Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman star in BBC One's The SerpentTWITTER/BBCPRESS

Content Note: This article contains discussion of violence, murder and abusive relationships.

BBC One’s The Serpent has a lavish, almost luxuriating, aesthetic that lingers on serial killer Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) and his partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman). The show has been justifiably criticised for glamorising Sobhraj’s horrific crimes and erasing the narratives of his victims — but this criticism is unfortunately applicable to the majority of the true crime genre.

The writers of The Serpent attempt, but ultimately fail, to give any agency to Sobhraj’ victims, instead favouring a focus on the twisted relationship of Sobhraj and Leclerc. It’s here that the series does succeed at delving into a dynamic which is seldom explored in similar series. The coercive dynamic of their relationship is apparent, from the moment Charles and Marie-Andrée meet, as Charles engages in the archetypal behaviours of an abusive partner. After persuading Marie-Andrée to leave Canada for him via love letters, he all but ignores her when she arrives. Then, having ascertained her infatuation with him, he begins showering her with gifts and attention. Later on, as they settle in Thailand, Marie-Andrée’s questions some of Charles’ behaviours and hints at her unhappiness with her existence: “I came for a holiday. I did not [go home]. He made it impossible for me.” However, she still helps him to commit multiple murders.

Charles Sobhraj prayed on tourists on Southeast Asia's 'Hippie Trail' in the 1970sTWITTER/LUCA_WFC

Marie-Andrée appears to tread the fine line between victim and accomplice, being portrayed as both a woman at the mercy of her coercive partner, and a woman aware that she was complicit in murder. The Serpent is not the first crime drama to explore this.

Gillian Anderson stars alongside Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal TWITTER/FANNIBALTURKEY

It has become something of a trope in depictions of famous fictional and real-life male serial killers that they will be accompanied by an attractive woman, or at least fawned over by one, who may serve as their accomplice in committing heinous crimes. Particularly notable examples are Myra Hindley, accomplice to Ian Brady, who is portrayed in See No Evil: The Moors Murders and Longford; the fictional Bedelia Du Maurier, accomplice to Hannibal Lecter, in Hannibal; and Carol-Ann Boone, wife of Ted Bundy, who appears in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

In all of these examples, the women have varying degrees of complicity in the crimes of the men they love, from being murderers themselves (as is the case of Hindley) to being aware of the crimes and denying their partners’ complicity (as is the case of Boone.)

In all of these examples, too, the women are in unhealthy relationships, although the extent to which they are aware of this varies. Hindley, rather like Marie-Andrée, appeared to be aware of Brady’s abusive behaviors, but never diagnosed them as such, instead becoming a willing accomplice in the Moors Murders. Meanwhile, the fictional Du Maurier commits murders herself as she aids Hannibal in his murder sprees, yet remains similarly aware of how dangerous he is. But what exactly is so morbidly fascinating about these morally ambiguous women, who often find themselves in exploitative situations which increasingly strip them of agency, yet are heavily complicit in horrific crimes?

It goes without saying that such characters are inherently more “interesting” to watch, yet also prove difficult to judge in a society where we love to label people both fictional and real as “good” or “bad”. If the women typically appear initially to be “normal” women who become entangled with abnormal men, then they are surely victims of the abusive behaviours. However, once they start engaging in their partners’ murderous antics, facilitating them or participating in them, the lines blur.

“In a show which should be focusing on victims […] a narrative solely focused on the relationship between the murderers is ultimately unhelpful.”

In The Serpent, Marie-Andrée is arguably easier to sympathise with than say, Myra Hindley, principally because the viewers are often led to perceive Leclerc herself as another victim in writer Richard Warlow’s narrative, although once again, a fine line is tread. Like Hindley, Marie-Andrée is an active participant in at least some of the murders, preparing the drugs which slowly poison the victims before they become incapable of defending themselves against Sobhraj. However, a key feature of The Serpent’s depiction of Marie-Andrée Leclerc is that her motives for her relationship with Sohbraj, and her status as his accomplice, remain obscure, making it even more difficult to determine her status as victim or murderer. Unlike Sobhraj, who is motivated by a mixture of psychopathy, narcissism and a (justified) hatred of privileged white Westerners treating his home as a playground, Marie-Andrée is opaque and otherwise seemingly oblivious to the gravity of the situation surrounding her.


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In a show which should be focusing on victims, rather than yet another resentful male serial killer, a narrative solely focused on the relationship between the murderers is ultimately unhelpful. The audience neither discovers why Marie-Andrée becomes Sobhraj’ accomplice, nor is able to truly sympathise with her. Film and television desperately needs more morally complex female characters, but another iteration of the warped male-serial-killer/female-accomplice dynamic is not exactly a narrative of female empowerment, nor is it the representation that will be most helpful in improving the gender diversity of stories on-screen.