread around whether Monique was fully complicit, entrapped, etc. was fascinating to watch play out. Early on in the show, it seems obvious that Ajay is as rotten as Gautier but that Monique is just trapped, willfully blinded by love. Yet by their unravelling, as we learn more about their past as a group, we see that the events and personal histories that drive these characters are not so clear cut. Marie-Andrée is seduced by Gautier, sure, but even more so she is seduced by the power, the self-importance it provides, and the thrill of being Gautier's equal. Ajay is driven by a fear of returning to poverty, not so much a willing partner as someone who sees the reality of his situation and believes he is a survivor. He takes no real pleasure in his work, but is, in his own way, also seduced by Gautier. They are both tragic characters; they are both terrible people. Yet, by the end of it all, even before their ultimate unravelling, I felt a sliver of empathy for Ajay and none for Marie-Andrée.
Why? Perhaps it was one consistent thread throughout The Serpent. It was never explicitly mentioned, but it was certainly a driving factor for Gautier and contributed to Ajay's actions: racism. Of course, I'm not in any way claiming that this somehow excuses any of what they did, but the insidiousness of it was spread throughout the plot like fine silk threads. Gautier does mention, several times, how he felt excluded and othered in France growing up, and it clearly fuels part of his disdain for these young, wealthy white tourists. Ajay never explicitly mentions it, but we see its actions through him: his rejection at hotel lobbies; his role as a servant; his ability to blend into surroundings and simply be ignored by the people around him; his first instincts towards deference. As I say, racism doesn't excuse the hideous crimes they committed, but it did breed the conditions in which those crimes could occur, and I think the show does a good job of subtly highlighting that fact.
Yet, of course, none of that subtlety would work without a frankly phenomenal cast. There are only brilliant performances in The Serpent, though personally I thoroughly enjoyed Tim McInnerny as the wise-cracking Paul; thought Jenna Coleman was utterly perfect; Amesh Edireweera as Ajay managed to do so much with that character it's impressive; and of course, the central duel between Billy Howle as Herman and Tahar Rahim as Gautier/Sobhraj was riveting.
But still, there were a few elements I thought could be better. I know the story is based in factual events, but I think a lot of the actual nuance was dramatised. For the most part, this was done extremely well to develop characters and move the story, but every now and then it slipped into the realm of "tension for plot sake". The prime example was when Nadine saw the flashlight in Gautier's apartment and went to investigate by herself, without telling her husband in the next room, or taking any kind of weapon. It was quintessential horror-movie stupidity and just felt out of character and lazy. Luckily, she survived the encounter (mainly to provide a small amount of exposition), but it was still an unnecessary scene. Similarly, whilst Herman's marriage doesn't last in the real world, I thought the way they went about driving him and his wife apart felt a little ham-fisted and on-the-nose.
And then there's the ending, which I actually thought was dramatisation done right. In reality, after serving out enough time in Indian jails to avoid the death penalty in Thailand, Sobhraj returned to France as a full citizen, remarried (though not, in the real world, to his first wife as the show suggests; a forgivable change for a single scene), and then decided to go back to Nepal to, well, no one really knows. He claims he was setting up a mineral water company. His records show he spent a week or so simply gambling in a casino, very publicly showing off his wealth. In the show, his reasoning is more directly hinted at: he wanted to beat their justice system and gain a sliver more notoriety in the process. It's a solid character moment and the ensuing frantic evidence gathering by Harman provides closure to both character arcs neatly, even if it is a little condensed and simplified to what really happened.
The result is a fitting ending to a brilliant (albeit harrowing) show that I imagine will have the same longevity in my memory as other classic BBC outings such as The Night Manager. It's expertly crafted, delivered, and concluded.