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The Sinner goes into the past but skimps on the present

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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The Sinner has always excelled at playing to the top of its intelligence, keeping the audience in the same headspace as its lead detective to prevent cheap reveals or dragging out plot points. Unfortunately, “Part V” decided to stray from that course, sacrificing character for the sake of keeping a mystery alive.

There’s no reason Harry Ambrose would suddenly not want to know what happened to him the previous night. Hell, he marches into the courtroom and all but shakes Vera Walker right before Julian is due to enter a plea, all in the name of getting to the bottom of just what transpired between the last thing he remembers from arguing with her and waking up in the motel room the next morning. (A brief conversation with the proprietor at least made clear that he arrived and checked in seemingly of his own volition.) So why, when she offers to tell him what went down—and only a few hours later, presumably—would Ambrose cut her off and change the subject? He gives no indication of not wanting to know, so the only real reason is to prolong the mystery for the audience, not the character. It’s a rare misstep for a show that is mostly making all the right moves.


But that’s not the only weaker segment of “Part V,” which strives to give more time to the past without sacrificing the present, and is only partially successful in that mission. Scenes jump from one to the next this episode without proper time to let character beats sink in, giving the whole thing a more scattershot feel than this normally methodically precise show embodies. It’s not clear how much of this is the fault of Samir Mehta’s script, which jumps around to every character but never feels like it’s taking them much of anywhere (with a few notable exceptions), and how much is Cherien Dabis’ streamlined direction, sapping tension from scenes that should be rife with it. There are a lot of baby steps of plot advancement, but they never take hold and drive a sense of momentum. Even after Ambrose is told to go home and effectively fired from the case, there’s never any sense that he might actually leave—it’s all just assemblage of the chess pieces, getting them into place for the final few episodes.


It’s not all perfunctory, though, and there are strong moments that help keep the episode from sinking into merely average territory. Though it was a little unclear in last week’s cliffhanger reveal of the videocassette, Glen Fisher is deeply connected to Mosswood in ways that go far beyond the “once or twice” evasions he offers up when confronted by Heather and Harry about how often he’s been to the commune. Thanks to Harry’s little adventure into breaking and entering, they have visual evidence of the family’s link: The Fishers owned the property before selling it (to Lionel, presumably), and Glen still has one of those electronic metronomes in his house, suggesting his involvement with Mosswood is not only profound, but ongoing. Harry’s question from last week—“I wonder if there’s more out there”—has now been definitively answered, and not in a reassuring way. Keller is complicit with the mysterious cult to an unknown degree, and every additional person who’s linked to it will just make any attempts to hold them accountable that much harder.

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

Vera Walker is still the linchpin holding past and present, town and commune, together. And her weakness is all too apparent—it has been from nearly the start, when she couldn’t help herself from getting in digs at how little Heather and Harry knew early on. Pride is her Achilles’ heel: She doesn’t just want to know more than everyone, she wants people to know she knows more than they do. And it backfires on her spectacularly, even when she’s trying to get Harry to agree to being on her side (which she finds identical with Julian’s side—though I’m not sure either Julian or Harry would agree with that at this point). Ambrose directly calls out, and Julian reinforces, how her need for obfuscation has worked against her. She lies, continually, to almost everyone, and it means that even her rare moments of honesty can’t be trusted. Vera may indeed be telling the truth that she didn’t drug Harry—that his own brain is working against him, blocking out memories from the previous night—but he sure as hell doesn’t have any reason to buy that. (“She’s lied to us every step of the way,” Heather reminds Ambrose.) Every piece of forthright fact from her mouth is accompanied by nine more lies, or even simple refusals to give the real information. She’s drowning in a rhetorical pool of her own making.

And worse yet for poor Harry (and to a lesser degree, Heather), there’s a rapidly dwindling pool of Keller residents they can rely on. It’s not just that Heather doesn’t recognize this new Glen Fisher she thought she could trust; it’s that anyone in town is a potential collaborator with Mosswood. Even Heather’s own father might not be the straightforward guy we thought he was. When he confronts Harry, his usual strategy of sweeping everything under the rug and pretending it’s all fine sounds a little more desperate than normal, an element of threatening machismo even underlining the accusations he levels at his former friend. “Here’s to never changing,” he coldly says to Harry, surely a contender for Most Ironic Toast coming from the guy who literally brushes aside all of his daughters’s photos and painful attempts to deal with her past with a brusque, “I want ice cream.”

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

As much as I hoped they would shed more light on the present, the flashbacks tonight do little other than reinforce what we already knew, with the brief exception of confirming that Vera was close with Marin, and that Lionel is Julian’s father. (This lends increasing credence to the theory Adam and Bess were taking Julian to Lionel in the first episode.) Yes, Heather blames herself for Marin joining Mosswood. No, Vera was not always comfortable with Lionel’s methods. Okay, sacrificing the calf was unsettling, but it was also very much of a piece with what we had already learned about Mosswood under its former patriarch. It was a case of making explicit things that were already rich enough in implicit form.


Still, even a lesser episode of The Sinner contains multitudes, and Bill Pullman, Carrie Coon, Natalie Paul, and Tracy Letts all continue to turn in stellar performances, giving the viewer a reason to watch even when there’s not much of significance unfolding, or when, as previously mentioned, characters seem to act somewhat counter to their nature. Hopefully this is a minor hiccup in the season; It’s been strong until here, and with only a few episodes left, The Sinner’s endgame begins now.

Stray observations:

  • This week in “Poor Julian”: His fellow inmates taunt him by placing stones over their eyes, causing him to lose his temper and get thrown in solitary confinement. “I don’t understand this place.” You and me both, buddy.
  • It didn’t take much for the schism between Harry and Heather to explode into his being asked to leave, though to be fair, Harry did himself no favors by keeping what happened the night before a secret from her.
  • A new wrinkle in the mystery of Vera’s actions with Julian: Her (adopted) son’s dream wasn’t originally a dream. Someone did try to come into his room and grab him, and had to be dragged away. Was it Lionel?
  • It was solid acting, but there just wasn’t much to Marin and Heather’s final meeting in the flashback—at least, nothing that changed anything or enriched our understanding of either character.
  • It didn’t take long for Lionel to reveal himself as the absolute worst, given our first real flashback sequence with him ends with the Mosswood leader inviting Marin to “come over here and sit by me.” Shudder.
  • Glen’s involvement really does open this story up in a massive way. I’m nervous only having three more installments won’t be enough to do it justice.

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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.