“I want you to play the game, to look death right in the face, right where I am. No escape route.”
What’s the story?
The premise of The Sinner has always set it apart from its contemporaries. Not strictly a whodunit – but more of a how and whydunit – this anthology series has always featured highly ambiguous protagonists that leave you questioning them right until the final moment.
In the past two series, these protagonists have always been people who have seemingly had it all. When they commit the unthinkable, it leaves us asking the same question over and over again – why did they do what they did?
In series one it was middle-class wife and mother Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) who brutally stabbed to death a random stranger on a beach; in series two young Julian Walker (Elisha Henig) was caught red-handed after poisoning two adults. Bang to rights.
Investigating these crimes is Harry Ambrose (a squinty, edgy Bill Pullman), whose own turmoils and anxieties dovetail with the ambiguous nature of the incidents.
And so Harry returns for a third series, and again he’s faced with perhaps his most unhinged and interesting adversary yet – Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer), a man who – yes – seemingly has it all.
Burns is a cool, good-looking university professor and husband to Leela, who’s heavily pregnant. Living their ‘perfect’ life in the affluent Dorchester suburbs (a fictional town in upstate New York), one night they’re interrupted by a knock on the door – it’s Jamie’s old university friend, Nick Haas (Chris Messina). It’s clear that Jamie is less than thrilled to see Nick – who he hasn’t seen for years – and a tense dinner-table scene ensues after Leela invites Nick in and offers him food because he’s a friend of Jamie’s.
And then it happens.
Offering to take Nick home, the car crashes and Nick dies. An open-and-shut case – negligent driving, perhaps drunk driving, but very definitely an accident.
It’s a very Sinnery crime for Harry Ambrose. He seems content enough living in the woods on his own and taking occasional visits from his daughter and grandson but is limping around with sciatica. As he looks closer into the case, discrepancies emerge.
Soon, Harry has found that Jamie and Nick had a very intense, internecine relationship that went far beyond the boundaries of ‘normal’ friendship – at college, they both explored and studied Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular his Übermensch concept. They were both desperate to free themselves from what they saw was the shackles of society and conformity, and played fate games – a la Diceman – in order to choose what they would do next. And, as time went by, their desire to ‘free themselves’ led to even more daring escapades – to feel the rush, the adrenaline, the brazenness of it all. They jumped off bridges, they were prone to violent outbursts, and they buried themselves in graves…
As Harry peeled back the layers he saw in Jamie an unstable but enigmatic character, and – like previous series – he began to get involved. Heavily involved. Their relationship became not just that of the hunter and the hunted, but an intense cat-and-mouse game where boundaries soon become non-existent. Something in Jamie – and his views and methods (which were becoming ever more warped and psychopathic) – ignited something in Harry; an anxious man himself, desperate to free himself of his own shackles.
So much so that they became not just adversaries, but almost kindred spirits.
As this incredible cat-and-mouse game continued – Jamie manipulating him, introducing him to his concepts… almost grooming him – Harry went along with it, until a moral and existential moment of clarity led to an inevitable but no less crushing final confrontation.
Elsewhere, Harry developed a relationship with artist Sonya Barzel (Jessica Hecht), whose land Jamie and Nick crashed on and also couldn’t stay away from the magnetic man, and Jamie – on his warped journey – worryingly, began to radicalise a vulnerable young, teenage student at school. Soon enough his marriage collapsed as the weight of accusations built up and his behaviour became increasingly deranged.
These might seem inconsequential tangents, but they all added into the ferment of the two’s relationship.
Series three of The Sinner really is quite something.
What’s good about it?
We’ve seen in the first two series that Harry likes to get involved with the people he’s investigating, but not on this level.
In Jamie he sees someone extremely dangerous, but also someone, perhaps, who can save him in some way. Harry himself has always been an enigmatic character himself, someone who has always felt fettered and afraid (in this series we see some parental abuse from his childhood visualised in a near-death experience dream sequence, which may or may not be the cause of his life-long anxiety and inability to form lasting relationships). Jamie himself has, since his college days with Nick sunk himself into a life of conformity – wife, child on the way, safe job, suburbs etc – and is obviously itching to feel something, anything, again.
Nick’s return was the spark to unleash this pent-up psychopathy.
So, as you can see, series three of The Sinner is stuffed with fascinating psychological, existential dimensions. But don’t let that put you off – even though it’s unashamedly high-concept, there’s a real intensity and addictiveness to it, as well as supplying elements any good thriller should.
Yes, half of it is daft, and as Harry gets closer and closer to his prey he takes such extraordinary risks and forgoes so much acceptable police practice. But you’re soon swept up in this relentless chase, and the constant push-pull of their relationship.
This is especially evident in episode four when Harry takes a trip into New York city itself to monitor an AWOL Jamie, who’s out on the lash. What follows is a descent into an underworld of sorts, when Jamie, realising Harry is on his tail, guides him from party to party, from one drunken bacchanalian place to next, in the hope he will discombobulate, disorientate and, ultimately, show Harry what it’s like to live without shackles.
It’s a remarkable episode.
For all its brilliant, burning intensity, you are left screaming ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING HARRY?!’ at the screen more than once. Such is the way with such high-concept projects. If you can go with it, you’ll be utterly sucked in, gasping for breath.
Speaking of gasping for breath, one scene in episode six sees Harry and Jamie journey into the woods, where, in return for a signed confession, the weather-worn detective agrees to be buried in a coffin underground for the night. It’s another remarkable scene, for sure, but in any other hands it would seem frankly ridiculous. But thanks to Bill Pullman and Matt Bomer, it’s (just about) believable, scary and adds another layer of ferocity to their relationship.
Matt Bomer, especially, is just sensational as the vulnerable, scary, psychopathic Jamie, and his full range is on show in the series’ final scenes when an inevitable final showdown takes place. During it, Jamie – so intent on relinquishing control – is terrified of losing control at his own personal denouement.
So far, The Sinner has always offered something other than the norm, and never been less than interesting. Its stories have never been whodunits, but more why- and howdunits, and in series three it has hit every mark with feeling.
Why it’s worth a binge
If you like intense, cat-and-mouse psychological thrillers that provide thrills, spills and a relationship between the hunter and the hunted the likes of which you’ve never seen before.
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