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The first season of The Sinner, released in 2017, was a great piece of self-contained crime drama television that asked the simple question of Why, rather Who, in the case of Jessica Biel’s Cora Tannetti, who seemingly, without reason, murders an innocent man on the beach in broad daylight in front of her husband and son. Brought in to uncover the mystery of what happened is Bill Pulman’s grizzled detective Harry Ambrose, who stops at nothing until the whole web of lies, secrecy and truth are revealed.
Being a self-contained piece of drama, the mystery at the heart of the show was tied up nicely by the end of the season, meaning that this second season is not a continuation or sequel in any way. This time around, gone are the characters of the first season except detective Ambrose who is called in to assist on the case of a double murder by a young thirteen year old boy called Julian.
From the opening few scenes of the first episode of this season we know exactly where we are. The couple travelling with the young Julian traverse long windy roads set against the vast landscape of nature in visuals that clearly allude to the opening of Kubrick’s The Shinning. Once that horror-esque opening sets the scene, all the other cinematic and literary allusions to horror become more and more apparent. We have the couple’s car breaking down, so of course they have to stay the night at a motel, just like Psycho; we have the mother singing creepy lullabies to her child, from any host of horror fiction, and we have the local town bewildered that something so horrific could happen on their doorstep.
None of this is a criticism, and in fact the show is not as lazy about these allusions as I might make it seem, it’s just that once you notice it you begin to see it everywhere. Nonetheless, it sets the scene nicely for the strangeness at the heart of the rest of the season, which veers between a vast plethora of characters and themes.
Once the central set-up of the murderer confessing to the crime, as in season one, is established we again look to the past to discover how something like this could happen, and here our hero detective Ambrose finds himself as the community of Mosswood, the central antagonist force of the season, personified by the character of the community’s leader Vera Walker (Carrie Coon).
The mother of Julian, Vera leads this cult-like organisation living on the outskirts of the local town. What first seems like a simple hippie community of outsiders and outcasts, quickly appears more and more sinister. The show has a lot to say on the subject of these cult-like communities, signposted in the first episode by the utterance that Joseph Smith started the Mormon religion in this area. However, in truth it’s the spectre of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard that hangs over the community of Mosswood. Carrie Coon’s Vera acts as the David Miscavige-like figure leading the community and following the doctrine of the community’s writer/creator figure known as The Beacon.
While there is a suggestion that these cults can actually lead to the betterment of disillusioned and lost people hovering on the very fringes of society, there is the truth behind the curtain of it all that highlights the falsity at the heart of groups like this; like Scientology, Jonestown, and Waco. Despite the salvation that these communities offer, whether real or not, it’s all build upon the lies of the leader who preys upon the most vulnerable among us to exercise power over.
While most of the plot centres on the conflict between the “civilised world” of detective Ambrose, and the “barbaric world” of Vera Walker and Mosswood, it’s the theme of guilt which binds everything together. All the central characters are faced with the return of their past in one way or another, and that spirit of guilt is revisited; Ambrose through memories of his mother, his partner detective Novack (Natalie Paul) through her past relationship with a lost friend (Hannah Gross), Vera Walker through her complicity in the actions of her community, and Julian in his acknowledgement of the horrific crime he’s committed.
While the story is sound and the characters are played brilliantly, particularly the young Elisha Henig who plays Julian, there is a distinctive sense that the plot this time around is a little convoluted and contrived, and the flashbacks are too numerous. Don’t get me wrong, I love flashbacks (Lost is one of my favourite shows), but in this season, which is only eight episodes, we flash back to multiple different characters, sometimes in the same episode, and the juxtaposition of all of this can be a little jarring at times. I think particularly the flashbacks of Ambrose are unnecessary because they don’t move the plot along in any meaningful way. I know they develop his character, but there’s a lot going on and a lot of characters clamouring for screen-time, in both the present and past.
Overall, the second season of The Sinner is an excellent self-contained piece of television. Not so long that the mystery is dragged out, but a little too contrived at times. While the first season was streamlined and focused almost exclusively on the characters of Cora and Ambrose, this time around there is a lot more characters vying for screen time, and I think it suffers as a result. Not as good as the first season, but still well worth your time and attention.