The first season of USA’s The Sinner put a spin on the typical “whodunnit” and instead focused on the “whydunnit.” Viewers saw the crime happen from the start, so the mystery was not in who committed that sudden horror, but rather, what drove its innocuous female perpetrator (played by Jessica Biel, who is also an EP) to what seemed like such a random act of violence. In Season 2 — which picks up with an almost entirely new cast and a new story — that basic setup remains the same. This time, a young family travels to Niagara Falls together, but when their car breaks down they stop over in a rural motel. The next morning, the 11-year-old son Julian (Elisha Henig) poisons his parents and watches them die, seemingly terrified. He admits, pretty quickly, that he was responsible, but of course the natural follow-up is: Why?
That theme aside, the only connection to Season 1 the show makes in this new run of eight episodes is Bill Pullman’s Detective Harry Ambrose, who is asked to assist in the case by Heather (Natalie Paul), the daughter of an old friend who now a detective herself. The need for Harry’s involvement is three-fold: He’s a trusted family friend, he’s a native of the small-town where the victims and Julian are from, and he’s had experience with this kind of crime before. For fans of the first season, The Sinner immediately begins investigating more into Harry’s background and his own personal traumas, but even for those who didn’t watch, his story is instantly intriguing.
The investigation of the murders leads Harry and Heather pretty quickly to Mosswood, a rural commune with a long history of secrecy and run-ins with the law. People disappear there, including a close friend of Heather’s from high school, and others have committed suicide after spending time in what most in the neighboring town believe is a cult. The way The Sinner unravels its story and its reveals is apace of our interest in them, as Mosswood’s influences grow beyond the borders of the commune. One of its most fascinating figures is Vera (Carrie Coon), who is a kind of a leader and Julian’s main advocate from that community. There are other revelations surrounding her relationship with Julian and the compound that happen early in the series, but knowing less is more — The Sinner has many mysteries and many twists, but of the kind that don’t just exist to shock; rather, they might reward subsequent viewings.
There are times when The Sinner is particularly reminiscent to HBO’s dark, hypnotic drama Sharp Objects, though it lacks its poetry and polish. Of course, at The Sinner‘s core it has any number of things in common with series about murders in small towns where everyone has a secret, and our detectives are always somehow personally connected to the crime. But the series builds a very intriguing mystery upon this familiar framework, augmented by a great cast and some particularly creepy imagery. There’s a lot connected to Mosswood that takes its cues from the work of Carl Jung and the investigation of the “shadow self,” all of which expands the story far beyond what happened in the motel that fateful morning. As Pullman’s character notes, when a child kills at that age, it’s never simple. The Sinner takes its time investigating that, and much more. It may not be reinventing the wheel here, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a simple structure with a twisted story, and it’s good. The bottom line for fans of immersive, well-paced crime stories regarding The Sinner should not be a question of “why?” but rather, “when do I tune in?”
The Sinner’s second season premieres Wednesday, August 1st on USA.