Netflix Series The Serpent Review (With Spoilers)

Well, “spoilers”. I’m only going to be discussing the high points of the story, the reasons it is such a consistent big story even today. So if you know the name “Charles Sobhraj”, then this review will not spoil anything.

5 sentences about the real life story of Charles Sobhraj:

Sobhraj was born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, his mother later remarried a French officer and he was raised in France. He came of age at the height of the hippie road era through Asia and made a career of traveling to hippie hotspots and drugging and robbing young travelers. Eventually he graduated to killing and robbing young travelers, and was almost impossible to catch because he hopped from country to country and preyed on non-locals. He was arrested in the end in India, sentenced to jail there, released, and then returned to France where he enjoyed a period of brief fame, before being arrested again in Nepal where he is now in jail.

Charles Sobhraj's Victims Weren't Exactly Random

Sobhraj’s story has fascinated me for years ever since I first stumbled upon it by way of a Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode. The episode focused on the idea of a man without a country and without a conscience who kills casually just because it is convenient. That’s so unusual, a killer who doesn’t do it for the joy exactly, but also doesn’t seem to feel guilty. He just kills people when he can gain any minor advantage by it. It’s not that he is vicious, or brilliant, he just sort of looks at the world with no conscience and that makes him powerful.

I read up on him after that episode and then was double fascinated when I learned about this whole post-colonialism theme. He was a child of colonialism, disdaining his own Asian heritage while being disdained by the French culture he aspired to. He used the same messy post-colonialism to help his crimes. He knew that the Europeans wouldn’t care about things that happened in Asia. And he knew that the Asians would have a messy confused response to tourists coming to Asia in a new form of colonialism. No one was going to care about these kids.

A lot of control but no heart at commune, says former spokesperson
This is also part of the weirdness of Osho and other groups like it. Terrible weird things happen behind their walls, but so long as they are happening to traveling Westerners, the local authorities just don’t care as much. And equally important, the Westerners won’t trust the local authorities enough to report anything. Choose your victims.

What I REALLY love about the story is that the Europeans didn’t catch him! I mean, they shouldn’t. He committed crimes in Asia, doesn’t matter that the people he killed were Western. The Indian police caught him and put him in jail, the Thai police had a warrant out for him, and now he is in jail in Nepal. He was caught by his own internalized prejudices, believing these “local” cops would never be good enough to catch him, or care enough to catch him for killing white visitors.

This miniseries isn’t the absolute greatest best possible version of this story, but it’s pretty darn good. And the real life story is SO good, and ties up so many interesting aspects of humanity, that the miniseries is worth watching for that. If you are interested in issues of colonialism, in hippie culture, in Thailand or Nepal or India, or in crime, this is going to fascinate you.

Now, digging into the SPOILER stuff that is directly addressed in the miniseries and I hadn’t known before!

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILERS

The miniseries structures it between the “bad” people and the “good” people. The “good” people are led by a Dutch undersecretary at the Thai embassy. He stumbles across two desperate families looking for their missing children and can’t get it out of his head. He tracks the children down to two bodies who were burned alive. And then he hears rumors through the old hand at the Belgian embassy of a French woman telling stories of a killer and poisoner. He finds out the woman is a neighbor of Sobhraj who helped their slave/servant escape and found strange things in their apartment while they were gone. The neighbors start working with the Dutch undersecretary and his brilliant wife and the Belgian to investigate who Sobhraj may have killed and how. When Sobhraj returns, the neighbor goes undercover to gather more evidence. Finally the Thai police raid his apartment and arrest him and his two partners (girlfriend and male desi friend). But they bribe the police and escape, going on the run to Kerachi and then Paris. Meanwhile, the Dutch undersecretary has leaked news to the papers and finally gotten Interpol to care and warrents paper the world. Sobhraj and his girlfriend (friend is dumped on the road somewhere) go back on the run and end up in India where one of their new friends/assistants goes to the police after witnessing a murder and Sobhraj is finally arrested. Years later, he is released from jail and returns to France and his first wife. And then in 2003 he goes to Nepal, where he is arrested, and the Dutch undersecretary comes into play again, digging up his old boxes of evidence to find something to get him held and jailed in Nepal. Which is where he is now.

The Bikini Killer: serial murderer Charles Sobhraj to be subject of Netflix  drama The Serpent | South China Morning Post

If I am critiquing the miniseries as a miniseries, there’s a clear doubling between our Hero and his Wife, and our Villain and his Girlfriend. It works perfectly, seamlessly, between Sobhraj and the Dutch. Sobhraj is charming, confident, easy going, able to make friends everywhere. He is also impulsive, unplanned, and likes to move on quickly from one thing to another. But the Dutch diplomat is extremely un-easygoing. He even moves gracelessly, hunched shoulders and blocky walking. He offends everyone, he likes paperwork and process and sitting in his office drinking coffee and making phone calls. As a work of art, this is a really cool way to present our two characters. The bad person is so much easier to watch, so much more pleasant to spend time with. Until we start to see just how BAD he is, until the price of watching this handsome charming actor is outweighed by seeing all that death and mess. And the awkwardness of our Hero is balanced by seeing him consistently do the right ethical thing. I just wish it had worked better for the women.

Angela Kane, the real woman, is AMAZING!!!!!! She has a zillion credentials, and ended up having a career at the UN that left her ex-husband in the dust. Another way this show could have legitimately gone was to show a brilliant woman trapped in the role of “diplomat’s wife” and grabbing at this extra-curricular challenge because she wants to do something of meaning. The end result being a discovery that she needs to pursue her own career and get out of her husband’s shadow. We get that a bit at the beginning, an acknowledgement that she knows more languages than her husband, and is better at the diplomatic events too, but then she veers into the usual “wah wah, why can’t you spend more time with ME?” kind of wife.

And then there is Marie-Clare, the real woman, who helped Sobhraj kill. Again, this is one of the things I found most interesting about the real person. His “girlfriends” were also his gang. He didn’t use women just for sex. He trusted them and taught them. It’s another blind spot he took advantage of, no one would suspect an innocent young woman of being dangerous. The show is accurate in the facts, shows how they met, shows how she was actively involved in recruiting young travelers, she was aware of almost everything he did, etc. etc. But I want more BACKSTORY! You don’t just meet a guy on a trip and end up drugging everyone who walks in your door. Even if they didn’t know the real backstory, this is a fictional show, they are allowed to invent. Without that invention, it feels like women legitimately are one cute guy away from being a serial killer.

The true story of Charles Sobhraj, The Serpent – The Bikini Killer –  Strange Unexplained Mysteries - Hamara Jammu

But where the show absolutely NAILS it is conveying the exact time and place that allowed this mess to happen. Young hopeful travelers were making friends with strangers and taking things as they come all over Europe. At the same time, the ripples of Vietnam were keeping the international authorities busy so that they didn’t notice or care about a few missing travelers. And the local authorities were unlikely to bother with the parallel universe of the Westerners.

And what the show absolutely gets right too is that Sobhraj, ultimately, is just an empty person. He didn’t kill because of racism and childhood trauma, or to make some grand statement. He killed because he wanted money and the easiest way he saw to get it was to rip off travelers checks from a young traveling innocent. And eventually he discovered it was easier to kill the travelers than try to drug them and not kill them. Heck, he only burned the corpses because it was a quick way to slow identification, not in some crazed ritual.

The Serpent review – Tahar Rahim shines as ice-cold killer | Television &  radio | The Guardian
There is a late moment in the show when we see Sobhraj put on a wig and make-up as an old vain man, and I LOVE it!!! He’s not a better human than anyone else, he is just vain and wants to be better.

The most important thing the show does, as is most important for all true crime shows, is that it does not glamorize the crimes. Sobhraj is a monster, and deserves no sympathy. His victims may have used drugs, have been hippies, even helped him smuggles drugs or jewels, but they did NOT deserve to die. They were young folks who were most likely to be trapped by him simply because they trusted people. That’s the ultimate reason they died, because they trusted a stranger. And that’s the ultimate message of the show. Sobhraj may have failed them, but there were so many other strangers who did not, who cared about their deaths simply because they were human and no other reasons.

Okay, that’s all I got! What are your thoughts on the show? Or Sobhraj? Or anything else?

13 thoughts on “Netflix Series The Serpent Review (With Spoilers)

  1. I think it’s a great series. Well acted etc… I’ve seen documentaries about him and thought this series handled it all well. Hubby got a bit confused with all the time jumps backwards & forwards but i could cope!

