There is nothing more terrifying to me than a malevolent and disturbed child.
Children are supposed to be our most innocent, our most loving, our most precious. (Although anyone who’s ever seen a three-year-old’s tantrum or 10-year-old girls in action may beg to differ). So, suffice it to say that the second season of The Sinner got under my skin. The series is disturbing, unsettling and compelling.
Eleven-year-old Julian (Elisha Henig) is on a trip to visit Niagara Falls with his parents when their car breaks down. They check into a rundown motel. The next morning, after his mom and dad drink the tea Julian made for them, they die violent, awful deaths while Julian calmly looks on. See what I mean? CREEPY.
Bill Pullman returns to the series as disheveled Detective Harry Ambrose. This time, Heather (Natalie Paul), the daughter of his old friend, Jack (Tracy Letts), calls Harry onto a new case. Heather has just been made detective in Harry’s hometown of Keller, New York, and is unsure how to proceed with this disconcerting case. Harry is drenched in melancholy, and returning to his small hometown brings back memories—not the happy kind. It looks as if this season will give us insight into why Harry’s sadness is so pervasive. His friendship with Jack and their rapport, steeped in history, is also revealing.
With his vacant eyes and lack of affect, Henig, who was on the short-lived ABC comedy Alex, Inc., is fantastic. I hope after filming he got to go to an amusement park and have tons of ice cream and candy. Paul (The Deuce) is spot-on as a green detective smart enough to know what she doesn’t know.
And what’s that you say? You heard Carrie Coon, beloved actress from both Fargo andThe Leftovers, was also part of this season? She is. But I can’t say much more, because her Vera is at the center of this season’s mystery. Vera runs a guarded commune (cult?) that may prove to be key to the death of Julian’s parents. “We focus our energy into the work,” she tells Harry. What work is that? Well, that’s part of the secret. In general, Vera says a lot of things that don’t quite make sense, like, “You don’t talk about the barn” and “I know where the monster is.”
Vera has some sort of hold on Julian, telling him, “These people do not understand us. They would do anything they can to hurt us.” Coon’s plaintive expressions serve the show well as she evokes the eerie calm of a woman who knows much more than she’s letting on. She’s mesmerizing to watch. Oh, and fun fact: Letts and Coon are married in real life. (I don’t know either of them, but this pairing makes me happy).
If last season explored a mother damaged by her upbringing, this season explores a child damaged by his mother. Julian has a tenuous understanding of death, telling the detectives, “They passed through death and now they’re starting over again.” But I won’t say more than that, since so much of the joy of the series comes from watching the mystery unfold. In the three episodes made available for review, The Sinner strikes the right balance of letting things be revealed slowly while not feeling like things are being dragged out for too long.
The series is filmed in muted tones, as if all vibrancy and pleasure has been sucked out of Keller. There are long pauses and ominous music. Dead mothers. Missing friends. Broken hearts. Enigmatic rocks. Jessica Biel, who was at the center of last season as a young mom who violently attacked a stranger, continues on as executive producer. But you didn’t need to see the first season to be completely on board with the second. The Sinner is not a happy show, but it’s an extremely good one.
The Sinner premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .