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A fast-paced The Sinner gets darker the more its past comes to light

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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There was no smooth transfer of power at Mosswood Grove. Sure, many of its residents may have been concerned about the increasingly violent direction of the Beacon’s teachings, but no one willingly sets aside that much authority without good reason. And Vera Walker almost certainly supplied one.

The extended flashback that takes center stage in “Part VI” purports to be the actual account of what happened at Mosswood Grove back when Marin got pregnant and gave birth to Julian, but it’s tough to gain real clarity. Most of the time, the show keeps visuals deliberately ambiguous until showing them in full, the better to make clear the difference between faulty memories of the past and the actual historical record. But everything we see is ostensibly Vera’s story to Harry, her promise to tell him the whole truth and nothing but. Her memories may indeed be accurate, but it’s impossible to say whether we can trust our eyes—especially when we almost certainly can’t trust our ears. She tells Harry that Lionel simply left one day, after being unhappy for a long time. But we spend an awfully long moment staring at the cup of tea she prepares for the Beacon; it’s probably safe to say Harry didn’t get such an emphasis on the beverage in the account he hears. Is this jumping to conclusions? The Sinner sure wants us to.


The show is having so much fun leading its audience down dead ends and paths that double back on themselves, it doesn’t always stop to determine the best route to get where it actually wants to go. Thankfully, its fun is also our fun, and whereas last episode’s flashbacks didn’t mesh fully enough with the present, this installment is structured in a way to give both past and the modern day time to breathe, delivering clever new intrigues and character beats in equal measure. The questions about Julian’s state of mind, about Carmen’s failed legal action and testimony, and Glen Fisher’s shady behavior (rarely has a character gone from zero to malevolent quite so quickly) shade smoothly into Vera’s story, and we’re brought back to current events just in time for some major reveals: Harry’s successful effort to blackmail the District Attorney for his corrupt dealings and get Julian transferred back to family court, the discovery of a body Heather believes to be Marin, and the big twist—Julian getting kidnapped by his shadowy, robed nightmare figure.


Harry’s investigation is rushed a bit this week—suddenly he’s breaking into the apartment of the guy the DA (or whoever) had following him and getting everything he needs to spring Julian from criminal court? Okay—but it’s still a fizzy thrill to watch him leaning on the prosecutor. “It’s an election year; we all know how that plays out.” Similarly, his brief confrontation with Vera before she settles in for the Vera Walker I’m-Not-The-Bad-Guy Story Hour is also cathartic, as the video recording of Carmen’s pained recounting of the violence done to her in the name of therapy provokes an anguished reaction from the current head of Mosswood. It’s anyone’s guess as to how much she actually feels torn and guilty about her past, and how much of that is a show she puts on in order to try and get what she wants. She’s learned that playing the proud enemy doesn’t cow Ambrose, so she might be leaning into the role of the once-victimized woman who has tried to make everything—including herself—better. Who knows how much of her own persona she can even distinguish as real versus an act at this point?

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

Heather Novack, by contrast, is just sinking further into regret and anger. By the time they find a body in the driver’s seat of a car 30 feet under the water, she’s just apologizing to Harry for putting her career concerns ahead of his assistance. The culpability she feels isn’t dimming with time, and her drive to figure out what happened to Marin is finally bringing the uneasy holding pattern with her father to the point of eruption. His typical refusal to engage with the past—he goes so far as to actually say, “You can finally forget about her and get back to your life”—snaps something that’s been building all season in Heather. “Oh that’s right, keep smiling, make sure the customers are fucking happy,” she barks, throwing his empty platitudes back in his face. It’s a cold retort, but he’s coasted by without paying due attention to his daughter’s needs for long enough.

Episode director Brad Anderson does excellent work ramping up the tension that was largely absent last week, as the Session 9 helmer brings real unease and menace to Vera’s flashbacks, from her out-of-left-field ability to breastfeed Julian to the genuine air of danger that accompanies all of her exchanges with Lionel. It begins simply enough, with her modest efforts to stand up for the women being hurt in their increasingly violent sessions (Mosswood’s work used to be “so imaginative,” she argues, already aware she’s losing ground), but she eventually breaks rank and tells Glen Fisher there won’t be any brute-force encounters that night, pissing him off and sending Lionel to strip Julian from her arms (after telling the crying baby to “shut up”), the Beacon crossing a line in the sand that presumably triggered her insurrection. We still don’t know if she murdered Lionel—the evidence from the past two weeks implied he was still alive—but she sure didn’t go along with what became an all-too-obvious implication that Lionel saw Julian as a sacrificial lamb.


With two episodes left, and Julian semi-safely back in family court, the big issues involve the degree of Mosswood’s reach into the community, and the identity of Julian’s kidnapper. (There’s also the question of resolution for Heather—see below for that.) Glen Fisher, far from being some genial man who harbors a secret connection to Mosswood, is an obvious monster, a guy whose fortune and connections have kept his dark ways from coming to light. It’s not just the cigarette burns on the foot of the stripper Harry sees, same as the kind Carmen Bell reported receiving during the work; it’s his threatening aura of entitlement, and the implicit violence behind it. He seems far too unstable to be Julian’s kidnapper, and Lionel may or may not be on the loose. Harry keeps getting closer to the truth, but as he admits to Julian, the truth may not be what any of them need: “Things are more complicated than that.”

Stray observations

  • This week in “poor Julian”: First, it’s the sad realization that he now is confronting the enormity of his actions. “I thought that they would start over when they died. But that’s not true, is it.” Pretty unfortunate, but then he hits Harry with the really depressing shit: “When do you stop being guilty? When is it over?” Harry’s ugly truth: “I’m not sure.”
  • Finally, confirmation of what was all but obvious: Harry set the fire as a kid that got his mother committed and him transferred to a group home.
  • The kidnapping scene was a genuine nightmare, Anderson’s horror background getting put to good use in his cross-cutting between Julian’s horrified face and the close-ups of the window opening.
  • Harry thinks Glen Fisher got Carmen’s complaint killed. Vera: “I imagine this goes much higher than Glen Fisher.”
  • A few of you pointed out I was too succinct in my wording last week, saying we learned “Lionel is Julian’s father,” rather than “Marin says Lionel is Julian’s father.” Since we all know this show is full of narrative feints, mea culpa for making it seem as though anything should be taken at face value. And the current popular theory—that Heather’s dad is actually the father—still strikes me as a sound one, even though I really had hoped the show simply cast Tracy Letts to make those brief, wonderful, stilted exchanges with Bill Pullman’s detective really sing.
  • Carmen’s outburst was caused by a lengthy phone call from Satan. Glen?

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Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.