In the 1970s, as the “golden age of serial murder” began to take hold in the U.S. with killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, another predator had begun to terrorize travelers abroad. Charles Sobhraj—who operated under a number of aliases including “Alain Gautier”—was a fraudster who, as seen in the BBC One series The Serpent, befriended travelers on the “pot trail” through Southeast Asia before drugging and murdering them and stealing their passports and valuables.
The Serpent, which debuts on Netflix Friday, is a scripted series based on true events, which toggles between Sobhraj’s most active years as a serial killer and the tireless investigation led by one Dutch diplomat that eventually put him away. As the series premieres on its new streaming home, it will fit right in alongside other murder-centric offerings like Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Night Stalker, which focused on the Richard Ramirez murders.
Unlike many of those projects, however, The Serpent seems reluctant in its own luridness—determined to honor Sobhraj’s victims as well as the aforementioned diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, in lieu of glorifying the man behind the violence. It succeeds some of the time, but eventually gives in to the usual impulses that inevitably make these programs a conflicting watch.
Charles Sobhraj was born in Saigon on April 6, 1944, during World War II. As recounted in Julie Clarke and Richard Neville’s book On the Trail of the Serpent, Sobhraj’s mother, a Vietnamese shop-girl named Tran Loan Phung, gave birth as the Viet Minh fought off occupying forces from Japan; the bombs shook the hospital. Sobhraj’s father, who was Indian, left the family when he was a toddler and his mother married a French Army lieutenant who eventually brought the family back to France, where he would adopt Sobhraj’s younger sister but not Sobhraj himself.
Sobhraj grew up stateless. At boarding school he was subject to racist jokes from his white classmates. And when his mother returned to retrieve him, the boy realized he could no longer speak his native language. From a young age, Sobhraj stole candies and toys for his younger siblings, and twice he attempted to return to the country of his birth by stowing away on a ship. At one point, his mother falsely told him his father had died. When Sobhraj eventually went to live with his father, things did not go much better.
Sobhraj was fascinated by psychology, and used a psychological technique called “characterology” to profile would-be victims. He was known for identifying whatever a person’s deepest desires and frustrations might be and offering a solution before, often, asking them over to his apartment as a guest. He used a series of drugs to induce illness and then “care” for his victims while robbing them and, in some cases, convincing them to participate in his criminal activities.
After numerous escapes, Sobhraj was finally jailed in India from 1976 to 1997—and in 2003, he returned to Nepal, where he was arrested once more and received a life sentence. He has insisted in the past that all of his victims’ drug overdoses were accidental; authorities, meanwhile, maintain that he killed them for fear of exposure.
The Serpent, which derives its title from a popular nickname for Sobhraj, focuses primarily on the mid-1970s, when Sobhraj’s criminal activities expanded to involve murder. His first known victim, Teresa Knowlton, was a young American woman traveling to join a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. Fishermen found her body in the Gulf of Thailand, in what had at first been presumed to be an accidental drowning but was later revealed to be foul play. (She, like another of Sobhraj’s victims, had been found in a bikini—which gained him the moniker “the Bikini Killer” as well.)
Charles Sobhraj had an obsessive eye for glamour, and detested the bedraggled hippies who arrived in Southeast Asia in droves. The Serpent uses this dynamic to its advantage, bathing its viewers in the gem fraudster’s elegant world—flared linen pants! giant sunglasses! luscious silks!—only to subvert that superficial beauty with a glimpse of the horror underpinning it all. (Translation: Get ready for a lot of digestive pyrotechnics.)
BBC One’s series also mimics its patron reptile in form, with a coiling, non-linear plot. Viewers will find themselves attending the same couple of parties over and over again, learning new details each time from the perspective of a different victim. (The most effective of these installments actually belongs to Quebecois Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Sobhraj’s romantic partner and conspirator who, as we see, was a victim in her own right as well.)
Over time, however, the device’s cleverness gives way to exhaustion. Sobhraj might have been a master fraudster and escape artist, but his methods, at least as seen here, are not that complex. After the first few murders, we get the idea.
Still, strong performances from leads Tahar Rahim, who plays Sobhraj, and Jenna Coleman as Leclerc make even the saggier portions of The Serpent’s run eminently watchable. Rahim maintains tight control of the tension in every scene, capturing Sobhraj’s notorious genteel-but-icy air with each dark stare. Coleman, meanwhile, brings a sense of empathy to Marie-Andrée, holding the audience at arm’s length to highlight her character’s complicity before, ultimately, inviting them into her character’s terrifying inner world.
The other side of The Serpent’s equation is more naturally enticing: Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg and his equally brilliant then-wife, Angela, are investigating the disappearance of two Dutch backpackers. Before long, a cat-and-mouse game ensues as Knippenberg chases false trails Sobhraj has laid across the globe using his victims’ passports—all while begging numerous seemingly apathetic government agencies for assistance no one seems willing to provide. English actor Billy Howle—seen previously in Netflix’s Outlaw King and the most recent Star Wars installment, in which he played Rey’s father—makes wonderful, sweaty work of playing Knippenberg, as the diplomat’s obsessive hunt for Sobhraj begins to overtake his psyche.
Still, certain elements of this series begin to chafe. Despite its richly rendered setting in Bangkok, The Serpent treats Asian women as largely disposable. It’s unclear whether the show’s writers were unable to dig up much backstory on Sobhraj’s Thai mistress, Suda, or if they were simply uninterested in doing so—but it’s hard to ignore how little we know about her compared to the other people Sobhraj managed to ensnare in his web. We see precious little of Sobhraj’s mother. And beyond Suda and Knippenberg’s secretary—who, it seems, largely exists in this series so he can bark at her to get various foreign officials on the phone—the only other Asian women present seem to be sex workers, used to connote the “seedy” side of the city.
The series also makes little effort to engage with the complex web of sociopolitical and psychological dynamics surrounding Sobhraj and his upbringing. (It’s worth noting that despite his skill in playing the character, Rahim himself is neither Indian nor Vietnamese, but Algerian.) The Serpent spends so much time unfurling its many monotonous kills that we lose out on the broader story—one rich with thematic potential when viewed through the lens of colonial history and occupation, particularly in the context of the Vietnam War. With that context, The Serpent might have achieved the gravitas it so clearly sought to achieve—but in its absence, all we’re left with is the monstrosity.