One of the most compelling elements of The Sinner has always been how it kicked off each season’s murder-mystery-conspiracy plotline with an inciting incident that seems almost incomprehensible from a logical standpoint. Season one had Jessica Biel’s easygoing housewife suddenly snap and stab a stranger for no discernible reason; season two had the horrific, poison-induced deaths of a couple of adults by what seemed to be their child, again without any real cause.
The third season of USA’s sleeper hit continues in the grand tradition of starting off with a gruesome death and no clear justification for the event. But in place of a strange loss of memory, or inexplicable ties to a mysterious cult, we get a crime that seems awfully plausible: a car wreck, and a strained interpersonal relationship that could offer any number of all-too-human reasons for what transpired. This is still The Sinner, but in comparison to years past, the beginning of this story is coming close to—dare we say it—mundane.
Luckily, the show still attracts top-shelf actors, so despite the generic familiarity of the latest premise, the onscreen talent helps offset the less-inspired nature of the newest narrative, at least in the early going. Matt Bomer, Chris Messina, and Jessica Hecht are all welcome additions to this world, each one bringing a haunted look and morally ambiguous behavior to their performance, the better to lock in on the show’s usual “who can you trust?” scenario. And once again, Bill Pullman’s Harry Ambrose provides the grounded but emotionally isolated core of the series, a man who may finally be reestablishing ties with his estranged daughter and grandchild, but who still intentionally tanks his own family relationships in the name of his job.
This time out, the initial mystery revolves around Bomer’s Jamie Burns, who appears to be a successful and popular teacher at an upscale Dorchester prep school, despite being introduced in a toilet stall, taking a hit of weed from his vape pen and administering eyedrops before facing the school day. After an apparently normal evening prepping a nice dinner on the grill with his very-pregnant wife Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley), suddenly an old college friend shows up unannounced: Nick Haas (Messina), bearing a package and an obvious resentment against Jamie, who in turn hisses at his friend to get out of there, for reasons unknown. Instead, Leela invites Nick to dinner, and soon we’re treated to the awkward sight of Nick asking Leela, “But you didn’t want the baby, did you? Jamie did.”
Nonetheless, it’s still a shock when Nick turns up dead later that night, bleeding out on the hood of his car after flying through the windshield when the auto smashes into a tree. (Messina is a big enough name that his role is presumably either going to involve a lot of flashbacks, or he’ll be haunting Jamie as a ghost quite often.) Jamie, it turns out, was in the passenger seat, and—as we learn by the end of the episode—decided to wait nearly an hour before calling 911, ensuring his friend’s death and guiltily wiping any prints from Nick’s cell phone in the process. True, Nick comes across like a total creep in the brief time we know him, but death’s an awfully harsh punishment for being rude at dinner. The big plot questions: Why did Jamie do it? Why were Nick and he going to Sonya’s in the middle of the night? What is the actual history between Jamie and Nick, and what happened in the past few days while Nick was in town? And—the biggest one of all—is Harry’s daughter ever going to join him for a bowl of her favorite sugared cereal from childhood?
The show is leaning into some of its familiar touchstones in other ways, even as it offers an initial mystery that lacks the stranger-than-fiction allure of the past two seasons. Once more, creator and writer Derek Simonds allows Ambrose to function as a soulful but strained interlocutor, the detective whose very flaws keep him from seeming heroic, yet who remains our sole avatar of dependability. Harry played a larger role in season two as the “traditional” detective character, more focused on the case than the travails of his personal life, but this first outing returns some attention to the home life he’s had to build for himself since then: A remote house deep in the woods, early tentative efforts to bond with his daughter and grandchild, and nary a mention of the wife who gave him the boot.
Director Adam Bernstein also looks to previous seasons to establish the look and mood. It wouldn’t be The Sinner without turning pleasant suburban/rural idylls into foreboding locations, even in the middle of the day, and here Bernstein appealingly leans into the strange contrast between modest storefronts and murderous intent, juxtaposing Jamie’s frazzled mental state with the comfy confines of his surroundings. (It doesn’t hurt that they can pop Nick into frame at will, whether he’s menacing Jamie from across the street at Leela’s store or becoming a full-blown vengeful spirit in the Burns’ home, as in Jamie’s vision where Nick is sneaking up behind Leela and slitting her throat with a knife.)
It’s still early going, so there’s every opportunity for things to get a little murkier, complicated, and more in line with the ethereal mysteries that have defined this surprisingly sharp series. But for now, things are looking a little too much like any other case-of-the-week that unfolds with clockwork precision on the various procedurals offered up by the networks. The Sinner is going to have to start doing what it does best—making things smarter and stranger—lest it end up simply providing a more detailed version of what we can get elsewhere. Luckily, its caliber of artists in front of and behind the camera suggest good things to come. But do it quickly—none of us watching are as gullible as Leela Burns.
- The first real oddball clue we’ve gotten is the homemade folded fortune teller thing Harry finds in Nick’s hotel room. (A.V. Club TV Editor Danette Chavez informs me they were referred to as “cootie catchers” when she was a kid, while I realize I have no idea what they were called among my cohort.)
- Nice way to establish geographical stakes by having Bomer’s Jamie get off the train and walk by Harry, waiting to pick up his daughter and grandson.
- Harry’s conversation with Jamie in the police station was one of the subtler and more illuminating bits of writing and characterization. Jamie: “My hands don’t feel like my hands.”
- In case it wasn’t obvious from the telling pause Sonya took before telling Harry she didn’t recognize either guy, they all know each other. We later see Jamie drive up to her watching the cops mark off the crime scene, before oh-so-casually backing the fuck up and zooming away when she glares daggers at him.
- Nick to Jamie, en route to Sonya’s: “Once we get there, the less you speak, the better.”
- Welcome back, everyone, to the new season of The Sinner! It may have been a dishy summer treat the past couple of years, but I’m all for digging into this cracked crime drama during the housebound days of winter. I look forward to parsing the mystery with all of you. Might I suggest making yourself a hot toddy before settling in to each episode? That’s my plan.