TV Review: The Sinner – Season 1 Recap

The Sinner – Season 1

Starring: Jessica Biel, Bill Pullman, Christopher Abbott, Eric Todd, Jacob Pitts, Nadia Alexander, Danielle Burgess, Joanna Adler
Director: Antonio Campos (Episodes 1, 2, 3), Brad Anderson (Episode 4), Cherien Dabis (Episode 5), Jody Lee Lipes (Episode 6), Tucker Gates (Episodes 7, 8)
Writers: Derek Simmonds (Episodes 1, 2, 3), Liz W. Garcia (Episode 4), Jesse McKeown (Episodes 5, 8), Tom Pabst (Episodes 6, 8), Liz W. Garcia (Episode 7),
Based on the novel: The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr

A recap by Sidney Morgan

This is a recap of Season 1 and CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS. You’ve been advised!

Ahhh, murder mysteries. Tried, true and formulaic. Someone is killed. A detective (usually) comes in and conducts an investigation. The killer is revealed. Case closed. And viewers love it. But with so many of these shows available, the challenge is to attract/retain viewers. Whether it’s through story-telling, source material, star power, gimmick or some combination thereof, it’s the viewers who end up at the receiving end of quality shows, which includes last summer’s brilliant The Sinner.

Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman).

The Sinner wasn’t a whodunit, but rather a whydunit. In the first episode, we meet Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel). Along with her husband and son, they go to the beach. There, we notice that not all is well with Cora. She swims far beyond the safety ropes and tries to drown herself, but changes her mind (probably realizing she wouldn’t be able to).

Back with her family on the beach, in a trance-like mood, she begins to peel some fruit. Suddenly aware of a song that’s being played by a small group of people, she stands up, approaches one of the young men and stabs him to death, in the middle of the day and surrounded by witnesses. So when detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) arrives, there’s no need to solve the who part of the crime. However, unsatisfied that Cora would murder a complete stranger for no reason, Harry focuses on the why.

In trying to explain why Cora viciously murdered Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd), the show’s focus alternates between her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott), Harry and Cora. Mason is left in shock, confused and unable to understand Cora’s actions. His need for answers leads him to conduct his own investigation. Based on inaccurate statements made by Cora, he focuses primarily on JD, the man Cora said she was with on that fateful July 4th, 2012 weekend – it was the last night she was seen before going missing for a few months. But Mason isn’t a professional investigator, but rather a conflicted husband whose emotions are getting the better of him. And even though he figures out JD knows Cora and what happened on July 4th, his actions land him in trouble with the police.

Mason (Christopher Abbott).

Meanwhile, Harry’s investigation, along with Cora’s help, directly addresses the motive. But whereas Harry’s actions take place in the present, Cora’s are mainly set in the past, seen via flashbacks and memory glimpses. After Cora explains to Harry what happened to her in 2012, he quickly finds out that her story simply doesn’t add up. However, he also realizes that it could be because she simply doesn’t remember the events. Once he figures out that the song heard on the beach was a trigger – when he played it to her, she hit him exactly in the same way she stabbed Frankie – he asks Dr. Chang (Mia Katigbak) to use hypnotherapy on Cora. The hope is to try and unlock those repressed memories. But for the story and memories to make sense, context had to be provided to the viewers.

Cora’s childhood wasn’t easy. Her sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander) was very sick, and her strict parents blamed Cora for it, stating it was God’s way to punish them for her transgressions. Phoebe, however, was surprisingly upbeat given the situation and far more liberal, going so far as to encourage Cora to be more rebellious. Being housebound, there were selfish reasons to do this though, as she was able to experience the outside world through Cora’s words. This satisfied her to some extent, until the night of her 19th birthday.

Cora and Harry, who just wants to understand why she did it.

Throughout most of the series, the events of the July 4th weekend are shown through Cora’s eyes, through her memories. Cora remembers seeing JD. She remembers seeing a woman named Maddie (Danielle Burgess). A man in a ski mask. She remembers stairs leading to a room in a basement. A cracking sound from someone’s chest. She remembers a specific wallpaper. Harry conducts his investigation based on what she remembers, but it never fully makes sense. Well, it turns out that Cora’s memories of the events were correct, but some of the details were off. When Harry receives the judge’s permission to bring Cora to the Beverwyck Club (the place they both believe is the scene of the traumatic event), she finally remembers everything.

Phoebe was the one present with Cora on that night, and many of the memories with Maddie were actually ones involving Phoebe. What was supposed to have been a celebration of Phoebe’s birthday, had turned into a nightmare. Drugged, Cora loses control of the situation. The song (the one that triggered her to murder to begin with) is playing, and when she finally focuses on Phoebe, she sees Frankie administering CPR, without success. What follows is a cover-up that ultimately fails, as we find out at the beginning of the series.

Cora and her sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander).

Cora’s actions and motivation to kill is finally revealed. What she endured, what she lived, the trauma, it elicits the viewer’s sympathy. And though she did commit a murder, the judge, rightfully, considers the circumstances. Cora isn’t absolved of her crime, but she’s certainly understood.

The show is excellent. The acting, especially Jessica Biel (with her first recurring television role since 7th Heaven) was excellent. As was Bill Pullman, who deserves high praise for his performance of a broken man, whose personal life is a disaster. He and Jessica develop their relationship brilliantly. Not to be understated is Christopher Abbott’s turn as Mason, the loyal, yet confused and shocked husband. The rest of the cast also performed well, including Jacob Pitts as JD (who played the hilarious Cooper in Eurotrip). The drama was gripping and addictive and viewers tuned in, making The Sinner an instant hit and allowing a second season to happen.

If you have not watched the series, you should. It’s a top-notch drama/thriller. Let’s only hope that the second season can attain the same level of quality as the first.

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