The Serpent: fall prey to the BBC New Year’s crime series

The BBC’s New Year’s gift to the nation, without a doubt, was the 8-part crime series — The Serpent. Set in the mid-1970s, we follow two narratives linked by a French, conman-serial killer by the name of Charles “Alain” Sobhraj. Posing as gem dealer “Alain,” Sobhraj traverses the Hippie Trail of South-East Asia with his amour Marie-Andrée “Monique” Leclerc, and sidekick Ajay as they drug and murder young, free-spirited couples to secure money and passports. Whilst the case of two missing Dutch comes to the attention of diplomat Herman Knippenberg, we start to witness Knippenberg defying his supervisors and pursuing a case which catches up with Interpol’s most wanted man. 

The show skilfully glamourises the undertakings of Sobhraj and his entourage, which was previously archived as a broadly devastating and barbaric murder spree in history. That said, The Serpent does not portray Sobhraj as a likeable villain, with his demise and worst moments reminding us that he is a sociopath despite his moments of charm. The killer attempts to justify his actions by recounting the difficulties of his childhood as a racial outsider, child of an unloving stepfather, and victim of bullying. Ultimately, it is hard to sympathise for him, given the sheer lack of remorse that he shows for his victims. 

Knippenberg is a foil to Sobhraj as he is fundamentally everything that the diplomat is not.

Currently serving a life sentence in Nepal for murdering at least twelve people during the 1970s, Charles Sobhraj was labelled the ‘Bikini Killer,’ ‘The Splitting Killer’ and the eponymous ‘Serpent’. He would drug and murder his victims — predominately hippies — or lead them to believe that he was rescuing them, as with the case of Dominque Rennelleau. In his early imprisonment in Thailand, Sobhraj would bribe the prison guards with gems which he concealed in his body. To this day, Sobhraj continues to live a comfortable life behind bars charging extortionate rates for interviews and creative rights.

In a way, Knippenberg is a foil to Sobhraj as he is fundamentally everything that the diplomat is not. Where Knippenberg follows protocol, Sobhraj routinely violates the law, where he is gawkish, Sobhraj is suave; where he is loyal to his country, Sobhraj is an unapologetic extradite. However, both characters fall victims to their own intelligence in areas, leading them into a state of semi-madness. Their relationship is interesting seeming as they never [quite] come face to face, though grow increasingly aware of one another’s presence.

the show has been labelled a ‘slow-burn TV success’ by The Guardian.

Questions of morality and humanity remain at the forefront of this narrative as we are exposed to the most base and sinister acts that man can commit, whilst being reminded of the strengths of human alliance in uniting together to defeat a common evil. Knippenberg makes leaps and bounds in his case, but not without the help of his wife Angela, Belgian diplomat Paul and couple Nadine and Remi — neighbours to who they believe is “Alain”.

Flitting back and forth between narratives — and indeed through time — the storyline would seem rapidly paced and complex; however, the show has been labelled a ‘slow-burn TV success’ by The Guardian. Some reviews have critiqued this approach, but often with drama and miniseries these days as instantaneous bouts of cinema, the art of patience is undermined. 

Beneath this tragedy we also find a subtle commentary on the principle of hippies. Sobhraj holds such a strong disdain for this cultural phenomena based on privilege; their privilege to be tourists, carefree and promiscuous without sanction or accountability. The Serpent was made to feel like a foreign outsider in France, only for Western youths to freely travel around Asian countries for a consumerist tour of the exotic. Meeting Teresa, the fresh-faced American wanting to join a Nepalese convent with a bag of money, the Serpent looks at a polar opposite version of himself — a woman born into privilege, but willing to purchase a simple life.

The Serpent is both a provoking interrogation and an artistic spectacle, leaving the audience asking the unanswerable question: why did Charles Sobhraj return to Nepal in 2003 to face trial and imprisonment after living as a free man in France for 6 years? 

By Sophie Farmer

Illustration: by Hannah Imafidon

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