REVIEW: "THE SERPENT" ON NETFLIX
In David Mamet's directorial debut, 1987's "House of Games," seasoned thief Mike Mancuso (Joe Mantegna) explains to his new friend, psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), why we call it a "confidence game" (often shorted as a "con"). It's not because the target places their undue confidence in a criminal; it's because the criminal appears to place their confidence in their victim first. Reciprocity is built into the human character; it's how we define and understand social relationships. So if someone new in your life displays confidence in you, or shows you loyalty, you show it right back to them. That's how to make friends, right? A con game exploits this loophole. The criminal appears to show confidence and loyalty toward a target, and the target slips up by responding in kind, allowing themselves to be taken advantage of, often without even realizing what they've done.
The BBC/Netflix limited series "The Serpent" -- about a real con artist and murderer named Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), who was active in Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s -- was perhaps the best and most apt distillation of this core lesson that I have seen since "House of Games" in '87. By focusing on Sobhraj's targets and victims, we gain an intuitive understanding for how he plied his trade and seamlessly moved through the world without raising too much suspicion.
The series takes a kaleidoscopic view of Sobhraj's crime spree, jumping around in time to lay out the personal narratives of a few key victims, from their perpsectives. So in one crucial early episode, we see the journey of Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), a tourist from Quebec whom Sobhraj seduced during a vacation in Thailand, who eventually became his semi-reluctant girlfriend and accomplice. Through Marie-Andrée's eyes, we get a sense for Sobhraj's M.O. He poses in Bangkok as a wealthy, sophisticated gem dealer, gets close to Western tourists he thinks seem lonely or in need of help, and convinces them to return to his sprawling home to stay for few days. Once there, he isolates his guests, robs them and takes their passports, and ultimately poisons them, making it look like some sort of tropical disease. In the pilot episode, Sobhraj pulls a variation of this scam on a pair of Dutch students, which ultimately brings him to the attention of a low-level diplomat working in Bangkok (Billy Howle), which starts the long process of his unraveling and capture.
The unconventional structure means we return to the same period of time -- and even sometimes the same party or event -- from multiple points of view, making it fully clear how extraordinarily intricate and fragile Sobhraj's schemes really were. Keeping a secret from one or two people is difficult enough, but keeping dozens of secrets from all sorts of people living and drinking and sleeping together in the same compound? It drives home the man's insatiable need to feel powerful and in control. The show seems to imply that it was an addiction to manipulation, more than lust or greed, that kept him going over the years.
"The Serpent" is HARROWING, focusing more on the grim consequences of Sobhraj's crimes than the excitement or glamour that I fear would've taken precedent in most Hollywood versions of the story. I was reminded at times not just of Mamet's "House of Cards," but also Olivier Assayas' epic miniseries "Carlos," about infamous 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal. These are vital, fast-paced, fascinating stories about terrible people that treat their subjects seriously, with depth, but somehow resist the urge to make them badass anti-heroes. It's compelling TV.
Title: "The Serpent"
Where to Watch: Netflix
Episodes: 8 (1 season)
Running time: About 60 minutes each
Genre: Crime drama