Series two of the sometimes brilliant, sometimes inconsistent whydunit.
And underneath that rage, if you could just taste what’s there, what would it be?
What’s the story?
Series one of The Sinner was almost an incredible series until it careered off a cliff in the final two episodes. But up until that point, it was audacious – perhaps a little too audacious at times – and presented us with a genuinely fresh take on the whodunit. To start with it was a whydunit – middle-class, suburban housewife Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) seemingly had it all (a husband, a son and a nice lifestyle out in the New York state countryside), but threw it all away when she shockingly stabbed a seemingly random man to death during a day at the beach. Investigating this head-scratching case was local detective, Harry Ambrose, a man wracked with turmoil (you don’t say) who struck up a bond with Cora, who remained morally ambiguous right until the very end.
And it’s this ambiguity that showrunner Derek Simmonds is obviously keen to explore because this much-anticipated second series presents us with another shocking, intriguing case, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.
We started proceedings with a couple driving towards Niagra Falls, a young boy in the back of the car. When the car breaks down, they spend the night in a motel. But there’s an underlying tension here – the female half of the couple seems on edge and nervous, while the boy – Julian – displays almost autistic behaviour patterns. He seems hypersensitive to changing environments and moods, needs to be placated at all times, and is both excited and nervous about his trip to the Falls. The following morning, he goes to get breakfast at the motel breakfast bar and, who we presume is his father, comes back to the room with tea in hand. As Julian arrives back at the room, the man collapses in the shower, spewing blood and convulsing. Agahst, the woman looks at the boy and then collapses in a heap on the floor herself, suffering the same symptoms as the man. It’s a horrible way to go, and looking on is an eerily placid Julian. After their deaths, he rearranges the bodies neatly.
This boy is 13-years-old.
Called to the scene is local policewoman, Heather Novak (Natalie Paul). Feeling that the case is too big for her, she calls an old friend of her father’s, Harry Ambrose, and requests help. Due some leave, Harry drives back to Keller, which happens to be his hometown.
Knowing what we know about Harry, this probably was not the best idea, and, sure enough, as the case evolves and develops, he comes face to face with some of the demons that make him such an awkward character. He stays with Heather’s avuncular father, Jack, but that’s just the start of things – he receives flickers of memory, about his mother and a fire that consumed his childhood home.
Once again, the case is an intriguing one: why would a young boy poison his parents on a bucket-list trip to Niagra Falls? It’s another whydunit. Soon enough, as Julian stays in a boarding home, a woman turns up out of the blue. Her name is Vera Walker (the ever-brilliant Carrie Coon) and claims to be his mother. She’s fiercely protective, has a strange hold over her son and displays an off-the-charts, enigmatic charisma. From that moment onwards, the story shifts – is this woman somehow involved? Suspicions grow when it’s revealed that she lives on a cult-like commune; a place where waifs and strays go and are healed thanks to unconventional methods of therapy, often administered by Walker herself.
Developing concurrently to this case is the story of Heather. A gay policewoman whose mother died a few years’ ago, and whose best friend and would-lover, Marin (Mindhunter’s Hannah Gross), disappeared from the commune over a decade earlier. As Harry and Heather dig into the case and inevitably begin to snoop around the commune, she becomes obsessed with finding her friend, who she’s certain has something to do with the whole affair.
And then there’s Harry and Vera’s relationship. A man who’s desperate for help (especially as we begin to find out what happened to his mother and the real reasons for the fire at his childhood home), Vera’s sees his weaknesses. Like series one, this new series begins to study manipulation and control. With Harry once again taking a shine to the accused, the chemistry between him and Vera crackles.
What’s good about it?
First off, the central performances of Bill Pullman and Carries Coon. Pullman once again plays Harry Ambrose as a nervous, awkward customer, who’s loathe to reveal the true nature of his pain. And yet he opens up to Julian, in a bid to befriend him and get him onside. Vera is a formidable woman, and you’re never quite sure right up until the last moments what her motives are. It’s revealed that she’s not Julian’s mother, but she raised him in an environment that was – under the stewardship of cult leader, Lionel Jeffries – to getting out of hand. He believed that for people to live a balanced life they must acknowledge, confront and accept their demons, or shadows, during elaborate workshops. This theory took the form of workshops, which began to become violent and abusive – those who needed saving were encouraged to mete out there rage, frustration and anger on cult members, who played the characters that they wanted most to extinguish from their lives.
And all this was intriguing and engrossing. We saw the breakdown of the power dynamic within the cult, how Jeffries was becoming more and more extreme (he wanted to sacrifice Julian to his god, basically a giant rock in a barn), while Vera felt that this extremism was far away from the creative approach to therapy she believed in.
Everything from the sound design (the pulsing metronome Vera used in her sessions, which amounted to a mixt of quasi-hypnosis, NLP and shamanism, was really excellent), the colour palette and even the plot itself, which was well-paced and constructed, was all on point.
But really, this was the Pullman and Coon show. Their chemistry sizzled on screen – both Ambrose and Walker had an intense bond, but both mistrusted one another, which made for some good watching.
What’s bad about it?
Once again, The Sinner flattered to deceive. There was a happy ending – of sorts – but what I couldn’t understand was how lightly Julian got off (he did kill those two people, who turned out to be kidnappers of a sort), and Walker herself, who had instructed him in the ways of poisoning, also got off far too lightly.
I also had a bit of problem with the whole cult/commune strand. As well done and well played as it was, it all felt a little predictable. My heart sank a little bit when it was clear we were going down this route – it felt a bit cliched and meh… cults are all the rage these days. The first couple of episodes presented a really interesting and morally-complex case, and the inclusion of a cult felt like a bit of cop-out. And, of course, you had to suspend disbelief when members of the cult began to worship in front of a big rock in the middle of a barn.
Unlike the first series, this story was predictable. As much as I was disappointed in the final few episodes of series one, it did keep you on your toes. Here? It was easy an guess that Marin was Julian’s mother and that kind-old Jack was involved somehow.
But it’s almost there. There are a few inconsistencies, which grate, but it is almost there.
Why it’s worth a binge…
With The Sinner, Derek Simmonds has created an anthology series that’s never less than interesting. From a central premise that was at once shocking, violent and addictive, the series has carved a niche for itself as one of the better crime anthologies – behind the likes of American Crime Story, True Detective and Fargo – on television. Pullman is an excellent watch, and Carrie Coon is just sensational as the embattled mother and cult leader, fighting for her son and her beliefs in the face of extreme prejudice.
If it can iron out a few of its rough edges, The Sinner could become one of those marquee series we look forward to every year. Despite everything, I’m hoping for a third series.
The Sinner (S2) is available via Netflix.
TO READ OUR REVIEW OF SERIES ONE OF THE SINNER CLICK HERE