Reviews · TV

‘The Sinner’ Redeems Itself With the Start of Season 2

Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts just make everything better. 
Carrie Coon In The Sinner
By  · Published on August 2nd, 2018

Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts just make everything better.

After disappointing many viewers with the Season 1 finale last year (and more this summer, thanks to its Netflix debut), The Sinner is back with a whole new mystery. This time, the show is being more upfront about the direction of the story. At least from what the Season 2 trailer shares for what’s in store. I’ll get into that potential spoiler further down, in case anyone is avoiding the previews.

Even without seeing where this installment is headed (it does come off fairly obvious in the first episode of the season), there are some definite markers of improvement in certain regards. There’s still a “whydunit” mystery, but it’s not quite as puzzling as the one from the first season. At the start of that story, we saw Jessica Biel (now still serving as an executive producer) murder a man and not seem to realize what has just happened. This time, there’s a 13-year-old boy (Elisha Henig) poisoning his parents and ultimately acknowledging that he knew what he was doing.

The question of his motive is still unclear, and that surely will be the primary driving force that keeps a lot of us watching. But it’s not as difficult to imagine — that is, speculate and guess — why a kid would kill his mom and dad and stage their bodies in some religious manner and then appear a bit stunned at what he’s done. Not unaware or surprised, just traumatized by the experience. Henig gives an extraordinary performance as the boy, a worthy successor to Biel’s standout work in the similar position.

We are definitely intrigued again by the flashback sequences, probably more so because while this season could seemingly have just been again about a main character with a past involving overbearing or abusive parents, there’s more to the background here. What is going on in those child psychology sessions where Carrie Coon instructs the boy with cryptic ideas while a machine behind her creates a hypnotic pulsing noise? And how does Coon, who shows up at the end of the episode with the twist that she’s actually his mother, factor into the whole murder scenario?

For many viewers, the mystery will be all that matters. Hopefully, for most, this season will also just be a satisfying journey to get to whatever endpoint there is in two months. Coon will be a big part of making that happen. The Tony and Emmy Award nominee is becoming a not-so-secret weapon for TV series after breaking out as the most memorable part of HBO’s The Leftovers and co-starring in the Season 3 story of Fargo. Now, following her minimal villain role in the new Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, she’s getting to explore another antagonist character. Whether she turns out to be a real bad guy or someone more complex than that, she’s set up to be an adversary for Bill Pullman and Natalie Paul‘s detectives.

That duo is where Season 2 does seem primed for some issues going forth. As much as I generally love Pullman and thought he did a decent job in Season 1, I never once cared for his character arc and backstory and don’t really look forward to learning more about him or watching his Harry Ambrose contrastingly act the savior for both another young woman — this time his fellow detective, whom he’s known since she was a child — and the boy. His part in the plot is also terribly forced in. When Paul’s Heather calls him up to request help on the case, it’s as if she’s calling up Pullman and begging for him to return for the sequel season. I’m not convinced either is necessary. Why not just have the lesbian detective-in-training working the case? She’s interesting enough on her own.

Just because Heather is young and still earning her stripes doesn’t mean she’s not capable of coming to conclusions or new questions on her own. Does Harry really have to be there to realize that the boy and his parents were supposedly on a trip to Niagara Falls but that only the mom and dad are packed for the occasion? He doesn’t even ask the right question anyway. It’s not an issue of the kid not having a bag since supposedly they were only going a couple hours away for what could have amounted to a day trip (except they were leaving in the evening, which was immediately odd). The question is why were the parents bringing changes of clothes for themselves for what should have been such a short journey.

Fortunately, we at least get to experience another lovable Tracy Letts character. The actor and playwright, who is also Coon’s husband, plays Harry’s childhood friend. He’s also Heather’s dad, and that would be enough. Not that we need a repeat of the woman detective and wise father dynamic seen in the first season storyline of Fargo. Still, Letts as another warm and wonderful dad character (see Lady Bird), the kind who shows genuine joy recalling his daughter coming out to him, is nice window dressing in any case. He’s the type of all-around-appealing character who often gets killed off to easily affect the audience, but let’s pray that doesn’t happen in this series.

Spoilers Below

In a behind-the-scenes interview following the Season 2 premiere on USA, Biel did tease that this story will have a good amount of twists. That could be more in tune with keeping the show interesting as it goes along and not too dependent on one big reveal at the very end that may or may not work or even be satisfying for the fans who’ve been following the story. But also, will the twists all just be cliffhangers as in the case of the one concluding the first episode? I’m pretty certain that Coon is not the boy’s mother, so that would be a false reveal more than a genuine shocker.

Regarding the info we got in the Season 2 preview that also followed the first episode, there’s a cult involved. Obviously. I admit I did groan when that was confirmed, because cults are so overplayed and a boring source for drama and just an unrelatable premise. On a big picture level, we do now know a simple why to the doneit: the kid was raised in a cult. Sorry, a commune. An evil commune. Whatever, yes, a cult (not all communes have to be bad, by the way). There are more details to learn about exactly what occurred with the murder and how it was informed by the cult, but otherwise, we have the foundation.

My prediction: the boy is that couple’s kid, not Coon’s. They have been a part of the cult for many years, and the boy was either born there or raised in the cult from early on. He’s been subjected to brainwashing sessions with Coon’s cult leader, and perhaps she’s input some sort of security measure into his brain. If his parents try to leave the cult, he has to kill them. They probably were intending on escaping. They packed their things but weren’t able to pack anything for him, because that would have set off alarms or they simply didn’t have access.

There remain some things that don’t make sense for any sort of initial deduction. Why does the dad lie about the car being in the shop when it turns out to still be on the side of the road where they left it? Did the mom also not know they were fleeing and that they would want to ditch their getaway vehicle? If the dad brought the boy to the motel’s breakfast bar, did he also go through the back door since the owner didn’t mention him either? That last part probably isn’t significant. And as for the conversations the parents have about wanting the boy to have fun? That’s probably their main reason for leaving, to give him a more typical and enjoyable childhood.

Could The Sinner wind up failing us in the finale again, or at the very least falling short? Of course, and I’m prepared for that this time. Mostly by not being too curious about the conclusive answer to the question of why the boy murdered his parents. Coon, Letts, Paul, Henig, and to a lesser degree Pullman are all going to make this a worthwhile season, episode to episode. Part of it, in concentrating so much so far on the detectives, feels like an extensive Law & Order plotline as well as a True Detective wannabe, but I think enough will keep us guessing and informed along the way while also delivering a stronger ensemble effort.

I’m on board for Coon’s possible kid-centric Manchurian Candidate scheme and, hopefully, some deeper character study focused on Paul’s greenhorne detective. I’m also here for any more info the series wants to share about what flowers in my yard I shouldn’t touch let alone turn into tea (between this and Breaking Bad, TV viewers keep learning about poisonous plants). There’s not as hard a hook plot-wise as the first season, but that should also mean there won’t be so hard of a turn plot-wise in the end. I’m hooked for the cast and most of the characters from the start, and that’s enough of a difference for me to be optimistic that we’re getting an improved follow-up with Season 2 of The Sinner.

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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.