We’ve reached the half-way stage of this excellent, intoxicating, terrifying crime drama, and it’s safe to say that just when you thought things couldn’t get any more tense, the levels got ratcheted up a level.
Throughout the three previous episodes, The Serpent has presented us with dual timelines – ones that have respectively shown serial killer Charles Sobhraj and his coterie lure unwitting travellers into his web several months before we’ve seen young Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg try to piece together the puzzle.
In this episode, the two timelines almost caught up each other, which means from now on that it may well become a purely cat-and-mouse procedural.
However, thanks to this extraordinary episode, there was still time for a concurrent flashback story to take place.
The flashback segments, coupled with Knippenberg’s present-day tracking, are counterpoints that imbue The Serpent with tremendous suspense. This fourth episode – the halfway point in the series – is a masterclass in suspense, foreboding and foretelling.
The flashback sequences here take place in Nepal, where Sobhraj, Ajay and Marie-Andrée travel to on their false passports. There, something interesting happens, but no less terrifying.
I’ve mentioned before that each episode of The Serpent is almost a stand-alone story, with different themes and focuses (and tempo and colour palette) in each one. Here, the themes are of trust and mistrust, and there’s a very real sense that Sobhraj’s gang of three is beginning to fall apart.
But at the start of the episode, we saw two burning bodies in a forest. Releasing this information so early means the audience knows something awful is going to happen, it’s just a case of revealing who those poor people are.
Sobhraj, Marie-Andrée and Ajay are on the prowl for new victims around the streets of Kathmandu.
Sobhraj has already gambled away all of his money, and Marie-Andrée is furious. In desperation, Sobhraj steps up his attempts to find some wealthy young hippies to steal from (or worse), and knowing that she will be complicit in more death and destruction Marie-Andrée flips and tells him in the middle of a busy street that she can’t take it anymore.
In the first of many incredible scenes in this episode, Sobhraj – sensing that Marie-Andrée wants out – tests her later that evening in such a devious and awful way: he chops up the same sort of poison he gives to all of his potential victims, openly pours it into her drink and challenges her to drink it to prove her love and subservience to him, asking her if she is the Marie-Andrée that he adores or the young woman from France who wants to crawl back to her priest. Defiantly, she drinks it poison and all… in one big, gulp. Once she’s out for the count, there’s an uncomfortable moment when Sobhraj hovers over her sleeping body with a pillow, looking for all the world that he’s going to finish her off.
Could one of those burning bodies at the start of the episode have been Marie-Andrée?
Remember, this is Sobhraj’s way – he drugs his prey and then kills them. Instead, he decides to spare Marie-Andrée and places a red rose on the pillow next to her.
Once she awakes, she goes for a walk and meets two American travellers – Connie and Lamar – outside a temple, where a human depiction of a goddess stands in the window. Connie explains that it is a depiction of the Kumari Devi, a goddess whose purity is questioned by her lover and is soon cast aside for a new woman.
This very clever analogy rings true for Marie-Andrée. As she ponders her own relationship with Sobhraj and the possibility of being tossed aside just like the Kumari Devi, her conversation with Connie quickly turns when the traveller mentions that she and her partner have two red rubies in their possession that they’re hoping to sell. In a split-second, Marie-Andrée turns from victim to predator. It’s remarkable and dispicable and surprising – she had survived Sobhraj’s challenge and could have walked away. Instead, she becomes the person she hates Sobhraj for being, and lures them both back to her hotel room knowing full well what fate awaits them.
Could the burning bodies have been Connie and Lamar?
Meanwhile, Sobhraj’s right-hand man Ajay is also starting to waver. At a party, he meets a young, uninhibited English woman (who has a touch of the Edie Sedgwicks about her) and they share some strong hallucinogenic drugs. Sobhraj finds them in bed together the morning after the night before, and is not impressed. Accusing Ajay of being a ‘slave’ and impure (there’s that word again, purity, a concept that Sobhraj obviously holds dear), there’s a moment where you think that Sobhraj will finish Ajay off as well.
Could Ajay have been one of the bodies in the forest?
This episode really made you feel like that – it wasn’t a whodunit, especially, but a whowasthat. And because we knew two people were going to be killed in this episode, it kept you on the edge of your seat throughout.
(In the end it was poor Connie and Lamar who were taken care of by a frenzied, shirtless Sobhraj in a savage knife attack.)
And all this was happening at the same time as Nadine (who survived episode three’s cliffhanger) and Knippenberg’s escalating investigation. With Nadine volunteering to go back to Kanit House to secretly gather evidence against the returned Sobhraj, there was tension and jeopardy galore.
Episode four really did have a bit of everything.
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE TWO REVIEW
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE THREE REVIEW
The Serpent is currently showing in the UK on BBC One and the BBC iPlayer. It will be available on Netflix in the US and other territories.