One of the marks of a great television season is that it ends up somewhere completely different than where it started, suggesting none of its characters will be the same, and the world of the series has fundamentally shifted once the finale comes to a close. The latest example of this principle at work is USA Network’s stunning and surprising sleeper hit The Sinner: a mini-series that took a salacious premise and wrestled it away from its soapy trappings to tell a sad story about how past mistakes can poison the present.
The Sinner kicks off with a delicious hook. Cora Tinnetti (Jessica Biel) is a happy housewife with a successful husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), and a young son. During a casual day-trip to the beach, Cora is distracted by the sound of familiar music she can’t place, and can’t stop herself from staring at a stranger who’s involved in a romantic entanglement with his girlfriend. Within seconds, before anybody can intervene, Cora throws herself at the stranger, stabs him multiple times in the neck, and demands that he “get off” his girlfriend.
The strangers’ wounds are fatal, and Cora quietly agrees to be detained by the police. Despite hours of intense interrogation, Cora can’t explain her actions, her connection to the victim, or offer up any motive. The police see this as an open-and-shut-case once Cora pleads guilty, but Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) — a grizzled, personally troubled detective — sees inconsistencies in the official story. A deep wound in Cora’s head, needle marks in her arms, and a murky history that nobody can explain pushes Harry to delve into a world of mystery and crime that he couldn’t have imagined.
Building a show around such an intriguing premise is dangerous because it can render the narrative a machine: delivering answers and twists without offering space for the characters to grow and reveal themselves. It’s easy to imagine a version of The Sinner that offered shocks and schlock whilst hurtling towards the final twist, neatly tying up the story after a series of well-timed revelations throughout the season. That alone could’ve been a zeitgeist-capturing show, but The Sinner that aired was more interested in pulling apart the emotional experiences of the protagonists, tackling the thorny issues of familial responsibility and undiagnosed trauma. Each twist and turn served to deepen the story and add an emotional layer to the proceedings, culminating in a series of reveals that pulled off the neat trick of coming across as both inevitable and startling.
The pilot episode, whilst visually striking and emotionally jarring, didn’t fully suggest how deeply the episodes would dive into Cora and Harry’s interior lives. Somewhat uniquely for a prestige drama, the series offered more than it initially promised; the journey was equally enjoyable as the destination. Cora’s act of violence was shockingly rendered and deeply upsetting — rarely has the sight of blood seemed so incongruous with the environment around it — the crimson splashed against the sand, and the joyful sunbathers was a staggering image. Whilst subsequent episodes dabbled in violence; the focus quickly shifted to Cora’s personal history and her inability to remember the narrative of her own life.
Stepping away from the who-done-it to the why-done-it format was one of the smartest ways in which The Sinner distinguished itself; it raised the narrative stakes without having to spend precious time setting up viable red herrings and other genre clichés. Much of the first half of the season focused on Cora’s restrictive upbringing, particularly that her younger sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander) was born with a bizarre and debilitating condition that inspired her mother Elizabeth (Enid Graham) to become fanatically, dangerously religious. While it’s become a cliché for shows to equate strict religious belief with repression and villainy, The Sinner at least tried to suggest how religion became a structure and routine through which Elizabeth believes her youngest child can gain vitality: personal empowerment combined with personal punishment. Graham’s performance shapes Elizabeth as both desperate and frightening; believing that a higher power will change their circumstances, while simultaneously believing that the lack of intervention is down to the family’s sinful ways.
Alexander also does a fantastic job of revealing the vibrancy of a person who’s spent her whole life dreaming of things she’ll never be able to do. There’s palpable, and dangerous, intensity to her desire to throw herself into the world; being bedridden has made her believe that life is a zero-sum game, and Alexander adroitly reveals the velocity of someone who’s decided to have everything because having nothing is such a real and looming possibility. Through a series of reveals, it becomes obvious that Phoebe spent years pushing Cora to save money so that they can be free of their parents and the childhood home that’s become a torture chamber.
In the present time, once Cora has admitted guilt for the crime — against Mason’s better judgment — the show primarily shifts into an extended fact-finding mission. Harry learns that Cora admitted herself into a drug rehabilitation facility (although when asked, she can’t explain how to prepare the heroin she was supposedly addicted to), a bystander swears that Cora’s victim looked at Cora with familiarity and acceptance, and Cora remembers being kept in an expensive country club. It’s to The Sinner‘s credit that these reveals never make the series appear as a rote procedural; that is, there’s no sense of box ticking. The narrative flows naturally enough that none of the clues or discoveries seemed coincidental, except perhaps the one involving a baby in the last ten minutes of the series.
There’s some vague suggestion early on that Cora may be duping everyone; it quickly becomes clear, however, that Cora is missing the memories of a significant chunk of her life. It’s here that The Sinner reveals itself as sensitive and revelatory: Cora’s trauma is always taken seriously, and her plight is never offered up for a salacious thrill or for a visual spectacle. As the episodes progress, it becomes clearer that early trauma led Cora to look for love in places and people that couldn’t provide it, but who would happily use her neediness to increase their sense of power. As per example, Phoebe’s insistence on living through Cora — a suffocating responsibility that renders Cora a cipher for others’ experiences — leads Cora to J. D. (Jacob Pitts), a drug dealer who promises her everything and, predictably, offers nothing.
When the audience eventually discovers what happened it’s truly sad; a mistake was made and, in a desperate attempt to cover it up for their child, a parent made a series of even more awful mistakes. Cora was a victim of a vast gas-lighting scheme that was both grandiose and very human: elaborate in execution but rooted in a father’s desperate attempts to secure his child’s happiness and prosperity. The Sinner isn’t shy about suggesting that Cora was easily manipulated because of her lower socioeconomic class — the recurring image of a hyper-exclusive private members’ club becomes chilling — and her gender. Indeed, it’s hard to visualize a gender-flipped version of this story working as effectively; the show’s writers take pains to show how society can buffet woman in ways that force them to disregard their own life stories. The final reveal shows just how keenly interested the show was on the tipping point between parental protection and parental imprisonment; Cora’s parents all but signed their daughter’s death warrant, which in turn resulted in the deaths of many others.
It isn’t usually a compliment to describe a performance as opaque, but Biel is revelatory here; she’s excellent at suggesting a woman who sees herself as purely a projection of those around her. It could’ve been a hollow performance — after all, how do you portray a person whose main character trait is their lack of personality — but Biel neatly demonstrates Cora attempts to hoard experiences and emotions in the hopes of emerging as a three-dimensional person. It’s also a performance that conveys real hopefulness as well as desperation: Cora goes from a person who believes she’s a motiveless killer to one who discovers she may have a life after her hideous actions.
Pullman is given the less interesting role in many ways; Harry is the damaged, roguish detective that serves as the prototype for most television detectives. The Sinner does provide him with an ailing marriage, which allows Pullman to explore some of the more difficult aspects of the character, and there are more than few suggestions that Harry experienced childhood abuse that lead him into a BDSM-infused extramarital affair. Pullman is always watchable and offers a confident, committed performance, but it would’ve been nice to see a unique character.
Ultimately, The Sinner managed to provide both a steadfastly told and sad story of inter-generational abuse and disempowerment and a slick, edgy thriller about buried secrets. In taking the emotional stakes of the story seriously, the show was able to be exciting and expansive, specific and universal. As Cora learns what happened to her, and gains the ability to imagine a better version of a life she was convinced was already over, The Sinner pretty convincingly argued that taking time to understand your history, as well as those of the people around you, is both a radical and necessary act.