This trending Netflix series teaches us a dark lesson about true crime

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the final episode of BBC One and Netflix’s The Serpent, so do not read on unless you are fully up to date with the true crime series.

Netflix’s The Serpent (which originally aired on BBC One earlier this year) has been steadily trending ever since it hit the streaming platform earlier this month, and for good reason.

Telling the harrowing true story of Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) – aka the same serial killer and conman who brutally murdered and robbed at least 12 Western tourists along the so-called ‘hippie trail’ in the 1970s, the series has dealt expertly with a number of complex themes, including his alleged coercive control, love bombing, and gaslighting of Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman).

It’s the TV show’s ending, though, that has really gotten people talking.

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It’s a tragic ending for mostly everyone; the investigation has put too much of a strain on the marriage of Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) and Angela (Ellie Bamber) for our heroes to live happily ever after – not together, at least.

Marie-Andrée finally realises she’s trapped in an abusive relationship far too late; she’s violently assaulted by Sobhraj, is arrested as his accomplice and subsequently locked up for seven years, before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“The cancer is in my womb, a place where we once thought there would be a child,” she tells an unmoved Sobhraj through the bars of his prison cell. 

In real life, Marie- Andrée returned home to Canada just a year later and died of her illness in 1984. She was 38.

Then, of course, there’s Sobhraj’s victims: only nine of their names are known for certain, but it’s been estimated that the so-called ‘Bikini Killer’ could have been behind as many as 32 murders.

Just as the show makes all too clear, justice is never truly served. Sobhraj beaks out of prison, is recaptured, serves just 10 years for his crimes, and is released.

At around the same time, the statute of limitation for his crimes in Thailand is up, leaving the serial killer free to leave the country and return to Paris.

There, he reunites with his ex-wife. Perhaps more shocking than this, though, is the fact that he finds fame as a celebrity killer, courting the press and granting interviews for eye-watering sums of money (he allegedly made up to $15 million on selling the rights to a film of his life).

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“The first thing he did when I knocked on the door was offer me an open bottle of Coke, which was also the way he had incapacitated many of his victims,” recalls GQ’s Andrew Anthony, who interviewed Sobhraj in 1997 on behalf of The Observer.

“It was a little playful test, and one I politely turned down.” 

Some 30 years later, though, Sobhraj returned to Nepal, where he was arrested, tried and sentenced to 20 years in jail. 

“The charges are rubbish,” he complained to the press in 2004 (as per GQ). 

“I am a busy man with my own film production company in Paris. I came here to make a TV documentary on local handicrafts and to see if I can do some humanitarian work.”

The real Charles Sobhraj (here portrayed by Tahar Rahim) remains in prison to this very day.

Sobhraj remains in prison to this very day, now aged 76. He’s married again, this time to his lawyer’s daughter, Nihita Biswas (who acted as his translator during his appeals). The same Biswas who, yes, appeared as a contestant on the 2011 series of Bigg Boss, India’s equivalent of Celebrity Big Brother.

Despite being behind bars, the serial killer still courts the press. He is looking for someone to ghost-write his autobiography. And he continues to revel in his notoriety, all while “never showing the slightest regret for the devastation he had wrought or the lives he’d ruined.”

“He can’t deal with the outside world,” filmmaker Farrukh Dhondy explained to The Guardian, after spending time with Sobhraj.

“He finds himself not famous, whereas in prison he’s a somebody.” 

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With all this in mind, then, what are we to make of The Serpent? Does this eight-hour series – which fails to name Sobhraj’s victims at the end of the final episode (instead, they’re referred to as “the young intrepids who set out with big dreams [and] never made it home”) – simply serve to feed into Sobhraj’s cult of celebrity?

It’s the big problem that every big true crime story faces. Indeed, just a few weeks ago Netflix’s The Ripper was met with condemnation from the families of Peter Sutcliffe’s victims, who insisted “it glorifies the brutal violence of Sutcliffe, and grants him a celebrity status that he does not deserve.”

So what’s the solution? Well, as Rosamund Lupton previously suggested to Stylist, perhaps all true crime should be “told from the victims’ point of view, and not the perpetrator” – much as we have seen happen in critically-acclaimed BBC series The Investigation.

“Perhaps we’ll always have a fascination with criminals, but it seems as if things are finally shifting,” she said at the time. 

“We now want to put the victims centre stage. We want to hear stories that are uniquely intimate, involving and powerful.”

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One could argue that The Serpent achieved this by shining the spotlight on Marie- Andrée, who seems every bit as much a victim of Sobhraj as she is an accomplice.

And nobody can claim that Sobhraj comes across well in the series, which takes great pains to show him for the manipulative abuser and murderer he truly is. 

In doing so, though, the true crime series has made a household name of someone that many viewers would not have necessarily heard of before – and this fame is something that the obviously narcissistic Sobhraj has been fighting to obtain for himself for some time.

All episodes of The Serpent are currently available to watch on Netflix and BBC iPlayer. Please note this article was originally written on 15 February, but has been updated throughout.

Images: BBC One

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