The Sinner TV TV Recaps

“The Sinner” Ep.2.01: “Part I”

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in “The Sinner,” but there’s one very interesting thing it does: it gives us the crime and the perpetrator right off the bat, in the very first episode. In season one, it was Jessica Biel’s Cora, who murdered a man on the beach. In season two, we see 13-year-old Julian (Elisha Henig) serve his parents poisoned tea in the first 10 minutes. Giving that information to the viewer up front makes the show less about finding out who committed the crime, instead focusing on the sometimes more interesting question: why?

The Sinner - Season 2
(L-R) Bill Pullman as Detective Lt. Harry Ambrose, Tracy Letts as Jack in “The Sinner” | Photo credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network

We open very similarly to season one with some beautiful footage of upstate New York. There’s a family driving in a car through the forest and, given the opening episode of season one, we can be pretty sure at least one of them is doomed. There follows a series of unfortunate events, each of which compounds on the last. The car gets a flat tire, they pull it into an empty lot with no help nearby, they have to walk a mile to a motel, the wife has left her wallet in the car. In a normal show, any one of those points would have been the one resulting in a murder. But on “The Sinner” everything is fine. The family spends the night in the motel and the only strange event is the son, Julian, sitting up alone in the middle of the night and remembering, or envisioning, a dark figure in a hoodie.

Even the following morning everything seems mostly fine. The father has gotten a mechanic to look at the car, the mother is still sleeping and Julian is at the breakfast buffet. It’s not until Julian comes back to the room that something starts to feel a little off. He brings tea for both his parents and watches very closely while they both take sips. The father goes to take a shower while the mother gets ready to leave. It’s not long before things start going wrong, and by the time 10 minutes pass in the episode, both parents are dead while Julian looks on, slightly confused.

I will say there are a few red flags throughout this first scene. There’s a bit of tension between the parents, Adam and Bess. The mother forgets her wallet in the car, which could be a simple accident, but given what we learn later in the episode could also be a purposeful decision. The mother is also very wary of spending the night at the motel, going so far as to say “we shouldn’t be spending the night here.” Taken separately all of these are pretty normal, but together they begin to paint a very suspicious picture of this “family vacation.”

After the crime is committed, we leave the motel and head to Keller, NY, where we meet Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) and her father Jack (Tracy Letts). They’re having breakfast together when Heather, a local detective, gets the call about the murders at the motel and leaves, but not before making sure Jack doesn’t eat any more ranch dressing. I’m sure we’ll get a lot more nuance to their relationship in the future but after this introduction, it’s clear Heather’s mother is not in the picture; towards the end of the episode we find out she died 15 years ago. Heather has taken over the duties of caring for her father, somewhat reluctantly.

When Heather reaches the motel, some of the stranger aspects of the crime start to come through: both of the parents were rearranged by Julian after their deaths; they’re both covered with sheets, and both have rocks on their eyes. Heather finds the bathroom window open so she and the other officer on the scene head into the woods behind the motel, where they find Julian’s shoes and then Julian himself hiding behind a tree having wet his pants.

We get our first glimpse of Harry (played by Bill Pullman, returning) driving into the familiar police station from season one with his partner. He seems like he might be in a slightly better mental place this season given the lack of bruises on his fingernails. He’s clearly not paying ladies to step on his hands anymore. He claims to be in touch with his daughter, though I’m pretty sure that’s false since he’s once again drinking alone at the bar after work. While at the bar he gets a call from Heather and we find out that he used to be friends with Jack. She requests some help on the case and so Harry returns to Keller where he grew up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like this will be good for his mental health as he starts dreaming about a woman, a boiling pot of water and a house fire almost as soon as he agrees to go back.

Through the rest of the episode, we get the first hints of what we’ll be learning the rest of the season. Though Harry and Jack are old childhood friends, there’s a decent amount of tension in their relationship, as evidenced by Jack needling Harry about old memories and a scene where they aggressively disagree over who should be paying the breakfast check at the diner. There’s also a lot more tension involved in Heather’s relationship with her father. Jack blurts out that Heather is gay in a very strange way. He says he’s fine with it and we have no reason not to believe it, but the way he tells Harry out of nowhere feels very strange.

It’s not long before Heather and Harry are investigating the crime scene together and, as happened in season one, Harry’s love of botany comes in handy as he’s able to identify the plant that Julian used to poison his parents: jimsonweed. It leaves a rash on the skin that both Julian and Harry contract when they pick it. Also similar to season one, Julian admits to the crime almost immediately, though adding to this season’s mystery he says “they had to go back…to the beginning” when asked why he poisoned his parents.

This episode is loaded with beautiful shots of the forests in upstate New York. There were many in season one as well but they certainly feel more claustrophobic and sinister here, as though they represent the mystery and danger of the forest, whereas in season one they represented more the freedom of adventure and escape to Cora.

Despite the fact that there’s enough evidence to charge Julian, in addition to the fact that he admitted to the crimes, Harry wants to wait to file the charges. They’re still waiting for the toxicology reports and, similar to season one, he feels there’s more going on with Julian than meets the eye. It turns out he’s right! When they find Bess and Adam’s car, they discover a wallet but no ID, find that they were traveling south instead of north to Niagara Falls like they told Julian and find full packed bags for both adults yet nothing at all packed for Julian.

We’re occasionally given glimpses of Vera (Carrie Coon), who seems to be Julian’s therapist back where he lives. They have very odd sessions where Julian draws on the floor while Vera plays a very loud thunking sound that seems like it’s going to be the trigger this season like the song was for Cora in season one. She also asks him very worrying questions about “Shadow Julian,” who I believe is the hooded figure Julian sees sometimes. One of the things she’s teaching him in his sessions is to let Shadow Julian in when he comes knocking. To me, this seems like a bad idea, but I’m not a child therapist so what do I know?

I was definitely expecting it to take one or two more episodes for Vera to intersect with the main story. So imagine my delight and surprise when she pulls up to the police station at the end of the episode and asks about Julian. When the cops on duty ask what her interest is she says she’s his mother. WTF?!

The setup in “Part I” proves that the success of season one was not a fluke. It’s clear to me that everyone involved with the show really cares about making an interesting mystery based not on who committed the crime, but rather why they did so. The previews for the season seem to imply that season two will be about some kind of cult, which answers many questions about why Adam and Bess were so strange and why Julian’s therapy sessions feel a little unorthodox. I for one can’t wait to see how the story unfolds this season – it’s sure to be just as fascinating as Cora’s story.

Catch me live-tweeting “The Sinner” on Wednesdays at 10/9c at Shuffle Online and follow me on So…I’m Watching This Show. 

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