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    • I thought it was good too! Well made, well acted, well written and (once you got used to the editing) good at telling the story. It’s not so good that I would recommend it to people who don’t like mystery/crime shows (the way I might recommend Made in Heaven to people who don’t like wedding shows), but if mystery/crime doesn’t totally turn you off, I would put it at the top of the list.

      On Sat, Apr 10, 2021 at 9:27 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Yeah, I basically agree with everything here. They did the women dirty so they could have a traditional detective set up. They also gave both of them long hair when neither of them had long hair. This deeply offends Angela, she haaaates that they gave her longer hair than she ever had in real life.

    But I enjoyed the focus on the victims and Tahar Rahim absolutely destroys Sobhraj with his portrayal. I hope this series’ popularity helps end the glamourising of serial killers in movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wondered about the styling! Marie-Claire, not so much, it was a cool 70s hair style and fancy 70s clothes, good enough. But Angela had blonde hair and little jumpers and basically looked like a little girl most of the time. The visual of “bad sophisticated woman/good childlike woman” was hard to escape. It would have felt a lot more true to what she became if she had a rocking short hair cut and went around in power clothes. I mean, Angela has a whole wikipedia article dedicated to her, just for what she did after catching Sobhraj!!!! Clearly she is more than a little girl with a talent for languages following her husband around the world.

      Glad you got the same thing I did with Tahir Rahim. It was a tricky line he had to follow, show us why this guy was so charming and beloved, while also letting us see the emptiness underneath. I particularly liked the way he handled his status as an Asian, using it as a bond when it was useful to him (Ajay was his “brother”), and then once he was ready to return to Paris, completely dumped that identity just as Marie-Claire told him he should so that he could live the good life.

      On Sun, Apr 11, 2021 at 1:39 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yeah, I kind of get the long hair for the Monique character, but that is 100% true about the “little girl” look, exactly what I got from it. I hate that they just de-empowered her in every way, including looks. I hadn’t thought about the virgin/whore aspect of it but that is also true.

        Yes, he is hot but you can’t enjoy it. Sad, but necessary. He also used his mixed race background to get in with the mixed race Dutch guy, it’s a good way of including that opportunism.

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  3. I really liked the series, binge-watched it almost in one go. Tahar Rahim was very good and Jenna Coleman really impressed me. I loved the soundtrack and atmosphere and how it captured the places (Thailand especially) with respect, but still not shying away from the dark sides that are there.

    If anyone here have HBO then I HIGHLY recommend this true-crime series. Very intriguing and twists and turns all the way.

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    • Oooo! I am all excited about watching that series! Not available until tomorrow in America, but I will absolutely be binging it next week.

      I was hoping you had seen this series, mostly for the Thailand stuff! I noticed so much of what you had mentioned, like our Dutch hero who is a third secretary at a small consulate, and still has this huge house and a driver and a car and everything and is very separated from the rest of the country. But also a beautiful place. Really interested in the end sum up of characters that Remi and Nadine returned to Thailand and stayed for the rest of their lives, even after seeing all that horribleness, they still loved the country.

      On Sun, Apr 11, 2021 at 8:16 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yea, I have the same feeling about Thailand as Remi and Nadine. I love it, even with the clearly visible flaws. The Bangkok traffic scene in episode 1 was VERY relatable it pulled me right in.

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  4. I’ve been hooked on the Sobraj story ever since I read Tommy Thompson’s book about him. I believe it was also called Serpentine. I used to travel a lot back then and it creeped me out; stayed stateside for a long time. Can’t wait to watch the series. Since I don’t go anywhere anymore, I should be fine.

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    • Yeah, the whole story really turns the basic “people are good, travellers travel on trust” concept on its head. Which is what made him so evil, that he had no problem taking advantage of people’s trust and faith in humanity.

      On Sun, Apr 11, 2021 at 11:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. I loved this series. Binge-watched it over a week. I struggled a little at first with all the time shifts back and forth. But so watchable – all that 70s glam and drugs, and the seamy underbelly of it all.

    Fantastic!

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    • Yes! I struggled with the time shifts too. Along about episode 4, I gave up and wiki’d the real story, and it actually helped me enjoy the show more. I could relax and understand what was happening when and just enjoy the ride.

      On Mon, Apr 12, 2021 at 1:53 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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