The Sinner Season 2 gets off to a fine start with “Part I”, opening with a new, unrelated story that has a deeper, more personal connection to the hero.
It’s always a bit of a nuisance trying to write about a show like The Sinner, the second season of which premiered last night on the USA Network. By the end of the premiere episode, which in this case was creatively titled “Part I”, most of the things you thought you knew are revealed to be outright false or at the very least not quite how they were initially presented. So whereas The Sinner Season 2 opens with a family road trip to Niagara Falls going horribly wrong, I sit here now totally unsure about whether the word “family” even applies to that description anymore, or if Niagara Falls is really where they were going. Like I said, it’s a bit of a nuisance.
Nonetheless, welcome back. Much like how the first season of this show lured in an unsuspecting audience by having a scene of slightly off-kilter domesticity explode into random, horrific violence, so too does The Sinner Season 2 kick things off with a generous helping of surprise unpleasantness. No sooner have the bickering, holidaying parents checked in to a roadside motel after a breakdown than their maybe-son, Julian (Elisha Henig), has poisoned them both to death with a hot mug of deadly jimson weed disguised as tea, arranged their bodies in ritualistic fashion with stones over their eyes, dived out of a window, kicked his shoes off and pissed himself in the woods.
Now, there’s probably a reason this crime scene rings a few alarm bells for Keller PD Detective Heather Novack (Natalie Paul): It’s fucking mental. And so she turns to Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), a friend of her father’s and the only connective tissue between The Sinner Season 2 and its inaugural effort, hoping that he’ll mosey on down to his hometown, where he’s not at all keen on staying long because the place is rife with unsettled grievances – including one he shares with Novack’s father, Jack (Tray Letts) – and his mother might have burned his house down at one point. It’s complicated.
But “Part I” is already possessed of a better balance between pulpy potboiler lunacy and introspective psychological examinations than the first season was at this stage, and it helps that the proximity of the crime is more deeply tied to the lead character. It doesn’t feel entirely unlike HBO’s Sharp Objects, in that sense, which is also about a tortured professional returning to an eerie old town that’s as good as haunted. The Sinner Season 2 is a bit pacier, but Harry is similarly worse for wear, although his history of fetishistic penance is a bit more sexually-charged and usually involves prostitutes. We’re getting a bit diverted here.
Either way, there’s plenty that’s already off about the case, including quibbles about the family’s initial direction and destination, and that’s before the appearance of Vera (Carrie Coon), an enigmatic woman who busts into the Keller jail and demands to see Julian on the grounds that she’s his mother. Yikes. We’ve already met her in weird flashbacks, by that point, where she narrates Julian’s dutiful scribbling in a way that hints at the town’s evangelical past and suggests Julian, like Jessica Biel’s Cora from the previous story, might not be entirely responsible for his own actions.
So, who is she? His mother? A therapist? The spiritual shepherd of his dark, hooded alter-ego? “Part I” is tight-lipped on the matter, which is just as well. This is the kind of storytelling that gets audiences to tune in next week, which I’ll be doing quite eagerly. Join me, won’t you? We can find out together whether or not The Sinner Season 2 gets quite as insane as the first one did.