“If feelings aren’t the truth, then what is?” That’s the question Jamie Burns poses to Harry Ambrose at the beginning of their night together, as the former stands on the precipice of a tall building, letting his handmade fortune teller decide whether he’ll step forward into the void, or remain alive to rue another day. It’s a more profound question than Harry cares to admit: Our experience of the world is largely shaped by our emotional reaction to it, so if someone’s trying to tell us our feelings aren’t real, then what’s left of reality but an empty sequence of places and people we can’t trust?
The Sinner has always been in large part about the strange admixture of truth and lies we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the world around us, and the provocative philosophy embraced by the troubled lead characters of this season argues for stripping away all of the ethics and morals imposed on people by the society around them—to predictably nihilistic results. “Part IV” is fundamentally a long dark night of the soul for Jamie Burns, an all-night jaunt through New York City accompanied by his worried watchdog, Harry. The teacher begins his evening ignoring his wife’s calls and impulsively checking out an art exhibit, where a former student gets his contact info and invites him to a party later that night. But first, Jamie will try to prove to Harry that people are cowards, unable to face the reality that underlies our entire lives: that death is staring us in the face at all times, and we’ll do anything to avoid acknowledging that truth. He befriends some Wall Street douchebags and the women they’re flirting with, just so he can then show Harry how easily people are rattled by the faintest interruption of their think-less, party-more mentality.
Of course, it’s a pretty silly way to prove his point. Abruptly pivoting from a night of laughing and doing cocaine to trying to get a guy you barely know to admit he’s scared of dying doesn’t reinforce Jamie’s philosophy so much as it does Harry’s common-sense observation that people don’t like it when you suddenly act creepy. Still, in Jamie’s troubled mind, the evidence is incontrovertible: No one wants to cut through the easygoing scrum of normal social interactions to confront the existential fear underlying existence. It’s like Nick and Jamie have been frozen in a state of arrested development since college, unable to evolve past the sophomoric obsession with morality and authenticity that drove their death-defying escapades. Jamie’s a boy who can’t understand why a man would set aside philosophical obsessions about death for the sake of...well, a life.
But oh, the flashbacks this week. Chris Messina has been delivering quietly magnetic performances in every episode thus far, but “Part IV” is a potent reminder of just how good the actor really is. From the opening scene, in which Nick tells Jamie he’s not just going to let his former friend ghost him again, to that final flashback to the car accident, where we learn that Nick is the one who insisted on not letting Jamie call 911, Messina is a tightly coiled live-wire of passion and charisma. Casting him is up there with landing Carrie Coon in season two; he makes it all too easy to see how Jamie could fall under his spell.
This is best demonstrated in the excellent scene where Jamie and Nick are digging the grave in the woods, and Jamie learns there’s a new twist to the plan—they’re going to abduct and kill Sonya, rather than facing death themselves. Panicking, he starts to run away, but Nick brings him up short with a single, primal yell. (The script by Jonathan Caren repeatedly inserts these small utterances from others that bring Jamie to a standstill, almost as though he’s looking for outside signs to guide his behavior—sentient fortune tellers, culminating in the actual psychic he meets at the party.) “Have I ever lied to you?” Nick asks his friend, and we already know the answer, because Jamie tells Harry about Nick’s all-consuming honesty. “Once you pass through this, you’ll be free...this is the way out.” The night ends with Nick’s death, not the murder of someone chosen at random by fate, but given Jamie’s efforts at murder back at the hospice care center, Nick’s words are still driving him on.
And the force of his dead friend’s memory, those words ringing in his mind (Jamie promises Nick he’ll go on...with their plan?), is what gives that final scene such a charge. Harry falls asleep in his car after driving Jamie home, meaning the murder of the psychic back in Greenpoint could conceivably have been Jamie’s doing. Jamie doesn’t want to die, he wants to confront death. He says as much to Sophie when he forces her into that death-defying joyride in the middle of the night. Jamie’s trying to feel something—anything—to bring him back to the emotional intensity of his experiences with Nick, and if the next step on that journey is murder, then that’s what he’ll do.
But what makes the episode rise above previous installments is the sense of insouciant fun that Bomer laces into his portrayal of Jamie’s unraveling. Toying with Harry, pretending to be a party animal...all of it brings a lightness and playfulness to the episode, even if it’s mostly an act. The actor commits to both the darkness and mischievousness inside Jamie, and the balance of the two gives a jolt of fun to a season that needed it. Barring some radical narrative twist—something I had hoped would happen in this episode—there’s not much more to Jamie and Nick’s story. Providing a saucy injection of black humor into the proceedings buys some time for The Sinner.
- There’s something inherently funny about people taking selfies with a person you know would literally rather be punched than fake an agreeable smile. Good work, Sophie.
- Everyone does strong work in “Part IV,” but special plaudits should go to Bomer for being able to deliver the line, “Fate, dear detective,” without instinctively reaching for a nonexistent mustache to twirl.
- Given my anticipation of a massive dramatic left turn to add some complexity to this season, you can imagine my disappointment when Jamie slashing the wall street bro’s throat—and Harry accidentally shooting the woman in the stomach—turned out to be a fantasy.
- I rewound the scene of Nick’s death several times, and I still struggled to hear those last words. He tells Jamie there’s something in his back pocket, and then...he’s coming out back? Something along those lines? If you guys have a better sound system than I, please chime in with your guesses in the comments.