‘The Sinner’ Finale Leaves Us With One Last Shameful Question

What started out strong ended all wrong.
By  · Published on September 21st, 2017

What started out strong ended all wrong.

One of the best surprises on television this year had been The Sinner, the “whydunit” that starts with Jessica Biel as a wife and mother who suddenly stabs a stranger to death on the beach — and neither she nor anyone, including the audience, knows the reason. The USA series actually continued to be full of intrigue and satisfying twists and turns and escalating drama through last week’s penultimate seventh episode. But like too many mysteries, The Sinner doesn’t really conclude as strong or fulfilling as it begins or leads on.

“Part VII” last week actually made the finale out to be particularly promising, as it was the best episode yet and provided the most new developments and answers to our questions. Yes, it’s very frustrating how the series reveals so many memories that Cora (Biel) had involving Maddie (Danielle Burgess) in fact involved her sickly sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander), but that’s an issue of manipulation and change we’ve forgiven in much better material (see the sudden change in the audio clip in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation for a certain example that’s not even about memory that we allow).

Besides, Alexander is so good in the episode — frankly, she turned out to be the most compelling character and performer of the whole show all at once with that single installment. And it’s such a disturbing and tragic twist while also being such a bittersweet moment for Phoebe, living her life to the fullest right before dying, that it stuns in a mostly positive way for the audience. It works narratively and is executed incredibly well, by director Tucker Gates, to allow us to overlook any problems with logic or trickery.

And then The Sinner kind of blows it all with last night’s “Part VIII.” Much of the finale feels rushed and so simplistically explained that none of our latest frustrations can be appeased in any way by a balance of greater deeds. Maddie was just fine and good and had a name change and had just happened to run off and hide that strange night in spite of her clearly having a deep psychologically scarred dependence on and attachment to J.D. (Jacob Pitts)? Did she even know about what happened after she left? Did she know about Cora’s case? If so, was she just hoping to stay hidden and out of it?

As for Frankie’s parents (Christopher Innvar and Orlagh Cassidy), didn’t that sort of come too much out of nowhere? Great mysteries need to set up the main bad guy throughout the show yet ever so carefully so as not to make them obviously as the who (or in this case the why) of the dunit. Weak mysteries are those where the reveal at the end involves characters you barely knew if thought about at all (I don’t think Frankie’s dad even has a character name other than “Frankie’s Dad”). Now we may have so many more questions about Frankie’s parents, especially his mother who doesn’t bear much of the focus of the cover-up at all. Not so much as in why did they, but in how could they?

But the biggest question, the one that’s most confusing and isn’t something to be explained by missing character or plot points, is why Cora’s parents (Enid Graham and C.J. Wilson) and  didn’t ever wonder about the fate of Phoebe. In the final conversation between Cora and her mother, the latter says that for those two months her daughters were missing she and her husband just assumed the duo ran away to Florida as planned and didn’t care. Okay, but what about when Cora was found and Phoebe wasn’t and there was never any attempt to question Cora about it and instead they just told her a lie about Phoebe dying? That’s either weird, suspicious, or just poorly written. I think it’s the last one.

Even Cora’s mother and father, regardless of how horrible they were, must have been especially concerned about the true whereabouts and fate of Phoebe, the daughter the mother at least loved and cared for and worried about more. Cora shows up as having been doing drugs for two months and she has no memory of the night they disappeared and none of it comes up? There’s no missing persons report? No deep investigation into Cora’s story to see where Phoebe fit in?

Instead they lie about a death from disease, never minding that Cora could probably eventually easily find out there was no death, no funeral, no other corroboration. And what if Phoebe was alive somewhere out there and suddenly turned up in those subsequent years? If there’s some good explanation for all of this nonsense and I missed it, I can’t have been the only one but I welcome being wrong for the sake of the show.

As for what’s next with The Sinner, apparently not even the producers know despite there being an order for a second season. The idea acknowledged in the past is that this is an anthology show with a different story each year. Cora’s arc is definitely tied up — a little too conveniently and happily too suddenly, but still a closed book. However, the final shot of the series implies that Bill Pullman‘s detective character could be back for more. Maybe he investigates a different case each season?

That would allow fans to learn what trauma he faced as a child that he mentions in the finale. And Pullman is a likable enough actor to be a good constant. But with the questions that do remain about Cora’s story and the world of this first season makes me hope The Sinner abandons everything about it. Or maybe moves Ambrose (Pullman) to somewhere far away where we’re not reminded of those frustrating loose ends. Paint over it as best they can so we don’t even have a place to pick at it and come back to that layer.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.