For all of Vera Walker’s psychological insight, she can’t see the most obvious of facts staring her in the face: Julian Walker is just a kid. She can pretend he’s a “new kind of man” all she wants, but despite all the work and all the supposedly profound teachings he’s ingested, he doesn’t even know what’s real.
There’s a genuine irony to the lessons of Mosswood, which purport to help people transcend the limited boundaries of the mental shackles society has foisted upon them. For a place so committed to superseding the restraints of the rest of the world, they are profoundly incapable of dealing with it when said world intrudes upon theirs. They might have a shadowy cabal of followers willing to do anything for Vera and her people (“I wonder if there’s more out there,” Harry worries), but the humdrum banalities of social existence—the legal system, the social network of interaction with others not invested in their cult—completely stymie their efforts. And Julian is now the unfortunate recipient of that unpreparedness. They want him to be an avatar of a new human, but this poor kid just wants to go home.
At the halfway point of season two, The Sinner continues to live up to its own standards of being a deeply entertaining and intriguing mystery series, an addictive blend of arty character study and dishy conspiracy-theory murder-mystery. It relies even more heavily on flashbacks to inform what’s happening than did its first season, akin to HBO’s Sharp Objects in how it allows scenes of the past to dictate the present, all the while serving up an ever-deeper rabbit hole of cultish malevolence than manages to stay just plausible enough to avoid devolving into hokum. And when individual scenes have a tendency to make you wonder if it’s all getting to be a bit much, the actors kept it tethered neatly to terra firma, even if it take Bill Pullman’s Harry Ambrose spraining his foot to keep him firmly rooted to ground we can recognize.
And Harry’s injury is symbolic in more ways than one. First, it restricts his movements, keeping him from traveling as far or as fast as the Mosswood members in the surrounding woods, especially Vera Walker. And second, he’s literally hobbled to match his fenced-in awareness of what’s going on. He may have volunteered himself for this psychological experiment, but he quickly loses the thread, allowing his frustration with Vera’s machinations to push him into a more unguarded emotional state, one she then moves to take advantage of. We never see Harry take a sip of the tea she offers him once he arrives at her cabin after stumbling through the forest until nightfall (“It’s not Jimson weed,” she archly assures him), but we do see the electronic metronome, pulsing its blue-hued light, meaning there’s really only one likely explanation for Harry suddenly waking up in the Rockford Lodge Motel with no memory of how he got there. Vera Walker and her machine managed to hypnotize him, or drug him in some other unknown way. And she’s no longer shy about showing him what Mosswood is capable of—his gun and badge, which he had locked in the trunk of his car, are sitting on the table.
Heather Novack may not be in over her head in quite the same way Harry is, but her investigation is no less personal. If anything, the connection to her past keeps growing more overt, as the possibility that Marin is the mother of Julian is now pulling her father into the swirling orbit of this case as well. When she goes to him to find out about the night Marin ran away to join Mosswood, he draws the labyrinth tattoo that Heather’s best friend had on her wrist—the same image that adorns the cover of Dr. Sheldon’s diary, full of its metaphorical references to the Minotaur and needing to go inward to escape. Marin wanted to run toward her demons, not continue drinking and drugging to evade them, and Mosswood dangled that hope in front of her like a get-out-of-emotional-jail-free card.
But the increasing links to Heather’s past don’t mean the present is getting any easier. Her father continues to avoid his own trauma, and when she presses him to admit he was dealing with his own pain about losing his wife at the same time Heather’s younger self was drinking to dull that tragedy, he can’t even acknowledge it. It was “a long time ago,” he shrugs off, retreating to the yardwork outside rather than deal with the vulnerability inside both his house and his mind. He may be more than willing to reach out to Harry, to get his old friend to admit to his fragile state, but that empathy apparently doesn’t extend to his own family, or to himself. Marin left a hole in his daughter’s heart, and he knows it; yet he can barely stay seated long enough to draw a doodle for her criminal investigation.
That investigation starts to lead to tangible places in “Part IV,” as the original source of Mosswood’s unorthodox therapies is revealed in the form of Lionel Jeffries, author of Return To Ritual, the book that details the very processes that appear to be Vera Walker’s formula for “the work.” Heather tracks down a storage facility it’s strongly suggested Jeffries has been living in, and when she finds boys’ clothes there, the implication that Adam and Bess were supposed to be taking Julian to see Lionel is overwhelming. (Especially given the storage locker is rented in Julian’s name.) When Heather views the tape she takes from there, it only confirms the suspicions that Jeffries—a.k.a. “The Beacon”—was the one to inaugurate the rituals of strange and violent confrontations with people’s past trauma; as the publishing company employee says, it’s not exactly surprising things might have gotten out of hand, or that Jeffries may not be the nicest of folks.
The work of Mosswood is becoming clearer, and its appeal is undeniably that of so many real-world communes and cults: A solution to your pain—one that doesn’t ask you to set it aside or ignore it during your waking hours, but confront it head-on in order to move beyond it—is the kind of cure-all we’re all looking for. Whether it’s Marin, frustrated and saddened that her best friend continues to lie to herself about her sexuality; or Vera, convinced that truly shaking off the normal social bonds and mores of society can create a better kind of person; there’s a clear moral justification to their actions. Unfortunately, it’s one that might sanction violence, even murder. Carmen Bell might be properly institutionalized, or she may be a victim of Mosswood. Marin may have escaped, or perhaps she’s buried at the bottom of a nearby lake. And poor Julian Walker, taught to see death as merely the beginning of another journey, one without pain, is facing the horrific consequences of this skewed system of thought. But Harry Ambrose, waking up in an all-too-familiar hotel room, might be the next to experience the full weight of Mosswood Grove’s commitment to its own ideology.
- The more we learn of his distorted tutelage, Julian’s predicament really is heartbreaking. That small moment, when he asks Harry, “Can you be my lawyer?”, is beautifully tragic.
- Remember back in the first episode, when Harry and Heather went through Adam and Bess’ things, and there was a copy of Carl Jung’s work in there? Here’s a relevant quote from his book, Civilization In Transition, about the concept of the violent or sinful part of our nature, which Jung referred to as...The Shadow: “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.”
- Nice burn from Harry, after Vera tells him how much Julian has benefited from the work: “Up until recently, anyway.”
- When Heather goes to confront Marin outside the fire department, her friend is hurting, upset with what she’s doing with her life, and Heather says the exact wrong thing: “Don’t worry...nothing’s going to change.”
- That final scene between Carrie Coon and Pullman is a hell of a feat, both of their characters sizing the other up, attempting a gambit to get what they want. Unfortunately for him, she has a hell of a lot more resources at her fingertips.