My discovery of the USA Network’s The Sinner was a random one, born out of a need to satiate my bored holiday mind as well as find a new TV series to fill the void Mindhunter had left behind. The premise sounded compelling: A woman (Jessica Biel) violently stabbing a man (Eric Todd) to death while on a family picnic at the beach, after the man’s girlfriend started playing his music over an iPod. Maybe she wasn’t fond of his music, but that is a strong reaction to have to a random stranger. The series is basically a way for us to work out why she did what she did. Obviously there is more to the story, a shared history between the two that no one is privy to, or perhaps a frayed mind that just snapped. The murder becomes secondary as we dive into Cora’s past, a past filled with maternal suffocation and religious guilt. Because of this stifling setting, Cora develops unhealthy relationships with men, seeking out dalliances that are forbidden and salaciously thrilling.
Cora’s sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander) is physically debilitated, which in turn restricts Cora’s life as well. Her sister envies her sickness-free existence and able-bodied freedom, often guilting her into doing things against her better judgement. Like helping her masturbate (you read that correctly) and allowing her to tag along for one night of fun. She is her sister’s caretaker and enabler. Things take a horrible turn on that night of fun. Her sister dies while having sex and everyone at the party is complicit in covering up the act. Cora is taken captive and made to forget, through being administered a cocktail of drugs everyday for weeks and then dumped on the side of the street.
But traumatic memories like that defy repression, as we see when the music playing and its link to the past catalyses Cora’s murder of the man who had sex with her sister, aka man on the beach and wannabe doctor Frankie Belmont. Phoebe’s death might have been accidental, but the cover-up and casual disposal of her body is criminal. What it reveals is how disposable a woman’s body is to these men: convenient for a night of pleasure and sex, but tossed away the moment things turn awry. The ultimate oh-my-god moment is when we discover that Frankie’s dad is the one who has been drugging Cora in order to protect his son. Let that sink in for a moment: he holds a woman captive, keeping her in a drug-induced state to facilitate memory loss, all so his son can become a doctor. Maybe I should be thankful my dad wasn’t overly concerned about my college applications.
Exposing the reality behind Cora’s crime and the injustice done to her is detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who has a messed up past of his own. His marriage is on the rocks, possibly because he can’t live without his BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism) kink. He wants to make it work with his wife, but keeps coming back to his mistress because he needs someone to exert power and control over him. We don’t discover why until season 2, where he is back yet again to help another sinner, this time a young boy who murders a couple. We learn of Ambrose’s traumatic childhood with his mother, who was so lost to the world in her head that he needed to set their house on fire so that he could be moved to a better living situation. He would rather be in foster care, basically in the hands of strangers, than be under the same roof as his mom. Perhaps there was the hope that his actions might get her the help she needs. However, this is futile because she never gets better. This helps in explaining his need for punishment, and his indulgence in BDSM, since his mother was the exact opposite of controlling.
In trying to help Julian (Elisha Henig), Pullman is drawn into a complex situation of motherhood. On one hand you have Vera (Carrie Coon), who has declared herself Julian’s mother, and nursed him when he was young, though she is not his birth mother. She goes to great lengths to protect him, even killing their cult leader because he was planning to sacrifice Julian as a way for the community to purge their sins. The logic escapes me too, but we all know cult leaders are not great on rationality. However, she has also exposed him to ways of the community that proves to be harmful. They are taught that lying is bad and unforgivable, so when Julian overhears the couple (Bess and Adam) who brought him along for a so-called trip to Niagara Falls say they aren’t really going there, he panics and poisons them. Ah, before I forget, he also thinks that death is a kind of restart, not fully understanding the gravity of his actions. So this woman whom he calls mother may have gone to great lengths to protect him, but she has also screwed him up.
Adding to the mix is Julian’s real mother Marin (Hannah Gross), who never had a good relationship with her own mother. This results in her spending more time at her best friend’s house, a place she could even call home until one day, her best friend’s father decides to rape her. I know, this show is truly bonkers. So now we know that Julian is the product of a rape, which explains why his real mother could never properly connect with him after his birth. Years later, after rehabilitating herself, she returns for him, but Vera doesn’t want to give him up. Marin ends up begging Bess, who has been a surrogate mother of sorts for Julian, so much so that we mistake her for his mother in the opening moments of The Sinner’s first episode. This is what starts the whole Niagara Falls charade – Bess was actually bringing him back to Marin until he tragically ends her life, along with the poor sap who dies stumbling out naked from the shower.
All these characters become the way they are because of questionable parenting. Cora’s mother suppresses her daughters’ bodies with a maniacal religious zeal, Ambrose’s mom abandons her child when she retreated from her mind, and Julian has mothers who tussle over him but never really stop to think about his well-being and welfare. He is just there to satisfy their own narcissistic needs as mothers. Don’t despair though, the series is not completely drenched in hopelessness.
What The Sinner shows is that while children can be products of undesirable parenting, there is a possibility of breaking free from the cycle. Cora pleads guilty and is tortured by her actions even when she couldn’t understand them. Her main thoughts are about her son, and how her trial and incarceration would affect him. Instead of running away, Julian asks Vera to bring him back to the police so he can be accountable for his actions.
However, things are not so hunky dory for our detective, who cannot escape his own screwed up childhood no matter the number of sinners he helps (perhaps that’s why there is a third season of The Sinner in the works). Philip Larkin, in his poem This Be the Verse, writes about how we are fucked up by our parents, and how they “were fucked up in their turn” by their own parents. His verse has no hope attached to it, merely stating that our only course of action is to not “have any kids” ourselves. Maybe we delude ourselves when we think the cycle is broken – the baggage might never detach.