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In its season premiere, The Sinner depicts every parent's second-worst nightmare

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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Some truisms will always endure: Ask just about any parent in the history of the world, and they’ll tell you the worst thing they can imagine is the death of their child. But a child killing the parents has to be a close second—not only is your kid’s life basically ruined, you’re not even around to comfort them.

Of course, that’s assuming those even were Julian’s parents we watched collapse and die on the floor of the Rockford Lodge Motel. When Carrie Coon’s mystery woman strides into the police station at the end of the hour and announces she’s Julian’s mother, not only is it a terrific kicker to the season premiere, it throws what little we thought we knew about the situation into even more doubt. Were they taking the boy somewhere to do away with him? Were they kidnapping him from Coon? Is she just straight-up lying about being his mother? Will Heather Novack’s father use ranch dressing on his salad when she’s not there? Another season of The Sinner has begun.


The show is establishing a format—there’s an inexplicable crime that kicks things off, and then it’s slowly revealed that nothing is quite as clear-cut as it seems, and acts that appear to have no justification begin to peel back and reveal layers of darkness and explanation. Last time, it was Jessica Biel’s supposedly happy mom stabbing a guy on the beach. This time, it’s young Julian poisoning the two people we thought were his parents. We’ve only gotten a few little flashbacks with Coon’s character and Julian to suggest there was some strange psychological experiment going on, but it’s enough to make clear we’re about to go down a strange rabbit hole. This show is too unusual and interested in character development to be considered a procedural, but a recurring pattern to the season-long narrative is taking shape, comparable to similar mysteries involving memory and murder, like ITV’s Marcella. Still, there’s less perspective than the usual Nordic noir; almost everyone is a cypher, unknown even to themselves, a Fincher-like level of icy remove keeping the viewer at arm’s length, which really helps keep it from tipping over into something more lurid.


It’s a brand-new mystery for a brand-new season (newbies would have no trouble beginning this show with this episode), but some things never seem to change. Detective Harry Ambrose is still a guy barely holding it together emotionally. We don’t yet know what happened in his childhood that’s causing his flashbacks and bad dreams—though given the fleeting imagery, it doesn’t seem hard to infer something involving his mother and a fire in his childhood home—but even before Heather’s phone call asking him to return to his hometown of Keller ignites these awful memories, Harry isn’t in the best place. He tells his old friend Jack that his daughter and grandchild are all the company he needs, but there’s a reason episode director Antonio Campos smash cuts from Harry’s birthday celebration at the station to him drinking alone in a bar. His fingernails may look fine—that particular marriage-destroying fetish doesn’t seem to be a problem at the moment—but it just means we have a much deeper and more longstanding trauma for Ambrose to grapple with this season.

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

And make no mistake, this is still a show with trauma on its mind. If the first season dealt with the ways that a destabilizing experience never really leaves you, this new arc looks to be tackling how children can be damaged (intentionally?) in ways that have repercussions far beyond emotional pain. But everyone has grief enough to go around. Witness Harry and Jack, awkwardly trying to reminisce about old times, only for Harry to claim no memory of the events Jack is discussing; or the two of them at the diner, almost triggering a fight when one insists on paying and the other refuses to take the money. It implies we’ll be seeing this tenuous state of affairs begin to crumble. And we don’t yet know what’s causing Heather’s pain; she seems to be content taking care of her father, but that long pause she takes in the kitchen during dinner says more about how she’s really doing than all her genteel exchanges with her dad.

Once more, what’s elevating the series is interesting direction and some stellar performances. The Sinner is so good at show-don’t-tell storytelling: Bill Pullman’s long glances at the chair in the motel room, the brief awkward attempt by the police chief to establish a rapport with Harry, the fleeting moments of uncertainty in the eyes of Heather’s deputy assistant. Even when the narrative requires some things to be revealed, like Harry seeing the Jimson weed behind the motel, and presenting it to Julian in an effort to get the kid to open up about why he did it, it’s less about revealing motives than giving the characters a chance to display a bit more of themselves, to show us Harry’s troubled empathy and Julian’s confused frustration. “Why can’t I just go home?” asks the boy who just confessed to killing two people because, “They had to go back...to the beginning.”

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

It’s only the first episode, but the show is already justifying a new season into uncharted territory (last year was an adaptation of a German crime novel; the character of Harry is the only thing the series retained for its second installment). With a confident and sleek execution, “Part I” has smartly set the stage for a new round of deadly intrigue, again balanced just on the tipping point between trashy and highbrow, where many of the most fun murder-mysteries reside. Writer Derek Simonds knows how to tell a deft and insightful drama, while still delivering the dishy goods. We know worse is coming—as Harry says of his long-departed home, “There’s something in the soil...things won’t stay quiet.” I certainly hope not.


Stray observations

  • Welcome to the second-season reviews of The Sinner! I had a blast with season one; this show is ideal summer viewing material, and I look forward to discussing it with all of you.
  • Bit of evidence that’s either the most damning or most indicative of a rescue attempt: Julian’s ostensible parents didn’t pack any clothes for his trip.
  • Carrie Coon wants Julian to allow “shadow Julian” to come in when he pops up. It’s hard to believe that’s the healthiest course of action, now that we’ve presumably seen what “shadow Julian” is capable of.
  • Julian’s guttural, retching panic attack is very unsettling. Though not as disturbing as his “mom”’s death scene.
  • Speaking of which, there’s something else going on with that. Julian may have intentionally killed them, but as they were dying, it certainly didn’t look like he had planned for that to happen. He seemed genuinely freaked out—which, if his prepping the bodies and placing rocks on their eyes makes him appear Machiavellian, the pity triggered by seeing he then wet his pants just paints him as a scared little boy.

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About the author

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.