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The Sinner unveils the eerie commune at the core of its mystery

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)
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Vera Walker has a world of secrets hidden within the confines of Mosswood Grove, and she’s intent on keeping them that way. Only, she just can’t help herself from tipping her hand. After Julian changes his story, leaving Heather and Harry to ask what led her son to commit such a crime, Vera looks back at them with withering scorn. “My son is so far beyond anything you could understand,” she sneers. “You have no idea.” The commune she leads (not that she’d ever admit to something so hierarchical as being in charge) seems intent on putting forth an image of harmless hippie vibes that it just can’t square with what’s actually going on—whatever that may be.


There’s no one central element to “Part II,” as the episode is instead broken up into three main components: Harry’s conversations with Julian (and Vera’s attempts to stymie and/or threaten him), Heather’s flashbacks to her night at Mosswood, and the trip to Mosswood Grove to look for clues. While that last part may have generated the most narrative tension, it’s Harry who once again gets the most insightful character beats from his talks. Julian may seem like a strange kid, but he’s slowly revealed to be sadly, understandably normal. His time with Vera was almost like a recharge for his confidence—the typical pattern of a kid bragging after being assured by a parent that they’re right to do so—as he then tells Harry how outsiders are all the same, and drops bizarre little nuggets of intrigue like, “My mother can read minds.” But after another night away from his family, he’s revealing his insecurities and nightmares, wanting to trust the detective who is simultaneously opening up to Julian at the same time.

Speaking of those nightmares: If you’ve seen the unsettling documentary The Nightmare, then you know what Julian is describing is an almost textbook case of sleep paralysis. (The portrayal of it here, as in that doc, is jazzed up a bit to allow Julian to express that anxiety physically while it’s happening.) And while it’s true that real-life trauma can be a cause of the condition, it’s a bit surprising to see Harry jump so quickly to the assumption that it’s purely a means of processing a damaging event or events. If anything, Julian’s waking behavior is as much of an indicator of trauma, if not more. Presumably, Harry is looking at both aspects of his young suspect and simply drawing Occam’s Razor.

Heather’s personal investment in the case, by contrast, is more like the behavior of someone who just can’t let the past go, but knows all too well the reason why. Her romance/friendship with Marin is depicted in efficiently clear terms, and the flashbacks depict the allure of something like Mosswood for a person dealing with insecurity and pain in their home life. The chiaroscuro of the bonfire throws Heather’s suspicion into stark visual relief against her friend’s malleability, highlighting not just the differences between them but the way in which an offhand moment of bravado (Heather, after all, is the one who suggests they sneak onto the property) can reverberate down through the years, a playful suggestion transformed by its effects into a bedrock of guilt that she can’t shake. It’s a standard technique to cut from these to the close-ups of Natalie Paul’s face, but an effective one, as the actor’s eyes widen to convey the depths of her disquiet. Pullman gets a couple of similar moments during his fleeting flashbacks.

Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

It’s the last two acts that start to peel back the cover off Mosswood Grove, and there’s a distinctly Lynchian vibe to the stone monolith in the secluded barn that Heather sneaks off to investigate at the very end. When she enters, and we get that low-angle shot of the rock, the lighting suddenly oddly muted and given a slight otherworldly glow, it’s as though the detective has suddenly stumbled into a Black Lodge of her very own—especially once she hears the faint whistling. The work being done at this compound may indeed involve shining a light on the dark shadow inside every individual, but the shadows of this marked-off area suggest not every dark area at Mosswood gets such spotlight treatment.

The wider commune community comes across as a fairly generic hippie-ish assemblage of back-the-the-earth rustics, albeit with far fewer splashes of color and personality than are usually associated with such collectives. But the episode liberally applies narrative momentum and demonstrations of just how committed to its sanctuary status Vera’s group really is. The best moments of plot thickening exposed both the ideology of the commune and the deeper secrets of what Vera knew, and when. Mosswood is so enmeshed in the idea of transformation, Vera doesn’t think twice about allowing a convicted sex offender near Julian (whom we also learn is the only kid in the community). And her grandiloquence and sense of importance again lead her to making bombastic statements, such as her closing line in her phone call to Harry: “Trust me, I know where the monster is.”


But the mysteries continue to intrigue. A commune member was at the motel when Ambrose and Novak went to investigate, meaning Vera knew something before arriving at the courthouse. We learn that everyone seemed to know Adam and Bess weren’t planning on coming back with Julian—that, in fact, they might have been running from something there. The Niagara Falls story was an agreed-upon hoax. Vera has told her son she has the power to read minds. All of this still feels like prelude to something darker, and Julian, with his thousand-yard stare and watery eyes, feels like the only one who knows—knows and isn’t too happy about what he’s seeing.

Stray observations

  • Tracy Letts continues to do fine and nuanced work with the small role of Heather’s dad, Jack. His awkward attempts to connect with his former friend are quietly devastating in their own little way: After Harry turns down the offer for a morning fishing trip, Jack’s clumsy declaration that, “Well, I’m around,” is quite moving. The framing of the whole exchange from that jagged overhead perspective helped, as well.
  • Very curious to see what previous attempt to explore Mosswood Grove blew up in the police chief’s face, and why.
  • “Outsiders are all the same.”
  • The scene in the courtroom added another level of ambiguity to the town’s feelings about Mosswood—the chief wants to avoid it, and the judge is more than happy to pick a fight.
  • Pullman is doing great work in his scenes with Julian. His abashed explanation for his beard, and stammered story about his mother, lent wonderfully human flourishes to those little dialogue beats. 

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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.