In the grand tradition of haunted TV detectives, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) has survived another season of a case that became terribly personal for him. For those who have watched The Sinner over the years (or even any given season), we know that Ambrose is so good at getting to the truth of these awful crimes because he’s able to connect in some way with the killers. The killers are always immediately known to us, but their motivations aren’t always uncovered even to themselves until later on. The key, typically, is Ambrose, who is able to channel his own pain in a way that helps him track and even understand these crimes—even approaching them with compassion.
This has perhaps never been more true than in Season 3, where Ambrose becomes suspicious of Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer) after a car accident that killed his friend Nick Haas (Chris Messina). What unraveled was how a toxic college friendship between those two men pushed Jamie into further and further extremes in an attempt to feel alive. But about halfway through the season, Jamie was able to break out of his submissive role in Nick’s shadow and instead became the dominant, pushy lead in a friendship with Ambrose—or so he thought. And for his part, Ambrose did seem genuinely curious to push towards the void that Jamie was so obsessed with in the hopes of confronting and perhaps conquering his own demons.
Still, Ambrose was and is a cop, one who (despite allowing himself to be buried alive) still chose to betray Jamie rather than allow him to continue to evade the detectives while on his confused killing spree. The series might have gone on an episode or two too long as Jamie was in and out of custody and meandering around, occasionally screaming at Harry in the woods. But the finale, “Part VIII,” was a thrilling crescendo that ultimately brought both men to the edge of the void and revealed their true natures.
Before diving into that more, though, I don’t want to downplay how absolutely wild it is that The Sinner Season 3 hinged almost entirely on the mechanics of cootie catchers, a.k.a. fortune tellers, a.k.a. whatever else you called them on your grade school playground. It was really a perfect way, though, to illustrate the immature chaos of Nick and Jamie’s “ideals.” As soon as The Sinner brought up the fact that Nick was guided by a corruption of the “ubermensch”—that is, in his understanding, living a life above others because you don’t fear the consequences of your actions in a godless world—it was clear that we were going to be in for some schoolyard psychological tango.
Nick was really the more interesting character at first, someone whose turn towards evil was much more pronounced and confident. Even in death, he didn’t fear anything, but consoled Jamie and was even pleased Jamie had made that decision to take a life. Nick was truly deranged, whereas Jamie was conflicted. But because of that internal conflict, it made his occasional bursts of violence or cold-eyed attempts at control all the more chilling and uncertain. It’s also what made his final scene with Ambrose—where death was actually a reality—all the more affecting. In the end, as Ambrose tearfully admits to Sonya (Jessica Hecht), Jamie was scared. He didn’t want to die, and he fought it, desperate for Ambrose to hold his hand (Bomer was exceptional in this scene and the rest of the season; he was able to give us a totally new shade set of emotions for Jamie at a moment’s notice). Ambrose also knew to tell him that he wasn’t alone, something Jamie kept coming back to. “I’m here because of you,” he tells Ambrose over and over. Jamie is clearly codependent; first it was Nick, then it was Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and ultimately it was Ambrose. He always needed someone to give him a world view, and even though Leela’s was the most comfortable and normal, Jamie always strained towards something edgier—even though as we saw, ultimately, he wasn’t meant for it.
The biggest reveal of the finale, though (besides Jamie’s new hairdo), might have been Ambrose breaking down in front of Sonya. It was a rare moment of vulnerability, punctuated by the fact that it was while he was discussing Jaime’s final moments and acknowledging he was scared. Jamie posited that he and Ambrose were the same, as men masking an inner darkness. Ambrose’s response was to shoot him, which given how much we know he holds in (so viscerally, too, as he shambles along basically dragging himself from scene to scene). Any trigger would, literally, cause him to lash out. But in that, Jamie’s desire to force a confrontation with Ambrose’s shadow self and let himself get to his own emotional core did get to play out.
If The Sinner ends Ambrose’s story here (I mean reasonably, how much more can this man take??) it would be a fitting and satisfying end, even though the actual final cut to credits was jarring. I kept waiting for him to admit more to Sonya, or even to Jamie, but of course that’s not really his way. (It’s also worth noting that Sonya’s weird obsession with Jamie was something Ambrose would understand better than anyone, and was probably quietly happy someone else understood his pull towards him, too). The tears have to be enough at this point, something that (perhaps) will put him on a path to further catharsis. If USA renews The Sinner for Season 4, it’s unclear where Ambrose would go emotionally. Of course, we could also get an entirely new cast and detective, given the anthology format.
Either way, The Sinner—which was originally billed and planned as a limited series—has quietly been one of the TV’s most interesting detective dramas, full of great character studies and acting showcases. The “whydunnit” instead of the who has been a refreshing change, but the show’s desire to lean into the psychology of its leads (both on the criminal side and the side of the law, and many in between) is always a worthy investigation. And for Ambrose, perhaps three seasons of that personal investigation has finally led to some real closure. If so, let’s hope he finally gets some sleep.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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