I am a woman of many fandoms. Sometimes I become a fan of something too early – like Harley Quinn, who I absolutely fell in love with in 1992 when they introduced her on Batman: The Animated Series. It was frustrating in the beginning because most people didn’t know who she was, and there certainly wasn’t any merchandise bearing her likeness available. But as the years passed I watched with pride as her popularity grew; she crossed over into the comic book world, started appearing on t-shirts, and eventually ended up in a movie. For a while it seemed like the world was as obsessed with her as I was. I arrived at that party several decades too soon.
In other instances I become a fan of something that never really catches on to the mainstream. Clopin from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example, is my absolute favorite character in that movie by far. I dressed up as him for Halloween my senior year in high school, as a matter of fact (no small feat considering I more-or-less had to assemble it using random bits and pieces in a time before things like “the Internet” and “cosplay” were widely established). The rest of the world never caught on to my passion for the character (or the movie) in this case, and as a result I’m sure most people don’t know who I’m talking about. This ended up being a party of one.
Then there are the times that I’ve become a fan of something long after everyone else has already been there, and done that. The TV show The Sinner is my most recent foray into such a situation. As far as the timing goes, I’m only a year late, which I’d argue isn’t that bad. Discovering a show several seasons in seems to occur often enough that I know I’m not the only one who does it. In fact, when I posted on Facebook about my long overdue viewing of season one, a friend immediately started watching it too. That made me think writing a review of season one of The Sinner, as belated as it may be, might be worthwhile. Because a lot of different people are delayed for a lot of different reasons…we’re all tardy to the party sometimes. Maybe it’s worth reminding them that the show exists, that the party’s in full swing.
The Sinner premiered August 2, 2017 on USA network. The premise was simple – a seemingly normal woman murders a random stranger for no apparent reason – but the details of the story are incredibly complex. We’re introduced to Cora Tannetti (played by Jessica Biel, who also executive produces) right away and quickly learn that her life is somewhat frustratingly entwined with her in-laws. She works for her father-in-law’s company, her mother-in-law watches her son while she and her husband are working, and both in-laws insist that the couple stay for dinner when they come to pick up their son. Every. Single. Night. Oh, and they literally live next door. Her husband Mason (played by Christopher Abbott) appears to be a nice enough guy, though he can’t quite bring himself to tell his parents that maybe this whole “seeing them every day” thing is a bit much.
At Cora’s insistence, they decide to spend their day off at a nearby lake, just them and their son, no in-laws allowed. It’s a beautiful sunny day, the perfect weather for this kind of outing, and after they set up on the beach, Cora announces that she’s going for a swim. She ventures beyond the roped off swimming area into the middle of the lake where she enjoys some peace and quiet until she hears Mason calling her from the shore. When she returns, she settles down on their beach blanket and innocently begins to cut up a pear, sharing pieces with her son. As she does this, a group of nearby young-ish people catches her attention. They joke and laugh and play loud music and make-out, typical behavior for a group like this. Mason notices too, but dismisses them almost immediately. Cora, however, becomes fixated on them, on one man in particular, when without warning she leaps up and starts stabbing him with the knife she was previously using on the pear. Her husband pries her off him and drags her away, but the damage is done and the young man dies. Cora is arrested and immediately confesses to the crime she’s committed. She insists that she’s guilty, refuses legal representation, and is willing to face whatever the consequences may be. For the most part, the police officers involved are pleased to have caught such an easy, open-and-shut case…that is, everyone except Detective Harry Ambrose (played by Bill Pullman). He seems like the only one who notices (or cares?) that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill murder. He wants more answers. He needs more answers. So begins the eight episode arc that explores the demons inhabiting the mind of a “normal” woman that drive her to take a life.
The story itself is fascinating, with enough twists and turns to keep the viewer guessing. It also plays with the various ways one’s mind copes with things like abuse, trauma, assault, and hard drug use. Cora is an unwitting, unreliable narrator of her own past. While she possesses clear, vivid memories of certain events, she’s unable to remember some things at all, and only has fragmented memories of others. What’s worse is that a decent number of those fragments end up being either partially inaccurate or completely made-up. The search for Cora’s motive becomes a quest to uncover the truth about her past, an almost impossible undertaking even when Cora is a willing participant. The good news is that though the journey is perilous and fraught with difficulties, it’s not for naught. By the end of the season all the whos, whats, whys, whens, wheres, and hows have been revealed. I wouldn’t exactly say that everything is wrapped in a nice, neat bow, but everything has been explained, and the explanation makes sense.
