Inspired by real events, BBC One and Netflix’s The Serpent tells the remarkable story of how Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) – a serial killer and conman who murdered and robbed at least 12 Western tourists along the so-called ‘hippie trail’ in the 1970s – was brought to justice.
The first episode pulls no punches, thrusting Sobhraj’s heinous crimes under a magnifying glass and examining them in sometimes painful detail. Because, unlike so many other true crime dramas, The Serpent doesn’t shy away from naming its real-life victims. From giving them personalities. From giving them a chance to say goodbye.
Or, perhaps most importantly, from giving them the chance to control their own narratives – even their own tragic endings.
“Oh compassionate ones, this person is going from this world to the other shore,” Teresa Knowlton (Alice Englert) reads from The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, as we watch Sobhraj dump her, drugged and helpless, into the ocean.
“She is leaving this world. She is dying without choice. She has no friends. She is suffering greatly. She has no refuge. She has no protector. She has no allies.
“The light of this life has set, and she is embarking on a great battle.”
Teresa continues: “She is seized by the great evil spirit. She is terrified by the messengers of the Lord of Death. She is entering existence after existence.
“Because of her Karma, she is helpless.”
As her lifeless body is shown being found by a local fisherman, Teresa tells us sadly: “The time has come when she must go alone without a friend.”
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While we cannot know what was actually going through Teresa’s head at that moment, it’s worth noting that, in real life, her bikini-clad body was found in a tidal pool in the Gulf of Thailand.
For months, her death was believed to be the result of a swimming accident. An autopsy later revealed the truth: that she had been forcibly held underwater until she drowned. But, while the truth earned Sobhraj the moniker of ‘The Bikini Killer’, it reduced the “wilful” young American – who had trekked east to study Buddhism – to nothing more than his victim. A mere body, the sum of her physical parts: nothing more, nothing less.
The Serpent, for all its stylish costumes and frenetic cutscenes, goes some way towards restoring Teresa’s voice and identity.
But what does the TV show make of Marie-Andrée Leclerc?
Portrayed by the phenomenal Jenna Coleman, Sobhraj’s immaculately dressed ‘follower’ and lover is presented to viewers as being an incredibly complex individual.
We know that, in real life, the medical secretary agreed to be Charles Sobhraj’s accomplice for his crimes, which involved scamming and committing theft against tourists to steal their passports and money.
We know, too, that the real Marie-Andrée denied any knowledge of his murders, despite giving one of the victims, Dominique Veylau, a potion which left him ill and on another occasion used the passport of a murdered woman.
In the first episode of The Serpent, though, it is suggested that Coleman’s naive Marie-Andrée has been bullied and subjugated into helping her boyfriend with his crimes.
“I came for a holiday,” she tells someone when they ask how she wound up with Sobhraj.
“I did not [go home]. He made it impossible for me.”
Her tone is light as she says this, playful almost. Later, though, we watch as her polished veneer cracks: hand shaking as she cradles a cigarette, eyes widening in something like terror, as she awaits Sobhraj outside the room of two of his victims.
What remains unclear is the source of her panic. Could it be that she’s realised she’s in over her head? A paralysing fear of Sobhraj himself? Or is it simply the worry that she may get caught?
Speaking to RadioTimes, Coleman said she read Marie-Andrée’s diaries to prepare for her role in The Serpent.
“The way she lived was completely delusional. It was all about squashing all of it away and not letting the truth in,” the actor says.
“She had an obsessive nature and was incredibly emotional. I think she was depressive and certainly unstable at times. She lived in this conflicted state, not acknowledging the murders that were going on.
“In her subconscious, it was all about putting the truth away.”
Coleman adds: “Is Marie-Andrée a victim or not? How much of her was brainwashed by him?
“How much was a choice to be there and a choice to live in the delusion?”
While we may never know the truth about the real Marie-Andrée, we imagine we will learn more about The Serpent’s portrayal of her come episode two, which will air on BBC One on Sunday 3 January at 9pm.
Images: BBC One
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.