“Part I” crashes onto USA Network with a new, less surreal mystery than usual, but proves no less compelling.
This recap of The Sinner Season 3, Episode 1, “Part I”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous season by clicking these words.
USA Network’s reliable hit The Sinner has, at least through its first two seasons, always worked on the strength of basic need-to-know storytelling. In the first season, Jessica Biel went postal; in the second, a child poisoned a couple who seemed to be his parents. These are inscrutable, illogical crimes perpetrated by apparently innocent people for seemingly no reason, and the show always knew that the question of “why?” would sustain an audience through a slow and careful mystery.
The Sinner Season 3, Episode 1 is a bit like that – but also a bit different. It takes the time to establish some backstory and justification for the twisted car wreck which eventually forms the season’s gruesome catalyst. We meet well-liked history teacher Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer) hitting weed from a vape pen in the school toilets and being understandably fawned over by his – mostly female – students, and we’re allowed glimpses of his happy home life with heavily pregnant wife Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley). Before long we’re introduced to his sinister self-destructive college friend Nick Haas (Chris Messina), and get the sense that the resentment between them is going to boil over into something destructive. Sure enough, Nick is later found dead in the mangled ruins of his car, which has crashed into a tree on a lonely road leading only to a private residence, and Jaime was in the passenger seat.
The mystery here is significantly less mysterious than usual, and the cast seems to know it. With Bill Pullman’s aging, careerist detective Harry Ambrose being the figure who continues to bind the seasons together, the new additions to the cast – including Jessica Hecht as Sonya, the artist proprietor of the lonely house in the woods where it seemed Jaime and Nick were heading – apparently got the memo. Everyone ambles around with a haunted, glassy expression, comfortable in the knowledge that anyone familiar with the show won’t trust them as far as they can throw them. They play up to the idea that nobody can be trusted, everyone has things to hide, and the mysteries – including the precise nature of Jamie and Nick’s relationship, and why Jamie waited an hour after the crash and wiped Nick’s phone before calling 911, just to ensure he snuffed it – won’t be as straightforward as first impressions suggest.
Having seemingly abandoned the vague surrealism of the second season, The Sinner Season 3 has also shifted Harry from a rootless, borderline obsessed detective to a man with a remote house in the woods, sciatica, and the desire to re-forge relationships with his estranged daughter and granddaughter, even if his fascination with strange crimes threatens to undo his efforts in that regard.
The question is how much stranger this particular crime will get. While it begins straightforwardly enough, most people would have rightly guessed that Messina is too big a name to be done away with in the first episode, and between flashbacks and him randomly cropping up as a figment of Jamie’s imagination after his death, we’re going to see a lot more of him. This lends the show a lot of potential for eerie imagery and suspense-building as we continue to unpick the knots in the odd relationship between Jamie, Nick, and Sonya, and ponder why a well-to-do suburban school teacher would want an old friend dead. Hopefully, it’ll be fun finding out.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.