Some mild spoilers ahead.
You should probably avoid The Serpent if you don’t have a strong stomach. The eight-part limited series, which airs on Netflix this Friday, includes so many episodes of vomiting that it could positively give a viewer motion sickness, even from the safety of their couch. The particularly nasty modus operandi of the real-life killer at the center of the series, Charles Sobhraj, played here by Tahar Rahim, was to poison his victims before his more brutal (and fatal) means of attack, often keeping them, as the series depicts it, sick and incapacitated before doing the final deed. But there’s a greater discomfort in this series as well: Should a show about a serial killer be quite so enticing?
Sobhraj, who has spent much of his life in jail, preyed on young and wide-eyed travelers on the Southeast Asian “hippy trail” of the ’70s—Thailand, Nepal, and India. These were travelers who were taking “tune in, turn on, and drop out” to the extreme, sometimes by dropping off the map entirely. Sobhraj’s victims, as they’re depicted in The Serpent are young Saratoga housewives suffocated by suburban expectations; wannabe Buddhist novitiates, enjoying one last spell of bacchanalia before committing to a life of piety; and bourgeois boys from good French families, trying to obliterate their ennui with a cloud of patchouli or something stronger.
Sobhraj’s creepy superpower is that he can discern these travelers’ aspirations and then use them to bring his victims under his spell. “I have known boys like you my whole life,” he tells Dominique, a young French wanderer trying to eke out one last adventure before he returns home to his parents. When Dominique finally does extract himself from Sobhraj’s grip, we see just how right his captor was: His well-heeled parents are there to pick up their very damaged son from the airport.
Early in the series, Sobhraj targets a dissatisfied French-Canadian nurse, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played with pained intensity by Jenna Coleman, who he meets while she’s on holiday. Leclerc soon abandons her provincial life and joins Sobhraj in Bangkok, moving into the shabby-chic apartment complex where he presides like a bell-bottomed gangster/modern-day-sultan. By his side is a creepy acolyte imported from a prior life—Ajay Chowdhury, played by Amesh Edireweera—there to do minor chores and larger misdeeds. Sobhraj christens Marie-Andrée “Monique,” a new name for the glamorous new life she seems to have stepped into. But the sheen soon wears off. Sobhraj, whom everyone knows as Alain, is cold and distant; she fears she’s made a terrible mistake. Though her blowout never loses its bounce and she seems to possess an ever-expanding array of colorful caftans, Monique becomes increasingly uptight and terrified of the man to whom she is simultaneously in thrall.
The tension of the series comes from the pursuit, led by a mid-level Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a character as grounded and stolid as the free love hippies surrounding him are untethered. He can’t shake his instinct that there was foul play involved in the disappearance of two Dutch tourists, and, along with his wife, played by a fantastic Ellie Bamber, doggedly pursues every clue until he gains some traction, finally convincing Sobhraj’s neighbor to collect evidence against him. Despite the architectural appeal of his open-air residence, with its rattan chairs and tiled floors, Knippenberg is a clear foil to Sobhraj, a character whose success arrives not through seductive, destructive charm, but through sweaty, unglamorous work.
The Serpent jumps around its timeline, shifting the viewer months forward, then months back—and in more than just chronology, this is a show that shuffles and surprises its viewers. The sickening effect of The Serpent comes not so much from its violent or graphic portions, but from the depiction of Sobhraj’s life, if not his crimes, as part of a stylish, bohemian scene. The parties are frequent and lively. There are endless days by the pool, trips to the beach, and meals on restaurants elevated on stilts over water. It is not only Monique who is always impeccably dressed, but Sobhraj as well, in tight trousers and polo tees. Several montages show how he keeps himself fit. The characters in this show might be seeking a kind of nonmaterial enlightenment, but even they are susceptible to seductions on the surface.
And ultimately, the appeal of this show is not in its unfolding mystery—a quick Google will inform you of the major players’ fates—but in the sun-soaked scene it conjures, alluring and treacherous at the same time. Before we all transmitted evidence of our travels, from takeoff to touchdown, on instantly posted images, there was a real possibility to disappear or even to assume an alternate identity when we had our passports stamped and entered a country in which we knew no one. The Serpent show both the tempting appeal of such a prospect and the very sinister danger.
Originally published on Vogue.com