'The Serpent' Episode 1 Review: Luring Us Into the Good Life (and a Trap)

Laura Martin
·6-min read
Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

From Esquire

Life is going just swimmingly for the select wealthy young backpackers we see on The Serpent, currently on the ‘70s hippie trail stop-off in Bangkok. A fancy gem dealer has invited them to his pool party at his luxury condo! No one’s showered for months and there’s free booze! It’s a win all round.

Except, it quickly transpires that the man hosting this party does not share the beatniks' peace and love ethos. The perma-tanned, aviator-donning “Alain,” as he’s known, is actually Charles Sobhraj, a real-life serial killer who was responsible for the mass murders of up to 32 Western tourists and travellers in South-east Asia.

The full, true story of Sobhraj and his crimes is a long and gruesome one. He’s still alive today, and we’ll leave it up to you to decide if justice was served for those killed. But it makes it an awkward and questionable subject to turn into a glossy, jet-setting, eight-part BBC thriller.

But let’s not bog ourselves down in the nasty business of murder so soon. Just like Alain (played by A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) and his chic partner, Monique (a Francais-speaking Jenna Coleman) groomed their victims, in the first episode, we too are lured in by the lustre of life in Thailand. Glorious longboat canal rides, the vibrancy of Bangkok’s electric, late-night party scene and sipping cocktails, poolside in the baking sun, all filtered through a retro-’70s filter. What’s not to love?

Quite a lot, it turns out. “I want to go home,” pleads a bearded man, clearly in pain, in Alain and Monique’s bedroom. So soon? It turns out that the gruesome twosome have been drugging him, and, while he’s currently incapacitated, Alain has stolen his money and doctored his passport to a passport picture of Alain instead. So much for strangers being friends you haven’t met yet.

This is just the start of unmasking Alain and Monique - the incredibly good-looking couple in designer gear who swan about like movie stars in their own film. They’re not the benevolent pair that they portray themselves to be - instead, they’re out to dupe, cheat, steal, torture and kill anyone who they maniupulate into befriending them.

Using a jumping timeline device of flickering airport destinations and times, we meet their next victims, a sweet Dutch couple, Willem and Lena, and American would-be Buddhist, Teresa.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Willem has the misfortune to bump into Alain while buying an engagement ring for his girlfriend, Lena, and the dollar signs practically flash behind Alain’s eyes. He and Monique instantly latch on to them, charming them, and inviting them to stay with them at the condo.

They think they’ve landed on their feet (“thank you for not listening to me!” Lena exclaims after they ditch their original lodgings for Kanit House), and obviously, it’s too good to be true. After they refuse to buy some gems to then sell back home, Lena starts throwing up - the sting has begun, and things are about to get very bleak for our young couple.

They’re about to get even worse for Teresa, who, in a spur of the moment idea decides to have one wild night out before committing herself to a life in a monastery, is picked up by Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) - correctly identified as “creepy” by another female backpacker - and lured back to the party at Alain’s.

Like all good crime dramas, there needs an element of cat-and-mouse; someone who is chasing the just-out-of-reach criminal. In The Serpent, this is Herman Knippenberg - played with a very passable Dutch accent by Dunkirk’s Billy Howle - the real-life diplomat who was stationed in the Dutch embassy in Bangkok, who first began investigating the idea of a serial killer when contacted about a missing couple from his home country.

Knippenberg lives as a wealthy expat with his whip-smart wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), but he’s somewhat of a joke to his colleagues and he’s brushed off when researching the pair’s disappearance. When he starts preliminary investigations into Willem and Lena, we begin to see why, in real life, the obvious cases of the multiple murders of backpackers weren’t taken seriously.

An obnoxious Aussie diplomat tells Knippenberg “don’t waste your time with longhairs”, and brands them “workshy hobos... on their fucking hippie trip”, which is exactly in line with Alain’s views of the hippies - and why he knows that he’ll escape being linked with crimes against them, if the establishment hold similar feelings towards them. “She’s just another reckless Westerner who took too many drugs and went swimming,” he predicts the authorities will think, just before he and Ajay kill Teresa and dump her body in the sea.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

We get little insight into Alain at this point, and his psychopathic motivations towards travellers. He tells Ajay about accidentally killing a taxi driver (“I expected to feel great guilt... but I just felt free”), but it doesn’t answer why he doesn’t just drug and steal from the tourists. Why murder them? It’s the same for Monique, the chain-smoking, Rose West-but-fashion character, fully complicit with the atrocities her partner is committing, but no real explanation of how and why she ended up here. “I came for a holiday”, she tells Lena, “but he made it impossible for me to leave”. Hopefully there’s more of a backstory for her to come, given the amount of hours Coleman must have put in on DuoLingo for the role.

It’s ultimately an unnerving watch, seeing the bright-eyed innocence of the backpackers slowly turn into horror, even more so knowing that this really happened to young people out exploring the world. Just like the Manson murders in LA in the late sixties, the murders carried out by Sobrahj (branded dismissively by the tabloids at the time as The Bikini Killer) would also herald the end of the hippie movement in the ‘70s.

But as Willem and Lena are shown writhing in agony on a bed, and Teresa’s last, awful moments are screened, it’s juxtaposed with quotes from The Tibetan Book Of The Dead: “This person is going from this world to another shore...she is dying without choice”. With this being the first episode of the series, it looks like we all have a long, grisly journey with the backpackers, too.

Points of note:

  • There’s already hints as to why Sobhraj is so mercilessly calm: “Nobody has ever caught me,” he tells Ajay. Will Knippenberg change that?

  • Keep an eye out on certain props: Teresa’s clock, Lena’s birth control pill - there’s a reason the camera zooms in on them

  • The names of Willem and Lena were changed for The Serpent. The real Dutch couple who Sobhraj killed in 1975 were called Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker

  • Kanit House (where Alain and Monique lived) remained in Bangkok until the mid ‘90s, and their room was still rented out (albeit with rumours it had a ghost). It was later pulled down, and now hosts a luxury apartment block called The Legend - a misnomer, if ever

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