The Serpent episode 1 review: Chilling introduction to cold-blooded killer Charles Sobhraj

Warning: spoilers ahead for episode one of The Serpent.

Now that 2021 has finally arrived, those hoping to keep their spirits up in the new year may turn to joyful, upbeat films and TV shows that leave them feeling optimistic and hopeful about the months ahead.

If you’re one of those people, then The Serpent may not be the show for you. However, if you’re on the lookout for a new absorbing TV fix that boasts suspense and intrigue aplenty, then you’ve come to the right place.

The Serpent, a BBC One and Netflix drama, explores the disturbing tale of Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer who preyed on Western travellers on the hippie trail in Southeast Asia in the 1970s. He is said to have killed at least a dozen people, eventually receiving a life sentence in 2003.

Also known as The Serpent and The Bikini Killer, Charles gained somewhat of a celebrity status, conducting multiple interviews with the media before being sentenced to life in prison, thus providing French actor Tahar Rahim, 39, with plenty of material on which to base his beguiling performance.

The first episode of the new series offers just a glimpse of the atrocities Charles committed. With his serene Québécoise wife Monique (Jenna Coleman) at his side, he smoothly makes the acquaintance of a young Dutch traveller called Wilhelm, who he spots in Hong Kong looking at engagement rings for his girlfriend Helena.

Despite being told by his superior to leave the investigation to the Thai authorities, Herman does not relent, enlisting the help of his multilingual wife Angela Knippenberg (Ellie Bamber) as he digs deeper into the pair’s disappearance. What they uncover is a horror beyond comprehension, one we as an audience are yet to witness on screen, as they learn that two burnt bodies may be the remains of the Dutch couple they are searching for.

While the constant flitting between different time periods can be a little disconcerting at times, it is in keeping with the overall fragmented feel of the show. One minute, you’re taken in by the glamour of Charles and Monique’s lavish parties, the intoxicating nightlife of Bangkok and the couple’s undeniably stylish swagger. The next, you’re taken aback by the ease with which Charles is able to manipulate those around him with a complete lack of empathy and humanity.

While names of victims depicted in The Serpent have been changed out of respect for them and their families, they are not simply portrayed as nameless figures who met their doom at Charles’ hands. In the case of the Dutch couple and a young American woman called Teresa who is preparing to become a nun at a monastery in Nepal, they are shown as individuals who are full of life, promise and potential, which only adds to the devastation of their untimely deaths.

Key Moments

  • We are introduced to the menacing Charles Sobhraj and his partner, the mysterious Monique.
  • We also meet Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his wife Angela.
  • As we witness Charles drug and kill unwitting travellers, Herman and Angela – without realising – embark on a journey towards uncovering the serial killer’s crimes.

The Serpent offers an insight into the life of a notorious murderer that’s both disturbing and intriguing. Watching the show, it’s impossible to fathom what could possibly be going on in Charles’ mind, except to understand that he is both a master manipulator and a man who is innately evil in nature. In addition to Charles’ spate of killings, the series shines a spotlight on the thorough investigation carried out by Herman, which has already proven to be one of the most engrossing aspects of the narrative. A gripping start to a terrible tale.

The Serpent returns on Sunday January 3 at 9pm on BBC One.

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