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The Sinner reveals its real story is about the cop, not the killer

Illustration for article titled iThe Sinner/i reveals its real story is about the cop, not the killer
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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It’s clear that The Sinner is doing something different this year. Unlike past seasons, which went down intriguing rabbit holes of conspiracy and mystery, there’s not much being withheld in the story of Jamie Burns’ steady unraveling. Even after the closing murder last week, this episode wastes no time in telling us exactly what happened and how. As it turns out, there isn’t much more to Jamie’s story—we were right about that prediction. But instead, the show is snaring Harry Ambrose in the murky moral swamp of Jamie’s behavior. The troubled detective ignored one too many rules, and now, his case isn’t just a mess—his very motives are being questioned, and he might have doomed his own job. The big question of season three might not be what happens to Jamie; it’s what happens to Harry Ambrose?

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“Part V” advances the narrative in remarkably linear manner, despite the flashbacks interlaced throughout which show Jamie returning to the party, talking to Kyle the psychic, and eventually bludgeoning him to death with a crystal. But there’s no teasing whether he did it—the opening flashback shows Jamie washing away the evidence and dumping his clothes and murder weapon. By structuring it in this way, the show is telegraphing its lack of interest in the mystery of Jamie’s behavior or past. It’s been explained: We know why he does these things, why he’s struggling against them, and why he’s spiraling out. The focus is on something else—namely, how Harry’s choices have come back to haunt him. Ambrose has been treating Jamie less like a suspect, and more like a troubled friend for whom he feels responsible. By following him around all night via an illegal phone trace, giving him a ride home, and then calling him the next day to secretly meet in person about Jamie’s crime, he’s given the New York detective investigating the murder more than enough reason to mistrust him, even with the CCTV evidence he handed over showing Jamie driving back into the city. It doesn’t only look unprofessional; he looks culpable if the case collapses.

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The episode begins with Jamie’s desperate attempt to return his home and relationship to a state of normalcy. He confesses just enough to Leela to make himself look like the good guy, saying he went to Harry and then to the doctor to have an evaluation. Of course, he then leaves out the part where he runs out of the hospital into the woods, drives to New York, and murders a psychic at a party in Greenpoint; it doesn’t sound so good when you say it all at once like that, does it? It speaks to how fully he’s convinced himself there’s still a way out of this that he tries this tactic in the first place. All it takes is one visit from Sonya for Leela to realize how completely her husband has been lying and manipulating her feelings. She won’t even talk to Jamie without their friend present, and then she throws her husband out. Between his gaslighting of her and his refusal to accept his work’s paternity leave offer until everything settles down, Jamie Burns is making all bad decisions these days. Getting caught in a brazen lie to the NYC detective during her questioning of him looks like the final straw, and soon he asks for a lawyer.

Illustration for article titled iThe Sinner/i reveals its real story is about the cop, not the killer
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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But then, pure happenstance: The cop leaves the door to Jamie’s room open when she goes to confront Harry, and Jamie soon overhears the shouting match that erupts. Harry’s phone trace gets revealed, and accessing his records also unveils the secret meeting between Harry and Jamie from earlier that morning. Director Colin Bucksey keeps returning to close-ups of Jamie’s face in these moments, emphasizing the internal shift that once more happens, just as has occurred each time the teacher is confronted with someone exhorting him to come clean. Jamie doubles down, calls their bluff, and walks out of the station a free man.

The back half of this episode cleverly shifts the focus from Jamie to Harry without dwelling on the transfer, preferring to let the story do the pivot without calling much attention. And that transition gets made clear in the last scene, when Jamie makes a surprise visit to Harry’s place and runs into the detective’s nephew, Eli. Suddenly, Harry’s delivering a punch to Jamie’s ribcage, and warning him to get off his property before worse happens. We don’t know exactly what Jamie hoped to accomplish, but he seems satisfied with the results. “Harry Ambrose just showed up. It’s about time,” he mockingly adds as he walks away. If he was trying to further unsettle Ambrose, it worked; nothing like a night-time visit from a killer to their adolescent nephew to get someone thinking less clearly.

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With three episodes left, the show is finally making the life of Harry Ambrose the central part of its narrative. The dissolution of his marriage in season one was a large subplot, but a subplot nonetheless. And season two largely swore off contemporary problems in Ambrose’s life, letting flashbacks to his childhood deepen and inform the mystery of the cult. But this is something new: the complete fusion of Harry’s life and work in a way that threatens both. It’s less immediately gripping, but it achieves a newfound relevance as character study of the one person we’ve followed through all three seasons. There’s no grand conspiracy—it’s just one fallible man, making one too many mistakes.

Stray observations

  • Sonya and Harry’s relationship levels up with their first kiss, which—of course—Sonya initiates.
  • Jessica Hecht delivers Sonya’s disbelief at Harry’s view of himself as a calm, cool guy with appropriate surprise. Harry: [Explaining why he’s unruffled] “This is my job.” Sonya: “Really?!”
  • Kyle the psychic, not even realizing he’s saying exactly the wrong things for his well-being: “He wants you to keep going...you don’t have a choice.”
  • During Jamie and Leela’s fight, we get a hint of the crisis that rocked their marriage awhile back, and Jamie reminds her, “Two years ago, I could’ve left. But I stayed.”
  • You’d think a Nietzschean would realize the irony of trying to say “It’s not me, that’s not who I am” about his own murderous actions.
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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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