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The Sinner closes out its murderous season in potent but predictable fashion

Illustration for article titled iThe Sinner/i closes out its murderous season in potent but predictable fashion
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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There wasn’t much mystery to this season of The Sinner. True, the show was attempting something a little different than past installments—more of a character study than a “what happened?”—but it’s resulted in a muted and less exciting season, one that gained strength by turning inward on Bill Pullman’s beleaguered detective as opposed to finding its purpose in the external world. And now that it’s ended, the final seconds understandably deliver the most affecting moment of the entire eight episodes: Harry Ambrose can no longer control his emotions. “What was he like? At the end,” Sonya asks about Jamie’s dying seconds, and Harry responds with a short, “Scared.” And that’s it; he breaks down, crying, pulling Sonya to him as he relives the entire experience in his mind. It’s a strong note to go out on, especially after an episode that didn’t do much to provide anything more.

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There’s something apropos about the fact that Jamie Burns’ final hours are so rote and predictable. Gone are all the high-minded speeches about how the rest of the world is too bland and benighted, how he’s one of the superior minds that sees the lifeless pall of modern society, that other people can’t get how advanced they are. No, in the end, Jamie is just another petty thug nursing a grudge, a wounded soul who pretends his hurt feelings are some radical act of innovative rebellion, when they’re nothing more than a generic drive for revenge on the guy he thinks wronged him. Plot-wise, most of this hour plays out like an average episode of something like Criminal Minds; another uninventive killer coming after the person trying to bring him in. How fitting that a guy who spent his life secretly convinced he was better than others ends up reduced to the role of the typical murderer, unable to think of anything beyond childish revenge.

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That’s also what makes his final confrontation with Harry so humanistic. Jamie kidnaps his grandson Eli, and calls Harry from his own house, telling the cop to come alone, or else Eli dies. But when he tries to force Harry to use the fortune teller—to play dice with his grandson’s life—Harry refuses, and Jamie’s plans immediately crumble and he panics. “Do it!” Harry insists, ordering Jamie to get on with it, to kill Eli, to kill him, to do anything without the sanctimonious window dressing of his little fortune teller and juvenile philosophy. And that’s when it becomes clear Jamie doesn’t know what he wants, other than to feel seen and in control. When Harry takes that away, there’s nothing: Jamie points the gun at Harry, at Eli, at his own head, before finally pointing it nowhere in particular. He doesn’t have any grand ideas. He’s just hurt that Harry put him in jail, hurt that his own family rejected him.

Illustration for article titled iThe Sinner/i closes out its murderous season in potent but predictable fashion
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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There’s nothing more understandable, but it also evaporates most of the tension, even when he and Harry struggle in the woods, and Harry clips him in the head with a rock and staggers back to the house to get his gun from the safe. It’s what leads to the standard-issue showdown, Jamie setting down his gun to deliver his portentous monologue about how anything in your unconscious will haunt you until you confront it, how Nick was his fate and now he’s Harry’s, and blah blah blah—and then Harry shoots him mid-monologue. It’s a good moment on the show’s part, bringing Jamie up short because there’s nothing he can say that will surprise us. And it guts Harry, which is the most important aspect of all. In the end, Jamie is just a pitiable and scared guy, afraid to die, just like the rest of us. “I don’t wanna die. I don’t wanna go,” he pleads, and it’s undeniably touching.

Best of all, the moment allows the season to come full circle on its theme of radical philosophy, and the difference between a thought experiment and a crime. “I’m not a bad person,” Jamie says, and while we know he believes it, we also know it’s not true. He killed three people, he was planning to kill more; he’s the definition of a bad person. You can’t do the crime and then protest that it wasn’t really you. Jamie and Nick and those like them believe it’s who they think they are inside that matters. But it’s your actions that define you: It doesn’t matter how much Nietzsche you’ve read and how erudite your lectures are, if you end up committing the same acts as any random mugger. It’s the lesson of Hitchcock’s Rope, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and any number of other crime thrillers. You don’t distinguish yourself as a moral person because you like long walks on the beach and hot cocoa after a long day. You do it by not harming others. Jamie failed. He’s a bad man.

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Illustration for article titled iThe Sinner/i closes out its murderous season in potent but predictable fashion
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

And that’s why Harry’s arc this season was ultimately the more rewarding to watch unfold. He’s struggling with the same emotions as Jamie, but he knows all too well the human cost of pulling others into your turmoil. It’s why he’s divorced, living alone in a remote house in the woods. He wants a relationship with his daughter and grandchild, but he also keeps them at arm’s length precisely to avoid the kind of implosions he and Jamie have already suffered. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and he knows that’s the cardinal value of being a good person in this world. He understands it’s hypocritical to think as he does and do nothing about it, but like most adults, he’s found a kind of uneasy equilibrium with that reality, albeit one that pushes him closer to the limit than most of us (which makes him an interesting character). Sonya articulates it better than anyone this episode, when she foolishly waits for Jamie to show up at her door instead of fleeing to safety. She does so for the same reasons Harry and Jamie make their choices—she wants to feel something. But she knows feelings can’t always be acted upon. “Maybe we’re all hypocrites,” she says, as though Jamie is still listening at this point. “Maybe that’s the only way through a life.”

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The acts in this final episode feel a bit too perfunctory, as though the show were crossing off the checklist of necessary beats—the criminal on the loose, the speech about Jamie’s motivation to the assembled cops, the eventual showdown, and so on. It’s an ending that waits too long to get to the interesting stuff, by lingering on standard-issue thriller moments. Still, Jamie and Harry’s ending makes for potent scenes, relying as they do on the actors to sell the intensity and humanity of their final exchanges. Going deep in these characters’ heads (and Nick’s, by extension) has been mostly rewarding, thanks to how good the performances have been. This is nowhere near the best season of The Sinner, but thanks to some great actors, it’s been an engaging one.

Stray observations

  • Bill Pullman does some of his best work here. It’s in the little touches he adds: Harry leaving the car door ever so slightly ajar when he goes to confront Jamie, Harry continually reaching for the bowl of snacks but never actually taking any during his last scene with Sonya. He knows Ambrose so well by this point, everything he brings is value added. I wouldn’t say boo to an Emmy nomination.
  • Each of the actors has really leaned into what the extended closeups on their faces throughout the season has let them accomplish dramatically. Jessica Hecht let the expressive lines on her face express most of Sonya’s internal life, whereas Bomer used his stereotypically good looks to tremendous effect, letting the glassy surface of his chiseled face belie the raging id beneath. Just wonderful acting all around.
  • I wonder if the media will posthumously bequeath Jamie a silly nickname—“The fortune teller killer” or some such. Probably for the best we’ll never know.
  • Thanks, everyone, for watching, reading, and discussing this latest installment of The Sinner together. It’s been great seeing your comments and insights as the season progressed.
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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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