By JASON MARTIN (August 1, 2018)
One of 2018’s biggest television surprises was USA Network’s limited run series, The Sinner, both starring and executive produced by Jessica Biel. Adapted from the Petra Hammesfahr German crime novel of the same name, it was a critical and mainstream success. Borrowing some of the cryptic elements of True Detective or even the better parts of shows like Bloodline or Ozark, marrying that with a solid piece of original source material, and placing Biel in the lead role all worked big time. Bill Pullman’s Harry Ambrose was a flawed detective dealing with personal issues and a near obsession to the Cora Tannetti case, but the performance and the character were both exceedingly compelling.
Thus, when Season 2 became real for USA and Biel chose to step away, as the Cora character’s story was seemingly closed (as it was in the novel), Ambrose became the one that stuck around. Biel remains an EP, however, so who knows, maybe Cora could pop back up. It might be more gimmicky than this series needs, however, so I wouldn’t expect it. As for Ambrose, a detective can ALWAYS find another case you see, and Pullman’s work was certainly good enough that he could become the most recognizable star if need be. Then it was announced that Carrie Coon, the best actress on television consistently over the past three years or so, was joining to play the role of Vera, and my anticipation jumped.
The Sinner was dark, though not as dark as the book it was based on, and if there was one critique to lodge against it, it’s that the ending was so positively ordinary in every way. It seemed to be building to something massive, but it went with something straightforward and, in the eyes of some, underwhelming in the end. I thought it concluded well, because I like it to feel plausible rather than supernatural. The explanations and Cora’s fate all coincided with logic and common sense, which grounded the series on its way out the door.
Season 1 weaved a simple crime into a web of mystery, flashbacks, fractured memories, and unsettling revelations from the past. If Part 1 of the 2018 story is any indication, we’re doing that time warp again, but in an even more creepy and confusing way than before. The tentpole moment is the death of Adam Lowry and Bess McTeer, which occurs in a small motel in Keller, New York. We see the two and the 11-year old Julian we think is their son run into car trouble on their trip to Niagara Falls, forcing them to stop. The next day, the two adults die very shortly after consuming matching cups of tea given to them by the child. Immediately we realize the kid is actually Biel this time around.
Ambrose gets a phone call from an old friend’s daughter (she’s a lesbian, which we find out because…well maybe we’ll learn the reason later on), who is now a detective in Keller. Harry is actually a Keller native, so that ties him to the area and gives the entire thing a little of a Sharp Objects feel in that Camille is back in Wind Gap and now Harry is drawn back to a town he also chose to leave because “the soil won’t stay quiet.” He got to the bottom of the Tannetti mess, so perhaps he can be helpful here. Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) is the young upstart’s name, and she read up on what he accomplished a few short months ago.
He quickly figures out that it was indeed Julian that killed his parents, discovering the jimson weed out back that the boy mixed to make the toxic and fatal tea. How and why this boy would know that it could and would kill Adam and Bess if consumed in that fashion is yet to be determined, but what we understand is he’s a disturbed and peculiar kid. Elisha Henig sells the shock and the heavy breathing well, but it’s the blank stare that seals the deal. He won’t match Biel, because child actors simply can’t pull it off, but alongside the rest of the cast, he’s going to be solid.
The actual murders themselves are similar to Cora’s in that we know from the start who did it and instead are asked to determine the why and also the justification for what took place. When we see Julian with Vera, that’s just weird television. The strange pulse machine as the boy draws what feels like pure darkness on a piece of paper and just Coon’s cadence as she asks staccato questions of the boy was striking. I wrote in my notes she was some kind of deranged or agenda-driven psychologist of some kind, but as we find out at the end of the episode, that’s not exactly the case.
“I’m his mother.”
Not that it’s surprising that the character would be important, but that we assumed up until that moment that the two people Julian killed were his parents. We even see the exchange pre-coitus where Adam and Bess joke about the former being an awful father for leaving Julian alone at the breakfast bar. But, apparently not, or maybe in some way so, or…we just don’t know yet.
No S&M or bondage for Harry Ambrose thus far, which is a welcomed change. It was effective to create a more unseemly setting, but if we don’t go down that road again and Ambrose instead has those nightmarish flashbacks of the fire and what may have been his own mother sitting on that bed when he was a lad, that’s better. He’s troubled, but he doesn’t have to be a sexual deviant. My guess is there’s going to be PLENTY of evil before all is said and done over the next two months.
In addition to finishing up Sharp Objects and covering Better Call Saul weekly here at the Big6 Blog, I’ll also be reviewing each episode of The Sinner. Right now, we just have a lot of questions as to what Julian’s issues are, and how bad a person Vera Walker might turn out to be. It was a good start. There is a ton of mystery surrounding the double homicide and the rationale that led to the killings. Unspooling all of it to get to the truth is going to be entertaining. My prediction today is… The Sinner will be better than Sharp Objects, and potentially by a substantial margin. The pacing of the premiere was strong, the cast is solid, and I’m looking highly forward to following along and sharing my thoughts with you right here each week.
Good start. Intriguing story. Many questions. Seven weeks to get to the bottom of it.
I’m @JasonMartin. Other names for jimson weed, per my research, include devil’s snare, hell’s bells, thorn apple, and devil’s trumpet. Charming plant.