NB: SPOILERS INSIDE
Netflix, you’ve done it to us again. The Sinner – a series that originally appeared on the USA Network in, well, the USA – sneaked onto the streaming service last week and suddenly went a bit ballistic (as Netflix series are want to do). I got stuck into it having not really having read anything about it or knowing too much about the story. Sometimes that’s the best way to approach something – not much knowledge, low expectations – because you can just get it into. And into it I got. A lot.
The Sinner stars Jessica Biel, who makes for a believable lead as Cora Tannetti – a mum of one little boy, living in suburban, upstate New York with her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott). Their relationship is a funny one – not necessarily unhappy but one that’s been blunted by age and experience. She doesn’t like going to his mother’s place every Sunday for lunch, he does. They bicker about it. So far, so normal. But then we get a glimpse of perhaps a deeper malaise within Cora. She finds physical contact difficult and sneaks a pill before bedtime to take the edge off her anxiety.
The intrigue deepens when the family takes a day trip to the beach and Cora swims out far beyond the barriers. Is she trying to get away from her family? Are familial constraints getting too much for her?
And then… WHAM. (Not the band.)
While sitting back on the beach, peeling a pear for her son, she observes a young couple frolicking in front of them. The guy switches his iPod to a song he loves and plays it loudly. Cora, meanwhile, is seemingly mesmerised by these two young lovers, getting edgier by the second. The music seems to be getting louder and louder… until Cora jumps up and, with the peeling knife, stabs this random man seven times in his neck and chest with a frenzy. He’s dead within minutes. She’s sitting there, covered in blood unable to process what has just happened. Mason is equally as dumbfounded.
As scenes go, the sight of Cora stabbing this man was just about as shocking as I’ve seen – not because of its blood and gore (that was kept to a minimum), but because of the shock of it. It fairly made me jump out of my seat.
Enter stage right Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman). Nothing much happens in his town, certainly not much murder, and this crime scene immediately flummoxes him – here’s a middle-class wife and mother, seemingly with an average, decent life. What on earth is she doing stabbing a random man to death on a busy beach?
And that, initially, is the question The Sinner poses: why?
Cora can’t answer this question. She has no idea what has happened, and no idea why she did such a thing. She also has no idea who the victim is.
But Ambrose wants to know. There has to be a reason why; people don’t stab people that they don’t know without a reason. So he digs, and begins to open a lid on Cora’s childhood and her association to the victim, medical student Frankie Belmont.
Three episodes in and the details of Cora’s suppressed memories start to tumble out of her subconscious rapidly. She had indeed known Frankie Belmont in a previous life; she endured a strict religious upbringing, where guilt and harsh punishment was a matter of course; she had gone missing in the aftermath of her sick younger sister’s death and turned up with needle scars on her arms months later, suggesting drug abuse; and there was a dalliance with town bad-boy and drug dealer, JD. All these memories and past lives came out one by one, but still in a jumble. There were snatches of images, a recurring wallpaper pattern… steps down into a basement.
All had meaning, but what did they mean? It was clear that there was much more to Cora than meets the eye. Disgusted and dismayed at her murderous frenzy, she pleaded guilty at her hearing, which meant she automatically waived her right to appeal. This gave the piece a timeline, a deadline if you like. The clock was ticking and Ambrose was determined to prove that Cora was either not of sound mind or something or someone caused her to do what she did.
By episode five, things were starting to change as we centred on the relationship between Cora and her bed-bound, younger sister, Phoebe in flashback sequences. Since they were children, and Phoebe had cheated death on numerous occasions, Cora had been repeatedly blamed for her sister’s illness and any subsequent relapse. If she had done something that did not comply with her mother’s rigid interpretation of religion, she would make Cora pray. If Phoebe became ill, it was because Cora’s behaviour was not up to scratch. As the two grew older, we saw the relationship develop into something slightly toxic – bed-bound Phoebe was itching to live, and seeing her sister go out, have boyfriends and begin to experiment with sex made her jealous and manipulative. And this was a believable and fascinating relationship – almost developing into an internecine one: Cora acquiesced to her sister’s demands because of guilt and love; her sister demanding more and more each time. Up until that point Phoebe lived life variously through Cora, but now she wanted to actually experience things.
Then, in the present day a body near to where Cora had remembered snatches of memories. And then Ambrose investigating a nearby country club with a history of sexual misconduct. Everything was being set up as a story of abuse and we were going along with it because, so far, The Sinner was absolutely brilliant – a possibly unreliable narrator, intelligent, engrossing, with plenty of hooks and twists and red herrings all along the way, and I haven’t even mentioned Ambrose’s own sexual peccadilloes (he was in a failing marriage himself, and like to visit a Domme in his neighbourhood, where he would get beaten up for pleasure). Honestly, this was top-five crime drama of the year stuff so far.
