There’s always a tricky question of semantics when it comes to stories about criminals who deal in deception. The lines between the points where one persona ends and another begins make it difficult to focus on who the “real” figure at the center is.
That’s true for “The Serpent,” the eight-part limited series about the life and crimes of Charles Sobhraj, but only to an extent. Though Tahar Rahim plays all forms of the man who led an international crime ring, he exists for most of the series as “Alain Gautier.” What begins as an alias — the origins of which the audience sees in fits and starts as the series progresses — comes to encompass all of what allowed him to grow his intercontinental passport- and jewel-laundering scam, ensnaring a growing net of murder victims and accomplices and enemies along the way. In the process, the show surrounding him becomes a thorny biography with beguiling and cunning narrative choices alike.
Inescapably, the biggest decision that “The Serpent” makes is to jettison any conventional chronological structure of the evolution of the Gautier scheme. Instead, writers Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay construct this story in a juggled series of parallels, grouping parts of this unfolding tale more by theme than by time. Most episodes put a member of the Gautier ring in the spotlight. Over time, the audience sees how he came to absorb the help of Marie (Jenna Coleman), the woman he presented in different contexts, depending on whether his aim was to steal identities or sell rubies. Longtime associate Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) eventually becomes the second-guessing enforcer, treating all newcomers into the orbit with a heavy dose of skepticism.
Tracking this whole operation is Herman Knippenberger (Billy Howle), an employee at the Dutch embassy in Thailand who gradually suspects that the disappearance and death of two fellow expats might be part of a broader, sinister operation. Before long, one lead slowly balloons into a growing case against the man he knows as Gautier, even if various layers of local and governmental bureaucracy make the process of acting on those suspicions increasingly more difficult.
By acquainting the audience with Rahim’s character in full Gautier mode, Warlow, Finlay, and directors Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots place the audience somewhere between the perspective of those were willing to take part in the spoils of his freewheeling lifestyle and those unwittingly trapped into providing the means. Each new layer of his past, shown in time jumps across multiple countries, brings with it even more reason to question the narrative that he gives to each new person he meets. At the same time, Rahim brings such a specific charismatic energy to the performance that it’s possible to see how enough people could have been drawn into such a dangerous and morally compromising web.
“The Serpent” then feels most akin to a true crime documentary about a cult leader, only with fully dramatized windows into victims’ past instead of on-camera testimonials. (The series’ opening credits sequence only enhances that spiritual connection.) A more rushed, compact, or traditional format would have made for a more didactic explanation of the bloody Gautier pursuit of wealth and privilege and the reasons for people like Marie and Ajay, who remained part of it for so long. The extra time and the cross-timeline connections allows this whole saga to be about sex and class and race and power and faith and family. Sobhraj remains such an elusive figure throughout, complete with Rahim confidently underplaying so much of his scheming that’s it’s most terrifyingly about all of these and none of these at the same time.
For as much as Rahim anchors the series as the ringleader, Coleman offers another surprising avenue of empathy into a story that could easily be smothered by cold-hearted brutality. “The Serpent” doesn’t excuse Marie’s complicity, but it does make room for showing the potent combination of denial, guilt, and self-preservation that can keep someone locked into a cycle of abuse. Her switching back and forth into con artist mode as “Monique” is just as compelling and subtle as the various shades of Gautier that play out as the series progresses.
Condensing the majority of Sobhraj’s pursuit into the person of Knippenberg is an effective piece of TV efficiency, regardless of the historical particulars. Howle doesn’t play him as an investigative genius, instead leaning into an emerging obsession that grows dangerous in its own way. “The Serpent” then capitalizes on the tried-and-true pas de deux of a sleuth as singularly focused in his own pursuits as the criminal they’re chasing. As compelling as that dynamic is for much the runtime of the season, like in Knippenberg’s life, it doesn’t leave room for much else. “The Serpent” does try to cut through this by having Knippenberg’s wife Angela (Ellie Bamber) become his amateur detective associate, but that too curdles once the thrill of the evidence gathering phase fades away.
As easy as it would be for the show’s split-level storytelling structure to work extra hard to guide the audience’s hand through these different phases of crime and cover-up, “The Serpent” mostly allows those intertwining threads to weave themselves together without too many obvious connection points. Some eagle-eyed observers (or people with previous knowledge of Sobhraj’s eventual fate) may track the comings and goings of certain pivotal figures, even when they’re originally introduced as ancillary. When winding back to those crucial pivot points (often in the form of abductions or poisonings), the show takes advantage of the opportunity to reframe some of those key moments from a different character’s viewpoint, something that would be odd or forced in a more straightforward telling.
By the time the final episode arrives at its (arguably hasty) conclusion, the need for tension has largely given way to a slightly better understanding of the “why,” regardless of when or where the handcuffs come. “The Serpent” is rarely indulgent or triumphant, whether in showing Charles and Marie’s luxuriating in their ill-gotten gains or in the various breakthroughs from Knippenberg’s side of the case. The added time and the measured work from the show’s core cast help to show the full psychological toll it takes to both evade justice and to attempt to see it delivered.
“The Serpent” is now available to stream on Netflix.
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