Essays · TV

The Escalating Mystery of ‘The Sinner’

This show just went from whydunit to whodunit. 
Jessica Biel In The Sinner
By  · Published on August 24th, 2017

This show just went from whydunit to whodunit.

You could wait until late September to binge-watch The Sinner. Based on a bestselling thriller, the eight-part limited series is another television equivalent of a page-turner. If it were on Netflix, you’d probably have to watch in one sitting, because the central mystery is so curious and complex and challenging that you want the answers as soon as possible.

Well, The Sinner wasn’t dumped anywhere all at once. It’s on the USA Network, where the psychological drama is getting really great ratings. Viewers are tuning in week-to-week, patiently awaiting the conclusion while the show adds more mind-boggling questions. This week, we reached the midpoint of the miniseries and were thrown a whole new mystery on top of the ongoing murder case.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t on board from the beginning. The Sinner looked like a Lifetime movie stretched out to five or six hours. But the success of the series intrigued me, and the premise of a normal-seeming woman (Jessica Biel) suddenly killing a stranger on a crowded beach in broad daylight has a certain appeal. USA marketed the show as a “whydunit,” because the who is already known from the start.

So far, it’s reminded me more of The Night Of, the eight-part limited series on HBO that we were all obsessed with one year ago. In both, a character is arrested for a crime they can’t explain. With The Night Of, though, we’re pretty sure from the beginning that the protagonist is innocent. It’s the authorities who are unclear of the motive. With The Sinner, we see the woman do it, graphically, and nobody — not the police, not the audience, and maybe not even she — knows why.

Like The Night Of, this series features another main character with his own demons investigating the crime, trying to figure out the truth of the murder as we follow along. There, it was the eczema-suffering lawyer played by John Turturro. The Sinner has a masochistic police detective played by Bill Pullman. He theorizes that the murderer, Cora (Biel), was acting uncontrollably due to some sort of past trauma triggering the act.

There’s more of an imbalance in The Sinner as we also observe Pullman’s character, Harry, attempting to save his marriage (his wife is played by Kathryn Erbe, a famous TV detective herself) while unable to give up having his fingers crushed by a secret lover. He’s not the most interesting troubled cop character ever, but Pullman manages to hold our attention in the role.

We can’t be given as much straightforward character material with Cora, because she has to remain an enigma to keep the whydunit mystery going. If we see too much of her, various possibilities may cease to be. For the first couple episodes, for instance, there’s the chance that she actually knew her victim and acted more logically than we initially thought.

Biel is impressive in the role, even if some of her performance feels inconsistent, maybe due to the vagueness needed for her character, maybe due to the way the show is directed to keep her that way. At times she’s more lucid than we typically see from her. The first three episodes are directed by Antonio Campos, who dealt with a true puzzle of a woman with last year’s Christine, about the real journalist who inexplicably killed herself on live TV.

Most of Cora’s character development comes gradually through flashbacks to her youth, growing up with an abusive evangelical mother who blamed Cora’s minor sins (eating chocolate, for one) for her younger sister being sick since birth. Presumably that background will come into play more than as a reason for Cora running away and getting mixed up in drugs and whatever else still remains behind the series’ curtain.

Each episode has actually added more possibilities for where this unpredictable show might go in the end. Part of this comes in the reveals of more pieces to the puzzle, like an unidentified guy in a bear mask who has some significance but obviously brings in another unknown element, and part of it comes in the way so many characters and procedures are unreliable. Early on, it was Cora who wasn’t consciously telling the whole truth. Later, she’s fleshing out strange, uncertain details through hypnosis (fittingly, Session 9 director Brad Anderson took over with this latest episode). There are also other characters who might be lying about or misremembering events as they happened five years ago.

And now at the end of “Part IV,” a buried skeleton has been uncovered. Who is it? That answer is an easy guess. The more important question is: who killed this person and hid the body in the woods? On top of the mystery of why Cora killed the guy at the beach is the mystery of who killed this character — and also why. For all we know, Cora could have murdered this person, too.

Given how plot-driven The Sinner is, had it been all released at once, viewers might have preferred to skim ahead through the episodic steps to get to the conclusion. If there wasn’t anything worthwhile along the way, that is. The skeleton discovery is definitely the most interesting development since the big murder, which occurred in the first half of the pilot. Little things have added up, however, and meanwhile, the ambiguity provides us with imaginable events, which can be just as gripping (fan theories abound!).

There’s a very good chance that the series could underwhelm with the ending. The answers might not satisfy all the questions, especially the most important one. I trust that because the novel, which I haven’t read (maybe after the show…), is apparently quite solid and has been so popular that the adaptation could follow suit with a strong landing, at least on a surface narrative level. Either way, I’ll be back in another four weeks to offer my thoughts on how it all wraps up.

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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.