And then episode seven happened. It was time for the big reveal and the whole episode was given over to explaining what had happened to Cora, what the wallpaper meant, what was at the bottom of the steps in the basement, and how she really knew Frankie Belmont.
This was where it descended into something else. With the discovery of the body it suddenly turned from a whydunit to a whodunit, and on top of that Cora and Phoebe’s relationship had changed from something undeniably troubled into something psychosexual. We got a taster of this in the previous episode where Phoebe, increasingly jealous of Cora’s burgeoning sexual relationship with JD, demanded that Cora show her what it was like to feel physical pleasure. They kissed and they touched each other.
Episode seven took this ickey theme and ran with it. There was a party after hours at the country club and Phoebe had demanded that Cora spirit her out of the house so that she could join her sister there. It was her birthday, after all. They took ecstasy, and a young man at the club appeared, drunk – his name was Frankie Belmont. He and Phoebe hit it off straight away, in the way hammered people often do at parties. There was an instant, deep connection between the two. Cora was feeling uneasy about the whole thing (she wasn’t the only one… a young woman suffering from lymphoma taking class A drugs? Are you kidding me? This was not going to end well).
Everything ended down in the basement, with Cora and Phoebe engaging once again in a nightmarish, incestual session of show and tell to their male counterparts, and then sex. Cora with JD and an unnamed man on the floor, Phoebe with Frankie on the sofa. In front of each other. Looking at each other.
It was all a bit porno, highly gratuitous and entirely the sort of thing you associate with male fantasy. These whole scenes left me feeling extremely uncomfortable and a bit grubby and, crucially, with a feeling that this level of sexual portrayal was just not needed – I get that Cora and Phoebe’s relationship had irrevocably changed into something toxic and dangerous, and I totally got that Phoebe, after a lifetime being caged in a failing body and a strict home, needed to feel human things for the first time in her life. I just think these scenes could have been handled so much more sensitively and less salaciously.
Phoebe died of heart failure with that song playing, with Frankie Belmont having sex with her and with sister Cora looking over while she was having sex with JD. However ickey that set-up was, it was no wonder that song and that man were the triggers for her own frenzy several years later.
So we found out what happened to Phoebe, but there was more in a breathless final, eighth episode. Ambrose, now knowing the full story, needed to know what happened to Cora in the immediate aftermath. Thanks to some lightning-bulb detection techniques (I got the sense the finale was rushed), he followed the trail until it came to Frankie Belmont’s father – a physician who helped to clear up the mess at the country club after receiving a call from his distraught son, buried Phoebe in the grounds and then kept Cora, repairing any physical damage that night had caused but also pumping he so full of drugs to render her almost an amnesiac. What confirmed his role in the whole sorry situation was the wallpaper – the same wallpaper Cora’s subconscious had kept throwing up had not come from the basement at the country club as we were led to believe, but in Belmont’s spare room, where she had been imprisoned for months.
It was a neat twist in a series that – episode seven’s ickiness aside – had revelled in taking us this way and that, and that final revelation felt satisfying. But there were several things that didn’t quite sit right with me: I didn’t buy Jessica Biel (who’s in her mid-30s) playing a younger Cora in her early-to-mid-20s (it just didn’t look right), and I also didn’t buy the reaction from Cora’s hyper-strict mother after both of her prized daughters had disappeared for months. After a lifetime of caging them and suddenly finding them gone, she didn’t do anything? The hiring of a private detective, at least, would have been appropriate behaviour for someone like that.
And then we get to Harry. Because Biel had been playing Cora with ambivalence during the interview scenes – and there was a slight coldness and detachment to her in the flashback scenes throughout – our emotional focus was on Ambrose. Pullman was excellent playing the tormented ‘tec (yes, another tormented one), but we were never really told why he was so tormented until an expositional line (ONE LINE!) in the final episode. His marriage had crumbled and he liked to get beaten up by a Domme when he was feeling particularly bad about himself. But why? Why did he feel awful about himself? Why did he have trouble relating to others and forming and maintaining relationships? It all came out in one line – he too had been abused as a child. This made his kinship with Cora believable, but I needed to know more. Harry’s psychological make-up deserved more than one line of dialogue.
So The Sinner was flawed, but it was also very well made, well acted and well structured, and featuring characters that you cared about and wanted to know more about. It could’ve been an incredible series, but the inconsistencies and some of the portrayals of sex marked it down a notch or two. Still, overall it was another winner from Netflix.