The Serpent is a brilliant recreation of a time and place, an attempt at recreating a dark part of the history of the hippie trail of the 1960s and '70s. Unrelentingly engrossing and beautifully shot, with some great acting all around, this series is a must-watch, all the more so if the history behind 'The Bikini Murders' by Charles Sobhraj and his accomplices fascinates and disgusts you.
Sobhraj is played here with a disarmingly chilling efficiency by Tahar Rahim and it's a great casting choice for a role that could have made or broken the show. His killing spree takes in both Thailand and Nepal in the initial episodes, before we come to the prelude to that spree and his time in India and prison there. His accomplices, when we meet him first, are Monique (Jenna Coleman), a French-Canadian woman who saw in him an exotic getaway from the utterly mundane life she felt she had waiting for her back home and who runs into him on a trip to Nepal, and Ajay (Amesh Edireweera), an Indian who is his right-hand man and partner in all crimes. But as both will realise in due course, Sobhraj is in thrall only to himself and his self-righteous attitude to what are his horrendous crimes. For him the crimes, besides probably providing a bit of a thrill, are the means to both uphold his globetrotting lifestyle and a way of getting back at the Westerners who mocked his 'half-caste' status (he is French, but born in Saigon to an Indian dad and Vietnamese mother).
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), who initially appears timid and out of his depth but who, along with a committed band of companions, manages to be tirelessly committed to the cause of bringing the monster to book. His investigation, initially triggered by the disappearance of a young Dutch couple backpacking the famed South-East Asian route, comes across diplomatic resistance at every point as it becomes obvious that the hippie crowd is one the higher ups don't deem worth much fretting over. But Knippenberg knows there are families back home waiting for some kind of news from their children and he becomes increasingly obsessed with justice being served, even at the cost of his career. Slowly, he manages to convince a group of initial sceptics to his cause, including his effortlessly charming wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), a hot-headed administrative attaché at the Belgian embassy, Paul (Tim McInnerny), as well as a young French couple, Nadine and Remi, who were staying with the Gautiers (as the serial killers were calling themselves) and may have inadvertently helped bring customers to them and who now want every chance to redeem their guilt. The cat and mouse game is amped up especially in the sequences where Nadine sneaks around Gautier's apartment to hunt for anything that could help the informally assembled team to bring the depraved trio down. Sobhraj, of course, is used to being the hunter much more often than the prey.
The jumping between various timelines can get a tad confusing if you're not paying attention, but the tension and thrill is brilliantly managed as we see Sobhraj's uber-cool demeanour slowly slackening as the wayward monster and thief within him come out as the net tightens. The effect on Monique is even more apparent: initially, Charles plays her perfectly to make her bloom to what she feels is her best self, but, as the suspicions and reservations about what they are actually doing start to cloud her love-addled mind, she starts seeing him and herself for what they really are. Before the end, both Ajay and Monique realise that Sobhraj is only ever a person capable of seeing everyone around him, including themselves, as a means to an end. Everybody is eventually dispensable to one who sees the world only through the lens of his latest cons.
The social commentaries the show makes are many. The jaded generations of the '70s in the West and their untethered roaming around the region, while searching for that illusory meaning to their lives, provided the perfect foil to Sobhraj and gang, who were hippies, looking for friends among strangers in a strange land, who would have been very easy to miss and, as Knippenberg found out, not anyone the authorities would be particularly accountable to finding. A lot of older folks who travelled the same backpacking routes in the 70's seem to have realised after watching the show how utterly susceptible they could have been themselves to the Sobhrajes of the time and the near misses they may have had to similarly unscrupulous characters. Of course, in today's times of extensive surveillance and electronic passports, the modus operandi followed by the gang here would not have been feasible especially with social media making it very tough for anyone to fall off the grid. In the timeline the show is set in, though, phone calls to loved ones back home may have been something that happens once every couple of weeks or more. Some benefits, then, to the oft-maligned information age we live in.
But the series also shows the positive side of what a small group of committed individuals can achieve if they set their mind to it, even in the face of immense pressure, on both the personal and professional front. It would have been incredibly easy for Knippenberg, and, later, his wife and friends, to give up and let things lie in favour of working towards his career, but driven by an insatiable desire for justice and by the humanity within him, he never lets up. Even, as the conclusion tells us, when decades have passed.
A small aside to mention Randeep Hooda here. A few years ago, there was an attempt to capture the Sobhraj case in the Indian film industry with a movie called Main aur Charles. The movie was a passable effort and in no way as memorable as this series, but Hooda was so good in the role that over here I kept imagining it was him playing the role again. Irrespective, all the actors here were remarkably good and the technical aspects brilliant in evoking the sounds and sights of the time and place.
The real life Sobhraj, after a few miraculous escapes from jails in multiple countries, is now still serving jail term in Nepal, one of the countries that took in his killing sprees. I had always felt in previous portrayals of the man that they unnecessarily upped the style quotient at the risk of making him look like what he really is: a vile and vicious criminal who would use anyone and stoop to any level of reasoning to achieve his goals. Thankfully, this work walks the fine line between style and substance and comes out a winner in all respects.
Another side note to end this review. The fates of Sobhraj and his lady friend are known by now, but of his other accomplice whom he left by the wayside, Ajay Chowdhury, there has been no trace. Another mystery to add to the many still unsolved from the case.