Warning: This is a spoiler-free review of Season 2, but contains some details from The Sinner Season 1. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review here.
Complex, enigmatic, dangerous, tragic. 2017 introduced us to one of TV’s most impressively rounded female characters – not only in the form of Jessica Biel’s Cora in The Sinner, but also in the shape of Carrie Coon’s Nora in The Leftovers. The idea of USA Network’s crime thriller returning for a second season without Biel, then, was something of a disappointment – until Coon’s name cropped up in the cast list.
The show’s sophomore run brings back its other main character, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who finds himself once again confronting a case involving a murder with no clear motivation, and an apparent culprit with seemingly no awareness of what, or how, they’ve done. It’s crime telly catnip and writer Derek Simonds is an expert at dishing it up one bowl at a time, with portions just big enough to hook you and just small enough to leave you needing more; the pacing and plotting are spot-on, painting a constant mood of uncertainty that lesser shows would fumble and drop within a couple of episodes, let alone sustain them across a season. (Half of the eight episodes were made available to the press for review, and they don’t drop the ball once.)
The crime, in this case, is the death of a mum and a dad in a motel, apparently at the hands of their son, Julian (Elisha Henig). It might not be as gruesome as Cora’s stabbing in Season 1, but it’s, if anything, even nastier, as Henig’s blank, confused, scared teen is juxtaposed by this horribly adult act. Henig’s brilliant turn manages to leave his young boy entirely ambiguous, meaning that even when we think we know what we think about him, we’re still not exactly sure.
And so local cop Heather (Natalie Paul) calls in Ambrose to help with the case. Ambrose is an old friend of her dad (played with scene-stealing warmth and affection by Tracy Letts), because he’s originally from their town, and the result is as much as crime investigation as it is a traumatic homecoming, fraught with awkward conversations, concealed secrets and many shots of Bill Pullman stroking his beard thoughtfully. Where Season 1 of The Sinner was fuelled by Cora’s flashbacks, here, we glimpse the thoughts of Harry, as memories apparently from his childhood suggest all manner of troubling things long forgotten. There’s something irresistibly compelling about a show that understands the importance of connecting with one’s past to be able to move forwards, and Pullman’s grizzled presence gives us a protagonist who’s much more than a simple window onto the genre – think Sharp Objects meets True Detective, a why-dunnit more than a who-dunnit.
But The Sinner’s real talent is using Harry Ambrose to do something even better: open up a story that once again showcases a fantastically written, and fascinating woman. Carrie Coon is one of the best actresses working today, in film or TV, and it’s a treat just to see her at work again – the fact that it’s work involving such an unsettling, twisted, seemingly sincere person is the icing on the cake. Even her entrance demands our attention, as she rocks up at the police station announcing herself as Julian’s mother. By the time the intimidating figure has started to get her psychological hooks into Ambrose, the result is a wonderfully conflicting, and conflicted, crime mystery that revels in the interactions of people who all have their own darkness hidden beneath the surface.
As a TV series that carefully constructs cryptic puzzles that demand to be unpicked in a single day-long session, The Sinner is up there with the best crime series around. As a show that consistently takes the time to craft a showcase for surprising, moving, resilient women, it can’t be praised enough.
The Sinner Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.