There are also extended scenes that follow the aspirations of her servant, friend, and housing advocate Martha (Hayley Squires), who is such a socialist that the show seems to mention the detail every time she’s on-screen. Hiddleston’s vicar too, though the most underdeveloped main figure of the bunch, has his own complicated feelings about Cora, in part because of his faith, and the love for his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy). And yet even she has a striking approach to their budding attraction, showing the nuance that comes in not looking at things in black-and-white. These stories are not directly related to the serpent, but the strength of the performances proves they do not have to be.
At the center of all this is Cora. Through Danes’ performance, the series gains a rich, empathetic view of someone who seems to cause destruction everywhere they go, even if it’s not their intent. Danes illustrates the confusion and hurt in the process of her facing the multiple people who are attracted to her, the shame from Aldwinter townspeople, and her own trauma from the previously abusive relationship that she has escaped by becoming a widower, but carries with a scar on her neck. Episodes four and five practically forget about the serpent in Essex, and make clear that however heavy-handed the metaphor may be, Cora’s energy is a significant serpent in everyone else’s lives.
A minor scandal brews throughout “The Essex Serpent” regarding new widow Cora and hot vicar Will; though the tension will surely help sell the series, it’s the most shorthanded component in the story. Their mental duels, of his religious skepticism going against her science, prove to be more interesting than the looming threat of them becoming entangled. But at least Danes and Hiddleston have strong chemistry for these moments where they act like the only people on the marsh: their wistful gazes, the way they kiss with their mouths open as if it were their first kiss; the way he puts his scarf around her neck, dark green as this gloomy tale’s stand-in for the warmth of red.