We all know by now that BBC One and Netflix’s The Serpent is inspired by a true story: the tense TV series all about how Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) – the same 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 show’s fourth episode, though, shifts the focus away from Sobhraj and his girlfriend/accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and onto his victims.
Or, rather, his would-be victims: over the course of an hour, we learn just how close the real life Dominique Rennelleau (Fabien Frankel) was to being murdered by the sociopath.
A lone backpacker, Dominique is all too easily charmed by Sobhraj, who presents himself as the sort of worldly traveller that can show the younger man the “authentic” side of the country he’s visiting.
As is Sobhraj’s way, he builds a relationship with Dominique. He convinces him that he’s not just trustworthy, but that he’s a friend worth having.
And then, because he’s a cold-blooded monster who needs to be needed, he poisons the young Frenchman and spirits him back to Kanit House in Bangkok.
For a wee while, Dominique truly believes that Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée have his best interests at heart – despite the fact that the ‘medicine’ they keep pushing on him has seemingly zero impact.
Then, just like that, Coco the monkey laps up his meds before he can and promptly keels over. It’s at this point that Dominique realises what’s happening; he’s trapped in a stranger’s house, thousands of miles from home, and nobody know he’s there. He’s too sick to move. He’s got no way of contacting anyone for help. And, even if he could get away, he’s got no chance of fleeing the country: as Sobhraj tells him happily, he’s been “a little bit naughty” with Dominique’s passport, by which he means that he’s cut Dominique’s photo off of it and replaced it with his own.
All Dominique can do is watch, wait, and remain as polite as possible to his ‘hosts’. Because he’s seen the other incapacitated travellers being dragged to “hospital”, knows all too well that they are mysteriously never heard from again, and he doesn’t want the same to happen to him, damn it.
Sleeping with a knife under his pillow, though, doesn’t make Dominique feel as safe as he would like. Particularly when he wakes up to find that Sobhraj has found the knife and really, really isn’t happy about Dominique’s betrayal.
For an excruciating few moments, we assume the young Frenchman is done for: Sobhraj is fingering the knife, Dominique can barely stand (let alone flee), and his eyes are flashing with what appears to be anger.
Sobhraj, though, wants to use this perceived betrayal as a learning exercise.
“You are my brother, and this is where you belong,” he tells Dominique, before revealing that he, Monique, and the ever-loyal Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) are off to Hong Kong for a much-needed holiday (apparently all oft hat conning and murdering has worn the trio out).
Dominique, continues Sobhraj menacingly, is to stay exactly where he is while their away. Because if he doesn’t… well, the implication is made abundantly clear indeed.
Thankfully, Dominique decides that he’s going to grasp this window of opportunity with both hands.
“He’s trapped me here,” he informs Nadine (Mathilde Warnier) and Remi (Grégoire Isvarine), who have been living next door to Sobhraj’s condo of horrors all this time and never clocked what was going on behind closed doors.
The duo, who we see confiding in diplomat-turned-detective, Knippenberg (Billy Howle) in a later timeline, leap into action. They buy Dominique a plane ticket home, and help him manipulate his passport so he can get through customs. They drop him off at the airport. And then…
Well, for 10 terrifying minutes, we’re left to wonder whether Dominique will actually be able to escape. His plane is delayed, you see, and he can’t help but notice that Sobhraj is stalking around the very same airport – although it remains unclear as to whether or not the serial killer is truly there, or if this is just the workings of sickly Dominique’s feverish hallucinations.
Finally, thankfully, he makes it onto the plane and sails off home to freedom. Aiding in his escape, though, may have extreme repercussions for poor Nadine and Remi…
As Nadine reads a letter from Dominique at the post office (“Every morning I wake, terrified I am still there in Kanit House”), she has zero clue she’s being watched by none other than Sobhraj, Marie-Andrée, and Ajay.
That’s right: the trio is back in town, they are fully aware that Dominique is missing, and they want to know where he is. Nadine, understandably terrified, doesn’t know what to do when they offer her a lift home with them in their car: all she can do is fix a smile to her face, pretend nothing is wrong, and do her very best not to raise their suspicions.
And, as that cliffhanger finale makes all too clear, Nadine never returns home to Remi after her trip to the post office. Gulp.
Has she become yet another of his victims? Read on to find out what happened to Nadine IRL (if you don’t mind spoilers, that is).
What happened to The Serpent’s Nadine in real life?
Thankfully, the real Nadine survived her encounter with Sobhraj.
Speaking to The Mirror, she explained: “Charles is a monster and I am terrified of him… when I found out what he was doing to those people I had to act, or I would not be able to live with myself.”
Recalling the moment he showed up behind her in March 1976, she continues: “It was terrible. I was waiting in a hotel lobby when they came up behind me and said, ‘Surprise!’ My heart jumped. They offered me a ride home and I had to get into a very small lift with them.
“I was sure Charles could hear my heart beating. He kept asking, ‘Where is Dominique and Yannick’?”
Nadine later risked her life by going undercover, slipping into Sobhraj’s apartment, and gathering evidence – including diaries and personal items – which was used by Interpol to solve a string of murders.
And she is just one of many people who knew Sobhraj in real life who sat down with The Serpent’s writers ahead of the show’s creation, too.
“We have been able to meet and talk with a few of those who were, for a while, friends with Sobhraj and Leclerc, who shared their home, ate their food and went to their parties,” explains the BBC’s Richard Warlow.
“It’s been invaluable and humbling to be able to call on the memories of such extraordinary men and women. They have been ceaselessly generous in their recall of what, for a few of them, was a dark and mortally dangerous sequence of events.”
The fourth episode of The Serpent will air on Sunday 17 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.