The Serpent Finale Is An Elaborate & Upsetting Case Against Loving Selfish Men

Photo: Courtesy of netflix.
Major spoilers are ahead. “I thought I could rely on you… To believe in me,” The Serpent good guy Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) complains during a strained conversation with his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber) in the second half of the limited series, now on Netflix. Angela scoffs at Herman’s complaint after offering him episodes upon episodes of dutiful support. Still, Angela stays with Herman for the remaining chapters of The Serpent, until the last act of finale “Episode 8.” 
In the finale, Angela recognizes the obsessive selfishness clouding Herman’s judgement. Around the same time, thousands of miles away, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), the delusional and enabling lover of Serpent villain Charles Sobhraj (Golden Globe nominee Tahar Rahim), comes to terms with the reality of her partner’s wicked behavior. Charles is a self-obsessed narcissist who will murder and cheat anyone around him to get what he desires — including vulnerable mothers and Marie herself. 
“Episode 8’s” flashiest draw is revealing the way Charles — based on real-life international criminal Charles Sobhraj — is eventually brought to justice by Herman. But the finale’s most interesting decision to show the way a woman’s life changes the moment she sees her partner for the disappointing (or downright deadly) person he actually is. 
Angela has the far easier path of exit. In The Serpent’s sixth episode, she is nearly shot by a paranoid Herman, who reaches for a gun when he hears “someone” tiptoeing around the Knippenberg house in the middle of the night. The “intruder” is a shocked and terrified Angela. It is clear Angela believes her husband’s frightening behavior will improve once authorities begin taking the Knippenbergs’ investigation into Charles seriously. Such a stroke of good luck arrives by the finale. Thai Interpol takes over the case and asks Herman to hand over his files since he isn’t law enforcement. Herman obliges, but not before making copies of his boxes of evidence. 
With the hunt for Charles solidly out of Herman’s hands — and into far more capable ones — Angela assumes her life will return to some sense of normalcy. She wants to drive out to the coast and sunbathe at Thai beaches. The underlying dream of returning to posh sports clubs and tennis games — like the ones we saw her enjoy in Angela’s Serpent introduction — is the unspoken foundation of the conversation. Charles shuts Angela down, claiming he “might be needed” in Bangkok and it’s “nice enough” at their estate. Realizing Herman has no interest in rebuilding a “normal” life outside of the Sobhraj investigation with her, Angela announces she might head back to Germany to see her parents. Soon enough, Herman finds a Dear John letter in the house. 
“Take care of yourself,” Angela urges Herman. The next time we see her, it’s years later and the Knippenbergs are divorced (the real-life pair split in 1989, The Serpent’s postscript confirms). Separate from Herman, Angela was able to become a powerful force at the United Nations on her own. Herman is not a terrible man, but he failed to see his wife in the fullness of her own wants, needs, and ambitions. 
The Serpent’s other leading lady, Marie, fares much worse than Angela. The drama spends a lot of time showcasing Marie’s devotion to Charles’ unthinkable crimes. Marie smiles at every underhanded meeting, watches as Charles poisons marks around the world, and often pours these victims their deadly beverages in the first place. Marie sees these actions as proof of her partnership with Charles. It’s only in The Serpent’s penultimate episode that Marie realizes one cannot have a partnership with a monster — it’s only a matter of time until it turns on you. Such an inevitability befalls Marie once Charles’ mother plants seeds of doubt in her mind, and international intelligence agencies close in on the couple. Marie flees Paris — the city where she believed she would raise children with Charles — a teary mess, hounded by the global police. 
The finale piles on the cruelty for Marie in ways that are far too extreme to be necessary for the story or audiences. While hiding out in Delhi, Marie is robbed by one of Charles’ new criminal associates. When Marie returns to their ramshackle apartment, at last critical of the nightmare Charles has created, he beats her. The Serpent shows us a large section of the abuse; what ruthless violence viewers don’t see, they hear on the other side of the apartment wall. The scene is not cathartic and only adds to the troubling viewing experience that is The Serpent. After decades of voyeuristic domestic violence being splashed on our screens in the name of “veracity,” depicting such excessive sadism does little to illuminate anything new in 2021. 
Soon after the beating, Charles, Marie, and their remaining accomplices are apprehended. Marie gives a comprehensive account to the authorities about her crimes with Charles. Years later, when Marie is dying of uterine cancer in a foreign prison, Charles accuses her of betraying him with her statement. Marie accepts his “pitiless” attitude and bids him farewell. She is returning to Québec to live out her final days. “You will be free … And I will be back in Québec, under the earth,” Marie predicts. Charles refuses to give Marie a single parting kindness. 
Marie winds up getting the final word against her dangerously self-absorbed ex. After leaving prison, Charles goes to Kathmandu for an unexplained, but likely narcissistic, reason. He nearly evades arrest for his murders in Nepal, but Marie’s testimony is the linchpin that seals his arrest. The Serpent ends with Charles heading to prison once again. 
It is important to remember that Marie does not win in this battle against Charles. She is still “under the earth,” as she said, after years of manipulation and abuse at the hands of her lover. Thankfully, The Serpent never treats this final moment as anything more than what it is: one last tragedy.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support. 

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