'The Serpent' Episode 8 Finale Review: “I’m a Free Man” (and a Celebrity Criminal)

Laura Martin
·7-min read
Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

From Esquire

For seven episodes we’ve jumped back and forth throughout a time span of about 10 years, but for the final outing of The Serpent we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, leaping from 1976 to 2003, when (spoiler) Charles Sobhraj finally served some time for his mass murders. But we’re still left with the question: was justice ever really served for all the countless young lives he brutally stole?

We join Sobhraj and Marie-Andree back in India, after fleeing from Paris. Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) is now going by the new name Daniel, Marie-Andree (Jenna Coleman) is desperately trying to think of a way of making her escape, and the malevolent duo has now expanded to a crew of six. Sobhraj has somehow managed to groom two American girls and two guys into doing his dirty work.

Like Fagan with his gang of pickpockets, this motley crew are carrying out Sobhraj’s modus operandi: drug travellers, then steal all their belongings. But there’s a hitch when one of their targets dies, and one of their new accomplices has an attack of conscience and does a runner - stealing Marie-Andree’s handbag on the way, with all the passports that would have guaranteed their escape.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

The scales finally fall from Marie-Andree’s eyes

Dishevelled and wild-eyed, Marie-Andree’s on the verge of a breakdown. Back in their squat of a hostel - with the female travellers draped all over him - Sobhraj is furious when he learns she’s lost the passports, and he violently takes his ring back, before branding her “some hopeless little Quebecoise who I made beautiful for a while”.

The scales finally fall from Marie-Andree’s eyes - and it’s taken her a long time to get here - but we also see, perhaps also for the first time, that she’s also a victim of Sobhraj. He needed a glamorous assistant to validate him, and to befriend and placate his targets, and she played the part perfectly. Now she sees him for who she really is, she realises she’s trapped and there aren’t many ways out of this abusive relationship.

There’s shades of Lady Macbeth when she finally turns on him, except rather than spurring him on, she cuts him down. She tells him: “There was a time I longed to have your child inside of me... but if it were born now, I would smash its brains out in front of you”. He responds the only way he knows how – with violence, and assaults her.

Meanwhile, after yet another bungled capture, Knippenberg (Billy Howle) optimistically says “the world is closing in on him”, but he’s asked to hand over his old case studies on Sobhraj to Thai Interpol. It looks like he’s going to have to give up the case. The Serpent is just too slippery. Even Nadine and Remi are headed back to France - after all, who’d want to hang around after all the horrors of Kanit House?

It also looks like it’s sadly the end of Knippenberg and Angela’s marriage - he can’t give up on chasing Sobhraj, and Angela (Ellie Bamber) says she’s headed home to her parents. Their marriage is collateral damage in the hunt for South East Asia’s worst serial killer.

Photo credit: Roland Neveu
Photo credit: Roland Neveu

Sobhraj’s final, reckless sting

Sobhraj must know the net is closing as he’s become increasingly desperate, and in a wild sting, he plans to drug an entire group of 30 German travellers that he’s acting as tour guide to. But his risky move fails, and they all collapse in the hotel lobby, and the police are swiftly called. They also finally capture the rest of Sobhraj’s accomplices - including Marie-Andree who looks utterly resigned to her fate now.

But, the course of justice never runs smoothly. Sobhraj gloats that he’ll never be captured for his crimes in Thailand - which actually turns out to be true - and that he’ll only serve a short time in India (also true).

Marie-Andree has no reason to cover for Sobhraj any further, so she sings like a canary while in prison, and explains in no uncertain terms exactly what Sobhraj and her got up to in their reign of terror. There’s a little old nun sitting in the corner: Marie-Andree’s apparently found God. “I have God,” she tells the policeman. “That’s all I need”.

Seven years later - still in prison - she’s found something else though: a tumour. Hooked up to an IV drip, she visits Sobhraj in his prison cell. “I’m going home to die,” she tells him. “The cancer is in my womb, a place where we once thought there would be a child”. Sobhraj isn’t bothered though, and just boasts how he’ll soon be free again. In real life, Marie-Andree Leclerc died a year later, in 1984, aged 38.

Sobhraj’s prediction comes true, and after another prison break, followed by 10 more years in prison when captured again, he was free to leave jail. More importantly, the statute of limitation was up for his crimes in Thailand, leaving him free to swan off back to Paris, where he became a celebrity criminal, and remarkably, reunited with his ex-wife.

Sobhraj the free man

We flash forward and see him giving interviews in 1997, still denying any wrongdoing, and declares: “I now cannot face trial anywhere in the world”. He’s a free man, and allegedly made up to $15 million on selling the rights to a film of his life.

For reasons that are entirely unknown, in 2003, he returns to Kathmandu, essentially so he would be caught again. He was tried and convicted of the murders of Laurent Bronzich and Connie Jo Carrière, landing him in prison again, where he remains to this day, aged 76.

So: was retribution ever served? It’s been estimated that Sobhraj could have been behind as many as 32 murders. As gripping as this entire series has been - with stellar performances from all the cast - there’s still an overriding sense that this just plays into maintaining the myth and the legend of Charles Sobhraj. It’s ethically corrupt to pay a criminal for a media interview - and some publications allegedly spent up to $6,000 for an interview with him - so where does this eight-hour series about his life sit within that?

It’s the trouble that every true-crime drama finds itself in, even when the true culprit is caught and serves time. Sobhraj was only convicted of murder of just a small fraction of those young people he killed, and one can’t help but wonder if this narcissistic psychopath will see this series as some sort of twisted acceptance to his crimes - and similarly, what message it sends to the families of those he took the lives of.

As for the victims, they’re given an ambiguous mention at the very end, after we’re told what happened to all the characters in real life. “To all the young intrepids who set out with big dreams, who never made it home,” the screen reads. Instead, it should repeat the names of all the known victims, not just the name of the murderer.

And that’s where this true-crime case ends: with the uneasy knowledge that Knippenberg and co. may have eventually caught the killer, but he evaded punishment for most of his heinous crimes. And there’s scant justice in that, on-screen, or in reality.

Points of note:

  • “I take an antibacterial that was recommended to me by a biochemist in Tehran”, Sobhraj tells the tour group how to avoid food poisoning, apparently from the same source that led Trump to tell people to inject bleach to protect them from Covid

  • The Nepalese policeman pulls down Sobhraj’s high-waisted trousers when they arrest him - it’s to confirm his appendix scar, as he escaped prison last time by faking appendicitis

  • The series ties up loose ends with an explanation on what happens to each character - find out exactly where they ended up here

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