The main characters are well-rounded, realistic individuals. Though Cora could be considered “broken” in many ways, she’s also resilient. Her willingness to accept the consequences of her actions is refreshing – she recognizes the seriousness of taking someone else’s life, and though she herself doesn’t understand why she’s done it, she’s disinclined to make excuses or look for a way out. She did it, so she’ll pay the price. She’s a good wife and mother, repeatedly telling her husband that he needs to do what’s best for him and their son, and if that means moving on with their lives without her, she understands. Meanwhile, I wasn’t a big fan of Mason for most of the series. Frankly, I didn’t think he was a particularly good husband. He should’ve stood up to his parents a long time ago and insisted on more private time with his wife and son, especially since Cora expressed her discomfort regarding the excessive amount of time they spent with them. They’re his parents, it’s his job to deal with them. He also should’ve noticed that something was wrong with Cora and at least tried to do something about it, whether that meant convincing her to go to therapy or simply talking to her himself. Not to mention the fact that he made increasingly idiotic decisions as the series progressed. By the last episode he was starting to do the kinds of things you would expect a loving, supportive husband to do, and I became cautiously optimistic about his future with Cora.
And then there’s Detective Ambrose. I found him to be the most intriguing of the bunch with his quiet, intense personality and endearingly awkward interactions with just about everyone else on the show. I was initially struck by his kindness. It’s such a simple thing, to be kind, and yet so incredibly rare. His motivations stem from equal parts wanting to know the truth and wanting to genuinely help Cora, and I was moved by the sincere kindness with which he treated her. What’s more, he’s extremely intelligent, perceptive, and tends to think before speaking, another unusual trait. I’m pleased to say that he’s the sole returning character in season two, which gives the audience the opportunity to continue getting to know him.
That’s not to say that the show isn’t without flaws. I’d argue that I knew Cora wasn’t “normal” before the incident on the beach occurred. I don’t know if that’s because I went into the series with the knowledge that she was going to kill someone so I was looking for indications of instability or if there were enough subtle hints planted to imply that something wasn’t quite right with her. Yes, it’s shocking that she murders a random guy minding his own business in a public place in broad daylight. There’s nothing to imply that she’d do something that extreme or violent. That said, there are times earlier in the episode when you can see that something’s off. Later in the series we witness various moments from her past via flashbacks, and that initial impression of her only grows. I don’t understand how her husband could’ve been so blind to the signs that his wife needed some kind of help.
Additionally, I’m completely baffled by the general attitude of law enforcement towards the crime, which is essentially, “This woman killed a stranger, she confessed, we have witnesses. Case closed. Let’s leave work early and grab a beer.” As a passionate true crime fan, I’ve grown up around both true crime books and police procedurals (although fictional, they’re often inspired by real cops, real crimes, or both). I know that a cop’s job isn’t necessarily to figure out the “why” of a crime. The four other W’s and the H are the most important, and a case can be closed and go to trial without the “why.” I would still argue that this particular crime is unique enough that even the hardest, most seasoned homicide detective would have further questions about it. The fact that Detective Ambrose is the only one who pursues the case further is odd.
In the end, I think The Sinner is worth watching. I usually have to give a new show at least two or three episodes before I decide whether or not I’m going to invest in it because quite often it takes that long for a show to find its stride. In this case, I was hooked by the end of the first episode. On top of that, I’m not typically the type of person who binges shows – I tend to only watch one or two episodes in a sitting because I like time to process what’s happened before I move forward. The Sinner was compelling enough to be the rare exception to that rule, as I watched episodes four to seven back-to-back because I simply couldn’t bring myself to turn it off. Season two, which aired a few months ago, follows a different crime with mostly different characters (except for Detective Ambrose, as previously mentioned), but manages to maintain its distinctiveness and continues to be captivating. I recommend you check it out…it would be a sin if you didn’t.