Directors: Hans Herbots and Tom Shankland
Writers: Toby Finlay and Richard Warlow
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jenna Coleman, Billy Howle, Ellie Bamber, Amesh Edireweera, Tim McInnerny, Mathilde Warnier
Streaming on: Netflix
As is the case with any artistic excavation of history, there are two distinct dimensions to The Serpent, a true-crime limited series based on the life of serial killer Charles Sobhraj. The first – perhaps the most common way to consume, and be consumed, by a long-form narrative – is a purely sensory dimension. On the technical front, The Serpent is a masterclass in filmmaking. The writing, acting and suspense-building brings to mind the Pablo Escobar-centric seasons of Netflix’s own breakout original, Narcos. Almost every one of the eight hour-long episodes is composed to evoke the nail-biting urgency of Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo – the third episode, in particular, prolongs a tense airport sequence, building up to a flight taking off with a petrified victim who has spent days planning a last-ditch escape from the lion’s lair. Tahar Rahim (A Prophet, The Looming Tower, The Mauritanian) is a revelation as the sociopathic “half-breed” conman: an unsettling combination of charismatic and chilling, charming and conniving. The French-Algerian actor owns the screen with cold-blooded calm, transforming the mid-70s ‘Hippie Trail’ universe into a shadowy lived-in hell for unassuming Caucasian travellers.
The storytelling of The Serpent follows a perspective-shifting structure that allows for a sinister 360-degree view of the period. The series opens with what is essentially a “master episode” in 1976 in Bangkok, where Sobhraj is already a smooth-talking gems dealer who preys on two Dutch backpackers and an American girl – their disappearance takes place in and around his tourist-trapping apartment complex, Kanit House, and attracts the attention of an idealistic young Dutch diplomat named Herman Knippenberg (Dunkirk’s Billy Howle). This master episode – where we get a general idea of Sobhraj’s alias Alain, his accomplices, his modus operandi – then trickles, in both spirit and consequence, through the rest of the series. The events are circled back to from the individual arcs of different characters, a timeline-merging template that’s repeatedly used to heighten intrigue: Sobhraj’s lover Marie-Andrée Leclerc (a terrific Jenna Coleman) in the second episode, an unsuspecting Parisian tenant in the third, a whistleblowing French couple in the fourth, and so on. The foreground of one person soon becomes the backdrop of the next. For instance, at one point Sobhraj disappears on a mysterious business trip for three months, during which the focus is squarely on a desperate Kanit House resident; the very next episode delves into where Sobhraj was for those months before his return to Bangkok. What this technique does is reiterate the omnipresence and control of the man himself, as if to suggest that no matter what angle it’s seen from, there is a sense of plurality about his deception: he fashions his crimes in a way that allows him to abdicate sole responsibility, and in a manner that involves his people without them quite realising – or choosing to realise – their complicity.
On the other hand, by designing Herman’s pursuit as a lone and bureaucratically frustrating one, The Serpent also touches upon the peripheral disorder of Thailand’s fragile coup-infested democracy – a state that enables someone like Sobhraj’s passport-forging and identity-stealing audacity while at once limiting the agency of a foreign embassy in the midst of a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The series only hints at the chaotic political landscape without diving into it, instead letting Sobhraj’s journey dictate the recent history of the land. Herman’s increasing obsession feels a bit overwrought after a while, but it does reflect the porosity of an environment in which a few low-ladder “hippie” deaths aren’t exactly considered worthy of attention and resources.
Which brings us to the second and more significant dimension of The Serpent. This is the story of an Asian killer – half-Vietnamese, half-Indian – of French nationality who preys on Western tourists. As a result, the innocent victims are largely white, the chasing avenger-alliance is all-European, the slacking authorities are Thai, Sobhraj’s remorseless Man Friday (a brilliantly bestial Amesh Edireweera, as Ajay) is Indian too, and perhaps the only ‘coloured’ good guys are the lowly Delhi and Kathmandu cops who eventually nab Sobhraj. One might then argue that this series, like several Western-made shows about iconic Asian protagonists, falls prey to the infamous white saviour syndrome. But I believe it isn’t as clear-cut in The Serpent, whose white saviour syndrome is not so much a ‘complex’ as a cold fact that defines the DNA of Sobhraj’s legacy.
It might have been tempting to detail the circumstances of Charles Sobhraj’s conception – the Vietnam War, the American military oppression, the deep-rooted racism in France, his childhood trauma, the spiritual entitlement of the hippie movement. But lending any sort of context to a serial killer’s rise runs the risk of humanising – and rationalising – a despicable legacy. Unlike, say, a Lupin, where the black super-thief is a direct but valiant consequence of systemic racism, giving Sobhraj the luxury of a past might have implied that his behaviour is misguided but “understandable”. It might have also painted the victims – irrespective of how immoral or callous they were themselves – as aimless drifters who “deserve death,” a dangerous line of thought that mirrors Sobhraj’s own philosophy.
In the final few episodes, The Serpent hints at his origin story but does so in a way that vilifies both the system and the criminal. There are no tangible villains or heartbreaking flashbacks of arrogant rich aristocrats abusing poor Asian teenagers – which, by extension, accurately suggests that monsters like Sobhraj aren’t “created,” they’re born. There is no excuse, no tragedy or injustice in the world that can be directly held accountable for an unhinged mind like his. (Case in point: the Joker in The Dark Knight.) His bitterness towards the West – directed at their lowest hanging and most vulnerable fruit – is a brutal form of reverse-racism, rooted not so much in a dormant desire to look like them as in a fear of how they allegedly look at him.
Towards the end, we see Charles Sobhraj sitting in a New Delhi jail cell, mocking a police officer by referring to the hysteria around him. Some excited prisoners strain to get a clear view of him. He says he is loved in India, a hero – a moment that in a way reflects a problem that has often plagued the reimagination of the man in modern pop culture. Whether it’s the reportage, the profiles, the anecdotes, the biographies or even the Bollywood film (Main Aur Charles), there has always been a strange sense of pride and veneration about the way Charles Sobhraj is viewed in South Asia. His legacy has long been fetishised (“the bikini killer”) in India, likely because his choice of victims might have perversely placated the insecurities of the oppressed brown man. Somewhere along the way, an international criminal who operated from his “backyard” to target white skin morphed into a deadly symbol of Eastern resistance. If anything, The Serpent is a refreshing restoration of balance. Riding a wave of anti-establishment fever, new-age storytellers tend to sacrifice the primal essence of their material at the altar of woke posturing and tonal balance. The Serpent bravely resists this trend, staying loyal to an un-isolated reality – the evil brown villain versus the goofy white hero – rather than retro-fitting the loose-limbed body of one era with the politically correct heart of another. It reduces Charles Sobhraj from an image to an individual, a portrait to a person – and most importantly, from a human to a reptile.