“Are you a dangerous man?” With those words, Netflix carried away into The Serpent, a limited series crime drama, based on the real-life psychopath and serial killer, Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), known as The Serpent. Even if you haven’t yet finished the 8 episodes, you probably know that this is the story of one of the most wanted men in international criminal history. Beware of the spoilers ahead…so, when you’re ready, read on and join the conversation in the comments below!
“I have faced trials,” Charles says as he faces his interviewer. “I have faced allegations. And the courts — they have decided…no.” He does not deny that he is dangerous or speak to the allegations. Then, when she says, “There are those who would say you got away with it,” his reply is simple: “That’s what Time magazine said.” Those few lines set the scene. There is little doubt that something horrific must have happened.
The truth was far more horrific than it appeared.
What first seems like the bright lights, glitz, and glamor of a fabulously charismatic couple soon turns into something darker and more deadly. Charles uses the alias of Alain, a con-man gems dealer, legitimized by his girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), under the alias of Monique. He is charmingly calculating as he seduces, drugs, and robs young travelers of their passports, traveler’s checks, and other valuables.
The flow of this series jumps back-and-forth in time with tantalizing insights into the episodic nature of the ongoing criminal exploits. Charles, Marie-Andrée, and Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) gain the trust of young travelers along the “hippie trail.” They leave the young hikers behind as burned corpses or drowning victims, without identities or ties to anyone who could speak for the dead.
It’s an obsession.
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Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) interjects himself into what had already become an international crime spree. He began investigating the murders of two Dutch hikers: Willem Bloem (Armand Rosbak) and Helena Dekker (Ellie de Lange). In trying to prove what happened to Willem and Lena, he became obsessed with taking down Charles. Even in his blind obsession, he could see that it was a losing battle. But he could not stop.
At least one politician cries, “They’re not our bodies.” The police and politicians refuse to act, even when Nadine Gires (Mathilde Warnier) visits their embassies with tales of drugs, robbery, and murder. The evidence is still sparse and inconclusive. After all, how can they tie the deaths of transient young people to this charming gem dealer? Alain has no criminal record and there appears to be no evidence that he played a role in the tragic deaths of young travelers.
But the Serpent does not stop.
Charles, Marie-Andrée, and Ajay cut a swathe across Asia, as they drug, rob, and murder. For Charles, it’s all a game. And Marie-Andrée makes shocking realizations about what has really been happening. Her mental health begins to deteriorate, and her relationship with Charles starts to fall apart. She is trapped in his coiled embrace and she sees no way out.
It’s a cat and mouse chase as Charles and Marie-Andrée return to Bangkok. Nadine spies on the couple, gathering damning evidence that Knippenberg finally uses to instigate a raid on Kanit House. The police arrest Charles and Marie-Andrée, but success is short-lived. He bribes a police officer, and they escape. But the damage is done. Their world is already unraveling. Their Bonnie and Clyde dynamic is disintegrating.
It’s only a matter of time.
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Slowly, and by degree, Knippenberg gets the word out about Charles and Marie-Andrée. They catalog everything from the abandoned apartment and find Marie-Andrée’s diary, which proves Alain’s identity: Charles Sobhraj. Just as hope seems lost, the tide turns. The police issue an international arrest order, and the pair go on the run again.
True to form, Charles is up to his old tricks, with drugs, robbery, and murder. Marie-Andrée wants a fresh start without the crime and murder. When she calls her mother in tears, she loses her bag with all their cash and passports. Charles flies into a fury, beating her for her tearful taunts. The violent exchange marks the beginning of the end.
Just a week later, the police storm their hotel and arrest Charles with his latest band of ruffians. Marie-Andrée gives herself up, promising to tell them everything. She is a tragic figure, while Charles is still defiant as he unsuccessfully tries to escape arrest. Both are caught and sentenced to prison in India.
Was there remorse or triumph?
After seven years in prison, Marie-Andrée sits in a cell with Charles, as she prepares to go home to Canada. She is dying from cancer, and she asks him, “Do you even question what you did? What we did? Or do you sit here still believing yourself to have somehow triumphed?” He tells her that he will be free.
His prediction is only partly true. Just when he is being transferred to Thailand for trial, Sobhraj escapes and is imprisoned in India for another stint. Still, he is freed in 1997, which is when he appeared in the interview from the opening scene. His inexplicable travel to Nepal in 2003 led to his arrest and conviction, and he is still sitting in a Nepalese prison.
They never made it home.
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The series brilliantly captures the 70’s, with all the flare, flavors, and colors of such a huge cross-section of Asia. While some creative license was taken, these episodes are based on real-life events. The Serpent depicts a man who charmed and used people. He lied, cheated, and stole his way through life without remorse.
I have mixed feelings about the series. It’s a compelling crime drama, a thriller that is fascinating just as it is sickening. I’m also struck by how incredibly wrong it is to give Charles Sobhraj screen time when he supposedly sought attention. I’d much rather focus on the dedication: “To all the young intrepids who set out with big dreams but never made it home.”
Have you binged The Serpent yet? Do you think Charles Sobhraj got what he deserves? Let us know in the comments below!
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