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The Sinner reveals its secrets in a satisfying if predictable season finale

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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It went to some very dark places. There was murder, kidnapping, arson, abuse, blackmail, and lots of very unpleasant therapy. The season finale of The Sinner answered questions, but it left one unanswered: Does Elisha Henig have the most unsettling thousand-yard stare of any kid on TV, or just one of the most?

The final moments of season two may have ended on a cathartic note, with Julian Walker staring out at his long-dreamed-of Niagara Falls, but the main takeaway from this season is that there is no true peace, not really. Guilt is always with us—both the literal guilt that comes with being a guilty party, one who commits an act, and the emotional guilt, the pain that comingles with our feelings to instill our regret and pain deep in the psyche. The fear they’d be running forever was only one small part of Julian’s argument for going to back to Keller. In a larger, unspoken sense, it was his inability to evade his guilt for killing Adam and Bess. It eats at him, and the need to feel a sense of justice and punishment, no matter the end result, drove him back. It shut down Vera, who finally saw her troubled son as he really is. And it broke something in Mosswood. Vera burned down the barn, and no matter where the commune goes next, what the barn represented isn’t coming back.


“Part VIII” moves awfully quickly for an episode of The Sinner, and packs a lot of plot into its final hour. That necessarily results in some rushed moments, but to its credit, the show never shortchanges Julian himself. The kid’s mental state has always been fragile, but it was a well-developed build to his stand against Vera, rejecting her plan to flee and insisting they turn themselves in. First, there was the moment when he watched his birth mother die, the victim of her own rash decision to brandish a gun against Jack Novack. (Whether Jack’s account is true—that he was only defending himself—we’ll never know for certain.) From there, he’s whisked away by Vera to New York, where they stay with a friend just long enough for Julian to learn how serious the situation really is. But it’s the phone call with Harry that finally seems to crystallize something in his mind. “What would you do?” he asks the detective, once more the scared and uncertain child. “I dunno. Depends on what you can live with,” Harry replies, and in that moment Julian has a reckoning—with himself, with his actions, and with the future.


It’s a good moment, made better by the performances by Henig and Carrie Coon at the diner, Vera and her adopted son slowly realizing their life together is at an end. Vera lied to him, mis-taught him, and arguably mistreated him when it came to his needs as a fragile young boy, but they obviously love each other dearly, and the tears that come to both of their eyes feel earned in the face of what they’ve both gone through. Vera, who turned to action when all her psychological tactics and subtle manipulations failed; and Julian, the child who used to think he was being prepped to assume dominion over the world, only to realize he’s just a kid out of his depth. Theirs was the most tragic relationship of this tale, bonded as it was via the inevitability of their separation, even if she gets weekly visits at his new home in Syracuse.

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

Or rather, it was the most tragic in the present. The mystery of Marin and her disappearance finally gets revealed, and it was just as most of you suspected: Jack was the father of Julian. The result of a deeply uncomfortable scene from that fateful night when Heather’s father brought the two girls home in the middle of their drunken fight, it gets cringe-worthy at first, as you wait for the inevitable, and then it becomes downright criminal when Marin makes a last-ditch effort to get out of the situation. This is where The Sinner’s technique of showing what “really” happened runs smack into the problem of narrative fallibility. Everything the show wants us to know intellectually and emotionally—about the unreliability of our own minds, about the conflicting pains of the past—is somewhat lessened by saying, “But here’s what really happened, so no need for any morally ambiguous interpretation of events.” It makes for a definitive conclusion, one done in a style slightly at odds with the themes of the series.

But if the structure of the storytelling wasn’t always a perfect fit, the performances helped to make up for any weaker spots. Tracy Letts has been superlative as Jack, even back when it seemed like he might be relegated to a subplot about the difficulty of friendship in middle age, as his scenes with Bill Pullman always exerted a pained magnetism. But when he finally breaks his cavalier mentality, once he’s confronted with the key to the cabin from Five Nations, it’s electric. “I can’t do this with Heather here,” he tells Harry, and it’s both an icy statement of fact and a crippling admission of guilt, a stern face in front of his daughter and a helpless pleading for sympathy from his old friend. Natalie Paul is good in reaction, displaying Heather’s broken disbelief without shading or a need to pull back, but she gets less to work with, invested as the script is in Jack and Harry’s reactions to the situation. Heather Novack may get the worse ending of all of them: When Julian moves away and Harry returns home, she’ll have nothing but her grief, and the giant empty house where her father used to live. Even if he comes back from this without charges, they’re ruined.


But Harry is still Harry. After two seasons of painful cases, the latter of which pushed him back into a confrontation with his own traumatic childhood, his issues are still lying just below the surface. Listening back to his session lets him know what happened: He pushed Vera to exert the violence he thinks he deserves. Was it pleasurable? Is this a new way for his mind to find a masochistic out for his sense of guilt, one that has combined in the past with his desires until the two were indistinguishable? Or is it some way of trying to reach a new detente with the childhood memories that haunt him? The Sinner’s central character is still an addict, just not for his former vices (for the moment, anyway). “Saving my son isn’t gonna save you,” Vera Walker told him last episode. That may be true, but right now, it’s the only thing bringing him peace. There may be no happy ending for Harry Ambrose, but he’s going to go down knowing the world may be slightly more bearable for Julian Walker.


Stray observations

  • This week in “poor Julian”: Let’s end on a semi-positive note for the poor kid, since he’s had such a rough go of it—he finally sees Niagara Falls. “My mother would’ve liked this.”
  • Lionel is left as a big question mark, sorry to say. Presumably we’re supposed to infer from that long, lingering shot of the tea Vera prepared that she murdered him as soon as she suspected what he was up to with Julian, but that’s the problem of continually going to the red-herring well: It means the audience can’t trust implications, not when they’re so often intentionally misdirected.
  • “You don’t wanna help anyone; you wanna control them.” Maybe Vera’s just skilled at “the work,” but she batted aside this insight from Harry—one that is pretty clearly a character-defining trait—awfully dismissively.
  • Speaking of red herrings, the sheriff’s culpability gets implied and then explained swiftly. It’s hard to generate new clues in the final episode without immediately resolving them, which makes such attempts to generate tension difficult.
  • I wonder if the rest of Mosswood is going to be pissed about Vera burning the barn down? Nobody seemed to try very hard to stop it. They must have good insurance.
  • Thanks, everyone, for joining me this season. I had a lot of fun reading your theories each week. We may have been a small bunch, but we were dedicated.

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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.