The Serpent Episode 1

The Serpent Episode 1 is the first instalment in this eight-part crime drama miniseries based on the real life murders committed by Charles Sobhraj in the 1970s. Sobhraj was a French thief, fraudster and serial killer of Vietnamese and Indian origin and his victims were young European backpackers visiting South-East Asia on the so-called ‘hippie trail’.

In The Serpent Episode 1, we are introduced to Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), his wife Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) as well as Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a Dutch official based in Bangkok. Knippenberg is investigating a complaint relating to a missing Dutch couple.

Now, the story is unfolding before the viewer in three distinct time frames. Present day – which is 1975 – from Knippenberg’s perspective and then two and four months earlier, which focus on separate incidents involving murders committed by Sobhraj. Highly reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s trademark non-linear narrative style, this approach may be jarring for the uninitiated but becomes smooth once one gets used to the concept.

Rahim is simply brilliant in the lead role – capturing Sobhraj’s ice cool demeanour perfectly – as he manipulates and lures his victims into his deadly trap. Coleman mirrors Rahim’s performance with a sociopathic disconnect. There is a certain narcissistic control Rahim via Sobhraj displays over the proceedings which is chilling to witness.

The production values (e.g. the costumes, the music, the locations) evoke the time and place uncannily. The events detail very much the colonial superiority of the European officials contrasted with the youthful naivety of the Western tourists, who fall prey to Sobhraj’s machinations.

The Serpent Episode 1 is a powerful introduction to the TV miniseries and a teaser of what might be expected from this dark and disturbing tale in the weeks ahead. The fact that it is based on a true story makes the viewing a distressing experience.

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