The Serpent miniseries: Re-Constructing Murders

The Serpent

Spoilers Below

British true-crime drama miniseries The Serpent, written by Richard Warlow and Tob Finlay, mainly takes place in the mid-1970s following multiracial French serial killer Charles Sobhraji and his lover French Canadian Marie-Andrée Leclerc. The eight-part series explores how Charles got away with murdering and poisoning “hippy” travelers throughout South Asia. Only Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg hunts for the serial killer.

The main problem with The Serpent is the minimalization of the character Angela Knippenberg. The real Angela has said that actress Ellie Bamber who played her, did not correctly portray her. Something we can blame the writer and directors for more than Bamber. 

In real life, Angela acted as her then-husband Herman’s detective partner during the hunt for Charles. The actual Angela says that she was a lot more forceful with her opinions than how Bamber portrayed her. 

In The Serpent, Angela acts like Herman’s assistant and moral support rather than his equal in their shared quest. Warlow and Finlay wanted to show Herman as a lone detective obsessively trying to catch a killer with little to no support. They couldn’t do that if Angela were portrayed as being equally invested in stopping the killing of more Western backpackers. However, she indeed speaks six languages, including French. Like actual events in the series, Angela translates all of Marie-Andrée Leclerc’s diary entries and keeps a catalog of all the items they found at Sobhraji’s Bangkok apartment. At the end of The Serpent, Angela becomes forceful when she has had enough of Herman’s obsession with Charles. She flies back to Germany to be with her parents leaving her husband alone.

The Serpent’s use of repeating the same scene helps the viewers unravel the murders that Charles (alias Alain Gautier) committed mainly in Thailand. Usually, television shows or movies that don’t have a linear storyline lose a lot of character development or lack a cohesive plot, but this miniseries uses these devices perfectly. Scenes are shown from different character’s perspectives as only Charles knows the whole truth. 

An example of multi-perspective storytelling is when Charles and Ajay drive off with American tourist Teresa Knowlton to take her to a sex club before she flies off the next day to become a Buddhist nun. The first time it’s shown is in the pilot when Marie-Andrée, as her persona Monique, and their French neighbor Nadine watch the group drive off. Both women smoke silently. It’s unclear how much either woman knows about Charles’ plan to kill Teresa and steal her identity. The second time is more from Monique’s perspective. When Monique watches the car, it’s clear that Charles is looking back at her. Nadine asks if she feels jealous when she sees Charles driving off with another woman. As Monique stares down from her balcony, she remarks that she is used to Alain’s behavior. Nadine comments that she couldn’t stand her if her husband Remi was openly cheating like that. Monique is too “sophisticated” to be a Quebecois. 

Later, Charles commands her to cash Teresa’s traveler’s checks but doesn’t say what happened to the American. It’s unclear how much Monique knows about the murder, but she must know that they stole money from the drugged young woman. These different perspectives paint the whole picture of Charles’s crimes, along with how aware or unaware of the horrors they are.

Marie-Andrée is depicted as a morally grey character. Sometimes when she is inhabiting her role as Alian’s model wife Monique, she seems perfectly in line with Charles’ murderous rampages. Especially the part where he steals backpacker’s money and identities by drugging them. At other times Marie appears to be a brainwashed victim who is terrified of Charles. He bullies her to keep her in line. The viewer never knows if Marie-Andrée is a victim or an accomplice. I believe she is both. 

She seems the most like one of the villains when she watches the Dutch couple, Helena Dekker and Jules Dupont, lay dying on their guest bed. Helena cries out for Monique to help them; Marie acts like she can’t hear her. It’s evident in this early scene that the Dutch couple will die, but she has zero compassion for them. 

At other times, Marie- Andrée appears like one of Charles’ victims. For example, after she has a mental breakdown in the middle of a Nepalese street. She refuses to help hurt any more people. She has had enough of pretending to be Monique. Charles forces her back to their hotel. He bullies her into drinking tea that’s full of smashed-up sleeping pills. Charles essentially threatens Marie-Andrée’s life if she doesn’t drink the tea and leave herself vulnerable to him to show her trust.

The most emotionally charged part of The Serpent occurs toward the end of the series when Marie-Andrée visits Charles in his prison cell. Dying from ovarian cancer, she is about to be sent back home. She tells Charles about her “death sentence.” She now accepts he is a psychopath. She tried to deny his lack of real emotions toward her, but underneath everything knew he was a cold man. The nuns tell Marie-Andrée that she should forgive herself and Charles. She can’t forgive yet. Marie-Andrée tells the viewer that she shares the blame but is also one of Charles’ victims during the scene. The spell has been broken.

If you are a big fan of true crime or period dramas, I would recommend The Serpent. All the actors are on top of their game, especially Jenna Coleman. Coleman, who plays Marie-Andrée Leclerc, learned French and the Quebecois accent for the role. The episodes are in multiple languages, including English, Dutch, and French. But if you don’t like television shows that depict mental and physical cruelty, then you should stay away from the Netflix Original miniseries. 

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  1. Really enjoyed reading this review even though I just put this on my to-watch list last night. Regardless of the spoilers I am still going to watch it as I love true crime drama.

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