Jeffrey Toobin makes a strong ideological distinction between the ’60s and the’ 70s in American Heiress, his excellent 2016 book on the disappearance and trial of Patricia Hearst, indicating that the two decades in the American psyche are inaccurately conflated. The ’60s were positive, the’ 70s sour; the ’60s were about achievement, the’ 70s were about failure; the ’60s were sporadically violent; he writes that the’ 70s were pervasively violent.
By 1975, when The Serpent (BBC One) began his glossy adventures in Murder on the Asian Hippie Trail, any progressive hope had definitely curdled.
The Serpent tells the story of how Charles Sobhraj, who killed young Western travelers in 1975 and 1976, was brought to justice, inspired by’ true events,’ but in this first episode, which focuses mostly on the environment, justice falls by the wayside. In 1997, when he was living openly in Paris and playing with an American reporter who interviewed him, we first met Sobhraj. If that is the central question of “The Serpent” – the nickname of Sobhraj because he was so good at slipping away from the law, while it also explains the depiction of Tahar Rahim as cold-eyed, coiled and ready to pounce on any weakness – under several layers it is not buried. We are shown that he was able to get away with it because it was difficult for long-distance contact at the time for travelers; because hippies were dismissed as careless and irresponsible; because embassies and local authorities appeared to interact poorly; and because he was magnetic and persuasive and had the support of his partner, Marie-Andrée Leclerc.
Leclerc is an intriguingly elusive worker. Sobhraj and Leclerc invite the couple to Bangkok after meeting a young Dutch couple in Hong Kong, where they exchange gems, to spend the night and party at their house. Herman Knippenberg, a junior diplomat at the Dutch embassy who is desperate to find out what happened to the two, alternates between their meeting, their journey, and the inquiry, even though his fellow diplomats have little interest in having their hands dirty. This timeline jumping, where it is always clarified that we are either “two months earlier” or “two months later,” is u.
I can understand that by dipping frequently into the tale of the Dutch couple, it is intended to create suspense as Knippenberg finds out more about how and why they vanished, but it fails to sustain the requisite sense of fear even though we know from the beginning approximately how things worked out for them. The story of Theresa, an American traveler on her way to a Buddhist monastery in Nepal who plays with wildlife one last time before arriving, is much better and more convincing.
As the young woman Sobhraj takes an interest in, Alice Englert, who stood out in Ratched, is impressive.
From the moment she appears on screen, she’s threatening, happily bidding farewell to her old life with one last night of sex and partying. “As you know, Americans don’t thrive in this part of the world,” Sobhraj lectures her spitefully as she makes the horrible mistake of trusting him for a brief and inevitably tragic moment. The sun, the booze and curfews, the smoking, the sideburns and the suits all merge into a vivid image of the idealism of those who followed the hippie dream well into the sour seventies, and the viciousness with which it is twisted and sliced by Sobhraj. He is able to target these “long-haired bums,” “work-shy hobos,” and “stupid fucking hippies”-in this respect, Australian Attache is especially outspoken-because they were vulnerable in that setting to a con man and killer such as Sobhraj at that time. (Similarly, the Attache is frank about bad Knippenberg, or “ya fuckin’ little mouse with clogs on.” as he calls him.)
In the role of the harried Dutchman, in the midst of a consistently excellent cast, Billy Howle is strong; Rahim and Coleman are beautifully chilling. I’m not sure the Serpent will have anything to say, though.
It tells the tale, makes the life of Sobhraj look pretty glamorous in the midst of all the murders, and makes it plain enough that these young people are being cruelly robbed of their future.