Warning: Spoilers for the Season 2 finale of The Sinner below.
In a sea of crime shows, what makes The Sinner something different is that its focus is never really on who, but why. We know who within the first episode; in this case, Julian (an earnest Elisha Henig) killed his parents. But why? Things unraveled from there, introducing mysteries we didn’t know we wanted solved (and then desperately wanted to know more about). Adam and Bess weren’t Julian’s parents, Vera was. Except Vera actually wasn’t, technically; she raised him, but his birth mother was Heather’s friend Marin. His biological father was the leader of Mosswood, so it seemed, but eventually it was revealed to be Heather’s father after he forced himself on Marin one night at their house. In the end, Julian’s visceral crime that kicked off the season ended up being one long custody battle.
Somehow, it worked. The Sinner’s whole theme for its second season appeared to revolve around parents, children, and what it means to call a place home. Julian’s struggles were mirrored by Bill Pullman’s Harry Ambrose (the only crossover character from the first season), as he came to terms with his past and his mother, whose presence still hangs over him like a specter. Julian’s mother also haunted him, although rather literally as Marin crept into his room at night to try and take him away from Vera and Mosswood. It created a bond between them that became an important touchstone throughout the season, especially in the end when Julian convinced Vera to take him back to face the consequences of what he had done.
Even in its final hour, The Sinner’s twists didn’t feel particularly revelatory, and that’s ok. Most viewers had probably guessed that Marin was really Julian’s mother long before it was revealed near the end of the season, and the same was likely true about Jack being his real father (I mean you don’t just cast Tracy Letts in your TV show as a bit character who rambles around in the background; from the start it was clear he had some connection to Mosswoood). But those distinctions didn’t ultimately matter for Julian. When he turns to Heather and Jack at the end, finally reaching Niagara Falls, he says that his mother would have enjoyed this. Does he mean Marin or Vera? Probably the latter, since Marin was little more than a stranger to him. But who knows exactly. Julian certainly has a lot of processing still to do.
The Sinner also circled back around to that weird rock at Mosswood and its significance for Vera and the community there. It seems pretty obvious that Vera oleander-murdered the former head of Mosswood in order to protect Julian and the commune’s female members as the “work” became increasingly violent and male-dominated (even including outsiders). Carrie Coon was masterful all season as Vera, which also isn’t a surprise, but she made the revelations we discovered about her feel natural and believable. Vera is complicated, and not fully good. But her desires (to provide for Julian, to care for the members of Mosswood, to stand-up to those threatening their well-being) were always well-intentioned. The burning down of the barn signifies a new era for Mosswood, potentially, and yet her touching the rock so tenderly suggests that Vera isn’t a charlatan. She believes in the work and whatever this rock means, surrendering herself to something bigger than she is.
All of this worked really well to create a season of The Sinner that kept us constantly engaged with a compelling story, one that introduced and solved small mysteries throughout, but ultimately hinged on small moments and character relationships. It did its own “work,” so to speak, by delving into a number of well-considered arcs that all connected, somehow, with Julian’s story, but also stood on their own. Heather’s unrequited love for Marin was one of the season’s most powerful threads, with Hannah Gross heartbreakingly playing the conflicted and troubled teenager (and later, the conflicted and troubled adult) who was seen as a sex object by everyone she met. Her pain that she couldn’t rely on her best friend Heather to see beyond sex with her was a particularly difficult one — even as Heather herself struggled with the fact that she could only be herself and somewhat out with Marin — and the final conversation between the two (one that felt like a final conversation even as it was happening) was particularly emotional.
Throughout the season, The Sinner subverted expectations in a way that made for really interesting storytelling, from the revelation of Julian’s parentage (several times over) to the practices of Mosswood, to even comparatively small (but important) moments like Marin’s death. It was set up so clearly that Julian was the one who had killed her to escape, and then twisted again to seem like it was a murder. But it was an accident where Julian wasn’t even involved, and yet, an accident that led to important truths and revelations about his own life.
If The Sinner comes back for a third season (and if it can continue to deliver such satisfying storytelling, it should), and Harry Ambrose again returns, it seems unlikely that Vera’s “work” rid him of his demons. He was forced to confront things in a new way, but is still deeply haunted. But like Harry’s own road to understanding, The Sinner also takes meandering paths to find its truth. It’s not the most shocking or twisted TV show of the year, but there is something to be said about its novelistic approach that kept things moving smoothly without neglecting episodic cliffhangers. This season, and particularly this finale, wasn’t about sound and fury, police chases and shootouts and screaming crescendos. It was quiet, and satisfying.