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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Philosophy and fantasy blur as iThe Sinner/i threatens adult and infant alike
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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College is a time for experimentation. Be it styles, habits, or even entire belief systems, when you’re young and questioning everything, it only makes sense to try on a variety of different ideas and actions to see what fits. Most of us grow out of it (and into a more routine lifestyle and thought process) as we get older, but some people—you almost certainly know one of them—can’t seem to ever let go of the past. Normally, that’s not such a big deal. When you’re Jamie Burns, however, and your college years consisted of slowly convincing yourself you were one of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, a more evolved specimen of humanity, and you potentially murdered someone (and bashed your roommate’s head in with a lava lamp), there might be problems.

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The Sinner continues to deepen its look inside Jamie’s head in the third episode, but let’s be real: Unless the show unveils some big twist in the next episode or two, I have a hard time seeing how this is enough material to stretch out over the rest of the season. Right now things are moving at a good clip, which is a relief, given what little behavior on Jamie’s part is left to be shocked by. He’s tried to kill someone already, and over the course of this episode, he meets a student off-campus to counsel her against going to college, tells his boss to fuck off, alienates his wife and friends, hallucinates the murder of his newborn son, and all but dares the police to gather enough evidence to convict him. In the last minute, he rushes off into the woods, resisting Harry’s attempt to get him some therapy and/or medication. It seems safe to say options are running out for Jamie Burns.

Which is as it should be. Matt Bomer does a decent-enough job in the opening minutes of showing Jamie’s attempt to play at still being rational, but by the end of that conversation, he’s referred to their impending child as a “spiritual band-aid” and yelled at his wife for walking away from his moribund thought experiments. It’s not like Leela’s being wholly reasonable herself (“privilege” is a pretty flimsy excuse to fling at Jamie for his behavior—there are plenty of working-class dads who have bad-faith-argued themselves into abdicating responsibility), but the show still depicts her as the sole voice of logic in the house. He needs help, and he’s refusing it. From there on out, Jamie is almost wholly in the grip of his paranoid delusions and fears, and Bomer solidly portrays the creeping obsession and anxiety with an underlying layer of wounded insecurity.

Illustration for article titled Philosophy and fantasy blur as iThe Sinner/i threatens adult and infant alike
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

The climactic hospital sequence with Harry and Jamie is what elevates the episode into something more than The Tragic Self-Destructive Behavior Of Jamie Burns. Watching Harry slowly walk his troubled charge into the doctor’s office, past the newly installed security guards, and encourage him to open up in a way that will get him some treatment, is a masterful case study in how to build tension from the most everyday of scenarios. Jamie’s jittery attitude, and the will-he-or-won’t-he nature of the exchange, ratchets up the excitement and creates a genuinely cathartic moment of exhilaration when he gets up and runs out of the hospital into the woods. A lot of the credit goes to the director, but Derek Simonds’ dialogue manages to straddle the line between portentous and plausible without tipping too far in either direction. As Jamie gives voice to the all-too-common feeling of wanting something, anything to happen to break the dread and stress of stasis, he looks accusingly at everyone, daring them not to share in his fear and anxiety. “You know that feeling. We all do. You should lock us all up.” Cue the escape route.

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It works additionally thanks to the integration, albeit a little forced, of Nietzschean philosophy. Harry notices the word “ubermensch” carved into the headboard of Jamie’s bed in college, and goes to the professor who educated Nick and Jamie in the ways of the German thinker. Along with giving him a primer on Nietzsche 101 (the will to power, death of god, creation of a new morality, etc.), the professor quotes Harry one of the most common sayings pulled from Nietzsche’s writing— “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”—which may as well have been followed by a dun-dun-dunnnnn sound effect. Jamie and Nick learned well the lessons of their teacher, and seem to have used them to become a latter-day Leopold and Loeb, the all-too-real erudite University of Chicago students who murdered a classmate based on their embrace of Nietzsche’s teachings (the crime on which Hitchcock based his classic film Rope.) It’s a solid if unoriginal basis for a story, but I’m waiting for another, hopefully more unexpected, shoe to drop.

Illustration for article titled Philosophy and fantasy blur as iThe Sinner/i threatens adult and infant alike
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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Meanwhile, Harry and Sonya are beginning to explore the possibility there’s something more to their relationship than just “detective and person of interest.” Most of the heavy lifting is done by Jessica Hecht’s Sonya, of course—Harry is far too bottled up and mistrusting of his own feelings to let them dictate his behavior. (It makes you wonder how he even managed to wind up having the affair with a dominatrix—back in season one—in the first place.) “You keep looking at me like you think I’m hiding something,” she says to him early on in this episode, and while he seems to have quelled those suspicions by the end of the hour, it’s a near-certain confirmation that she is hiding something, especially once she starts surreptitiously photographing Jamie from across the train platform. Sonya has some role to play in all of this, and even if we had nothing to go on but the grave Nick (and Jamie?) dug on her property, there’s little chance she’s the clueless innocent she pretends to be. (I will offer up a sad mea culpa if it turns out things really are this straightforward.)

Really, at this point, the most interesting stuff happening on The Sinner is taking place inside Jamie’s head. His exchanges with fantasy Nick are fraught with intensity (thank god Nick murdering his child turned out to be imaginary), and nothing else on the show really rises to that level of engagement yet. Even if Harry tracks down Jamie next episode, there’s not enough evidence to lock him up (as Harry sort-of acknowledges when Jamie calls him out on it), so it’ll just be more waiting around for the teacher to do something else stupid and illegal. If ever there was a time for a surprise reveal, now would be it.

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Stray observations

  • Harry’s awkward family demeanor still leads to some hilarious exchanges with his daughter. “Should a 10-year-old be that busy?”
  • I loved the short sequence where Jamie gets on the train solely with the intent of staring down the asshole who took up two parking spots.
  • Jamie’s old roommate is good at nursing a grudge: He’ll be more than happy to come testify “against Jamie’s character,” 20 years later.
  • “Suicide is avoiding pain—and pain is the gateway.” Nothing to see here, doc, just normal thoughts!
  • “I have the feeling all the time like I’m trapped.” It’s called capitalism, Jamie. We feel you.
  • More Chris Messina, please.
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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.

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