BBC One and Netflix’s The Serpent has proven every bit as slippery, twisty and evasive as its namesake throughout. Despite this, though, this writer figured she finally had reached the ‘unshockable’ stage in the retelling of the true story of Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) – aka the same serial killer and conman who brutally murdered and robbed at least 12 Western tourists along the so-called ‘hippie trail’ in the 1970s.
Naturally, she was wrong. Because, with the sixth episode of the crime drama rocketing us backwards in time, it meant that we were treated to a whole new side of Sobhraj.
A whole new side which includes (gasp!) a big white wedding to someone who isn’t Monique/Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman).
And his bride, Juliette (Stacy Martin), wastes no time in informing her psychopathic groom that she’s pregnant with his child. Ooh.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; first, let’s deal with the fact that Sobhraj, Marie-Andrée, and Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) are holed up in a Karachi hostel after their big prison break last week.
Having used all of their valuables as police bribes, the trio are no longer living the high life; quite the opposite, in fact, as they’re now living on one grimy dollar a day. And so it’s natural that, when Sobhraj heads out to set up an international gem deal, tensions begin to simmer to the surface.
Marie-Andrée isn’t a fan of Ajay, and makes it pretty clear she thinks he’s superfluous to their mission. Ajay, for his part, isn’t all that enamoured with her, either. So, to bring her down a peg or two, Ajay informs Marie-Andrée that she isn’t actually the love of Sobhraj’s life; Juliette is, actually.
This goes down about… ooh, about as well as you’d expect, so Sobhraj wastes no time in spinning a lie to undo the damage done by that “fucking monster” Ajay. Juliette is dead, he tells Marie-Andrée – and she, as always, believes him wholeheartedly.
Sobhraj fires Ajay and coolly informs him it’s time he makes his own way in the world (more on what police really think Sobhraj did to Ajay here), before telling Marie-Andrée that they’re off to Paris. She’s overjoyed, although she can’t help but wonder if he will ever love her as he loved his first wife.
“Am I nothing but a replacement for his true love?” she asks a priest during confessional, conveniently leaving out all the murders and scams she’s been a part of.
To be fair to Marie-Andrée, though, she’d probably wonder a whole lot harder about Sobhraj’s attachment to Juliette that if she knew what we know.
Five years before The Serpent’s current timeline, Sobhraj is living in a teeny weeny flat in Bombay with Juliette.
It isn’t the life of luxury and glamour that Sobhraj wants. And so, in a bid to advance his status without actually putting any work into it, he attempts a heist at a jewellery store and is promptly arrested at gunpoint.
He fakes appendicitis, escapes prison, picks up Juliette, and whisks her away in a stolen car through the desert (how very Bonnie And Clyde of him, eh?).
With their child now far away in a Parisian school, Sobhraj comes up with what he clearly believes to be a brilliant plan; he and Juliette can abscond to the City of Lights and start afresh together there. She’s not so sure, however, that they can go back to ordinary family life after this.
“If life with me is so wretched, why do you stay with me?” he demands.
Juliette replies: “Why do you think?”
Whatever Juliette means by this, her invisible tether to Sobhraj eventually comes loose. Because, when he lands himself in prison again, she visits to tell him that she wants a better life for herself and her child. That she can’t do this anymore. And that she wants a divorce, damn it.
For the first time in this series, Sobhraj seems genuinely shaken by this; his eyes fill with tears, his smiling veneer cracks, and he gulps back a sob.
Clearly, he thought a lot of Juliette, despite everything he did to her. It makes it all the weirder, then, that Marie-Andrée looks so much like his first wife – and that he’s taking his doting doppelgänger to Paris with him.
Of course, Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée aren’t the only ones hotfooting it to Paris; their straight-laced nemesis, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), has boarded a plane bound from Thailand to the French capital, too.
Why? Oh, because he’s found “sedatives, dissociatives,” and Marie-Andrée’s diary during a nighttime raid on Kanit House, providing him with more than enough evidence to arrest Sobhraj for murder.
Just in case, though, (and fair enough, really; Knippenberg has been burned before), the Dutch diplomat wants to talk to Sobhraj’s mother in Paris. The same mother who, as we saw in the flashback to his and Juliette’s wedding, that the serial killer has a strained and frosty relationship with, at best.
We wonder what on earth she will tell him.
What happened to Charles’ Sobhraj wife IRL?
It is likely that The Serpent’s Juliette was based on Chantal Compagnon, whom the real Sobhraj met in Paris when he was 24 and fresh out of prison.
Seemingly smitten, he proposed to her just weeks into their relationship, and promised to go straight. But, as per GQ’s profile, Sobhraj was arrested the very same day of the proposal for car theft and sentenced to another eight months in prison.
Undeterred by this, Compagnon married Sobhraj upon his release, and the duo “embarked on an epic crime spree across Europe and Asia, before settling in Mumbai with a newborn child and a profitable trade in stolen cars.”
Just as we’re shown in The Serpent, Charles was arrested and imprisoned in 1973 after robbing the jewellery store at Hotel Ashoka in New Delhi. And, yes, he really did fake appendicitis in order to escape.
“On the run from the Indian police, Sobhraj and Compagnon sent their daughter back to Paris and moved on to Afghanistan, where they were soon imprisoned for car theft and not paying an hotel bill,” reads the GQ profile.
“He drugged his prison guard and disappeared, leaving his young wife in a cramped and dirty cell in Kabul prison.”
Leaving his wife behind bars, Sobhraj returned to France, kidnapped his daughter, Usha, from her maternal grandparents, then headed back to Asia – allegedly with the plan of busting Chantal out of prison.
Instead, he was arrested – and his wife, utterly sick of the life they were leading, moved to the US with her little girl.
As per the Express, though, this wasn’t the end of their relationship. Indeed, in 2003, Chantal attempted to help Sobhraj appeal against his double-murder conviction.
“She filed a case before the European Court of Human Rights against the French government for refusing to provide him with any assistance in his first trial,” reads their report.
Despite this, Sobhraj’s sentence was confirmed by the Nepalese appeals court in 2005. In 2014 he was also convicted of the murder of Laurent Carrière and received another sentence.
The former remains in prison for his terrible crimes to this day. It’s not known, however, where Chantal is now.
The Serpent continues on 7 February at 9pm on BBC One, with all episodes available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
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.