Illustration by Sonja Vasiljeva for an article on The Serpent

‘The Serpent’ Brims Over With Complex, Three-Dimensional Characters

The British crime drama is a show that's in a league of its own, with rich characterization and storytelling.
May 7, 2021
11 mins read

“The Serpent” begins bizarrely — Charles Sobhraj, the main antagonist and titular serial killer, is shown giving an interview about his murders and how, evidently, the courts have acquitted him. This is a truly baffling decision, as it effectively spoils the entire show. We, as the audience, know that he is caught at some point, tried and acquitted; usually the climax of a series would lead to these plot points being revealed rather than them being known at the outset. Most shows would completely fail to launch at this point — the trajectory of the plot can be reverse-engineered and there would cease to be any reason to actually invest hours into its development.

Yet herein lies this decision’s and the show’s brilliance. The creators of the show lead you into a false sense of security, similar to the way Sobhraj led his victims. Where the tension in “The Serpent” comes from is not from the end result, nor from anything Sobhraj does in isolation — rather, what the audience becomes attached to are his victims and those that try to prevent his crimes.

The depiction of the deaths of the naive-but-still-sympathetic hippies is so compelling and horrific that any viewer becomes invested in seeing them come to an end. Interestingly enough, Sobhraj is actually given motive, contrary to the typical “He’s just crazy!” reasoning attributed to so many killers in media. He has a burning hatred for what amounts to cultural imperialism, where white Americans come to other countries and collect their cultures like trinkets. This hatred fuels the brutality of his actions and adds to the tension the audience feels anytime Sobhraj sets his sights on some innocent hippie.

Another facet in which the show excels is actually humanizing the murder victims. While it would suffice in getting the audience’s attention to merely kill innocents, “The Serpent” does an excellent job at actually giving them nuance and is incredibly efficient in doing so. The majority of the murders are of characters that are given just a few minutes of screen time, and occasionally we are shown a brief backstory when it becomes relevant to the plot.

Still, despite its brevity, the information imparted to the audience is enough for them to develop a connection with each victim that is distinct from the others, and when the bodies begin to pile up, we get a far better sense of just how much life has been lost than a mere body count would give. As these characters are so disposable as far as time is concerned, each episode has at least a few of these humanized victims, and because Sobhraj keeps souvenirs from each of them, we are even given a constant visual representation of just how many people have been horrifically murdered.

If the show hits a triple with its disposable characters, it hits a grand slam with its mainstay characters. The visual representations of the ongoing murder count serve a narrative purpose as well, as each of Sobhraj’s accomplices react to it differently. In fact, the accomplices often blur the line between perpetrator and victim, as only a few of them are actually aware of what he is doing.

The main accomplice-victim is Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who is manipulated into staying with him after a chance encounter in which she is charmed. Quickly she is looped into the crimes, which begin to escalate and start to test her commitment to Sobhraj. Her utility is crucial, as she is a “lure” who helps gain the victims’ trust. Despite a public breakdown where she lashes out at him about not wanting to continue, she does exactly that, and even takes an active role in procuring tourists to murder. I must say that I found her exceedingly detestable, as I can’t actually describe her with the words I would like to in this article (she makes me want to tear the hair out of my head). What is so frustrating about her is that she begins as a sympathetic figure who has been conned into doing terrible things, but grows to be just as evil as Sobhraj.

If Leclerc is the irredeemable, Nadine Gires is exactly the opposite. She begins as yet another lure, who finds “clients” for Sobhraj. Unlike with Leclerc, to Gires it is never extremely apparent what Sobhraj is doing while she is working for him. Rather, she is aware of some inconsistencies, and is willfully ignorant to them as she continues to accept “gifts” — payment — for her work.

Ordinarily, this would make her just as terrible as Leclerc or Sobhraj, but it is her actions later on that manage to redeem her character. Once another character, Dominique Renelleau, gives her a better understanding of what Sobhraj is doing, she does exactly what she should and tries to turn him into the police at her own risk. Her testimony becomes invaluable to the investigation, and therefore in the audience’s mind she separates herself from Sobhraj’s truly evil minions.

As can be seen, Renelleau is one of the most important characters, not because he himself does anything particularly interesting, but because he highlights characteristics in others that grow to be very important in understanding their identity. Because Sobhraj doesn’t want Leclerc doing housework, he finds Renelleau and continually drugs him, making him think that Sobhraj is trying to give him medicine for exactly the sickness he is actually causing.

In return for this “hospitality,” Renellau is expected to clean around the house. He is the only character who works with Sobhraj that is completely innocent; he knows nothing and is not involved in any of the crimes directly. Renelleau even begins resisting and plots an escape when he realizes that everyone who comes to see Sobhraj gets sick. The problem is that Sobhraj uses his victims’— which includes Renelleau’s — passports, so he enlists Gires’ help to flee the country and return to his parents.

Sobhraj’s preferred murder weapons, drugs, are perfectly representative of his character. As a murder weapon, drugs don’t work unless you are able to gain your victims’ trust in close quarters. They are quintessentially predatory, as is he. They also serve an important narrative purpose; any open drink around him becomes immediately worrisome to the audience. Will he drug this person, or is he simply trying to get something else? If he is going to drug them, is he going to murder them or merely rob them?

These questions become so much more pressing in light of the way “The Serpent” humanizes its victims, and are a major source of tension in the series. Of course, the creators know this, and the series rarely shows the actual drugging unless the outcome is already obvious. These very self-aware creative decisions are beyond frustrating, as the writers and cinematographers know exactly what to show and when to hold the tension as tight as possible for as long as possible.

“The Serpent” is absolutely in a league of its own. Every character, including those I have not mentioned, has an arc and is dynamic; it is able to juggle a cast of characters as complex as “Game of Thrones,” which is truly a feat of writing and directing. “The Serpent” knows precisely what the audience wants to know, and hangs it over our head until the last moment — these moments, too, are dispersed throughout every episode so that we are never satisfied until the finale.

The environments are beautifully constructed and varied, taking its cast on a journey from Thailand to Nepal to India, and “The Serpent” does a phenomenal job at mixing the locations of the scenes with topical cultural information. All of this is done with respect for those cultures and for Sobhraj’s victims. The pacing is excellent, the characters are well-written and either intensely lovable or hateable, and the scenery is gorgeous. My only criticism is that it made this article difficult to write, as I just did not want to stop watching.

Amiri Rivers-David, Pomona College

Writer Profile

Amiri Rivers-David

Pomona College

I am someone deeply interested in the influence of technology and culture as it relates to philosophy.

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