In an era of slow-burn small-screen series, last year’s The Sinner was a refreshing outlier, commencing with a jaw-dropping first episode that immediately made it appointment TV.
The sight of Jessica Biel’s unhappy wife and mother brutally stabbing a stranger to death on a beach for no apparent reason was not only one of the television season’s most arresting moments, but it gave USA Network’s limited-run drama a unique hook—because the mystery wasn’t about the who, what, where or when of the crime, but about the why.
Based on Petra Hammesfahr’s best-selling novel, the eight-hour The Sinner was a stand-alone affair steeped in suppressed secrets and recovered memories. Thus, the challenge of its second season, written exclusively for TV (and debuting Wednesday, Aug. 1), is matching its predecessor in the baffling-murder department without coming across as a rehash. And, moreover, to do so without the participation of its Emmy-nominated leading lady, as Biel is only an executive producer on this return engagement.
I’m happy to report that, at least on the basis of the first three episodes provided to press, The Sinner (now featuring Carrie Coon in a standout role) more than lives up to that task—and, at least in one important way, surpasses that which came before it. With the tangled religion-and-sex-abuse tale of Cora (Biel) now closed, Derek Simonds’ show focuses more squarely on Detective Harry Ambrose, played once again by Bill Pullman with a bushy graying beard and a look in his eyes that alternates between penetrating and haunted. Harry is seemingly done with both his wife Fay and his S&M paramour Sharon. Yet he’s still obsessed with nature—his complaint about someone cutting hedges into right angles speaks volumes about his obsessiveness. It’s a comment that also relates to the show’s belief in life’s twisty-turny unruliness, confirmed by a homicide case that lands in Harry’s lap courtesy of a phone call from Heather Novack (Natalie Paul), a newly minted detective and the daughter of Harry’s old friend Jack (Tracy Letts) from his hometown of Keller, New York, where he hasn’t visited in years.
[Inevitable, if minor, spoilers follow]
As before, The Sinner opens with an intriguing bang. Driving along a forested upstate road, nondescript couple Adam (Adam David Thompson) and Bess (Ellen Adair) talk with young Julian (Elisha Henig) about their impending arrival at Niagara Falls. When their car breaks down, they’re forced to spend the night at a motel—a situation that only amplifies the trio’s weirdly tense dynamic. The next morning, Adam leaves Julian at the breakfast bar so he can go back to the room for a moment of intimacy with Bess. They’re interrupted when Julian returns with tea. Yet that goodwill gesture proves to be anything but, as both—after sipping their morning beverage—soon fall dead from poisoning. And Julian, it’s clear, is the only one who could be responsible for their demise.
A young-looking 13-year-old with curly brown hair and a penchant for breaking into growling-gasping fits when stressed, Julian hardly fits the prototypical first-degree-murder mold. Which, of course, is precisely the point of The Sinner. Soon, Harry—asked to work the case by Heather as a favor—is trying to figure out the story behind the story. “When a boy that young kills, it’s really never just his fault,” he intones in episode three, and his quest soon becomes deciphering the reasons for Julian’s self-confessed slaying of his two guardians. That sleuthing forms the basis of the new season, although more than before, Harry himself turns out to be the center of attention, thanks to the long-buried traumas slowly creeping to the forefront of his mind as he navigates a community he thought he’d escaped for good.
If the first season of The Sinner had a narrative shortcoming, it was that the stunning randomness of Cora’s slaughter was quickly revealed to be far from random; facts relayed at the outset (namely, that Cora didn’t know her victim) turned out to be simply untrue, thereby undercutting the initially exciting what-is-going-on-here mystery. Not so in this follow-up, as Simonds and director Antonio Campos (back to helm the first two episodes with his usual precise-and-frosty style) are more careful about the means by which they generate early suspense, avoiding outright misleading information as they develop their material. Their plot soon hinges on the appearance of Vera (Carrie Coon), a shadowy woman with deep ties to Julian who’s first seen in a flashback scene tutoring the boy about his “shadow Julian” while he draws ominous shapes on a piece of paper. Vera is crucial to the ensuing action. Yet to say anything further about her would give away more than one should know going into the show.
The Sinner’s revelations boast shades of Wild Wild Country (as well as, believe it or not, 2001: A Space Odyssey), even as it plumbs the knotty feelings of shame, fury, sadness and regret consuming Heather and Harry—both of whose backstories are parceled out in flashback fragments alongside those of Julian, who’s plagued by dreams of a hooded figure literally reaching into his stomach. Everyone in Simonds’ series is suffering, in one form or another, from post-traumatic stress, and that balance of external and internal pain is central to its energy. So too is the performance of Pullman, whose turn is again defined by a volatile edginess that’s hard to put a finger on; no matter how much we learn about the childhood tragedy that scarred him, his Harry remains something of an inscrutable protagonist. It’s a credit to Pullman’s charisma (and his ability to infuse the character with an innate goodness) that such impenetrability isn’t alienating but, on the contrary, captivating.
Coon is likewise commanding—and more than a bit unreadable herself—as the daunting Vera, evincing a force of personality that could be the byproduct of either justified defiance or malevolent deviance. And though he shares few scenes with his real-life wife, Letts brings a measure of warmth and compassion to the proceedings as Harry’s best friend, even as his underlying role is, for now, also unclear. Alongside the sturdy Paul and disturbing Henig, they more than ably justify The Sinner’s continued existence—and help make it a late-summer saga of unconventional, and unnerving, thrills.