After an over-the-top Season 3, The Sinner’s fourth season necessitates a change in direction. While the first two seasons reveled in small town intrigue and quiet revelations, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) vs. Nietzche-obsessed serial killer Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer) was perhaps a little more than the show could handle.
Season 4 finds us with a changed Detective Ambrose, who is now retired after the brutal events of Season 3 and on an island getaway with new girlfriend Sonya Barzel (Jessica Hecht). The change in status quo is surprising but doesn’t last long, since Ambrose is soon pulled into the mysterious disappearance of island resident Percy Muldoon (Alice Kremelberg), a member of a powerful local fishing family. Faced with an unprepared local police department, Ambrose joins the investigation to uncover the secrets of the small town.
By Season 4, USA’s The Sinner has its tone down to an exact science. While I thought I would miss the quiet blue forests of upstate New York, the grey seaside fishing community on an isolated island off the coast of Maine is a natural successor. The rustling of leaves has been replaced with the crashing of waves, but the sense of quiet mystery remains. Also, after exhausting the amount of insane crimes that can strike one small town, a change of scenery helps keep the prevalence of these mysteries believable.
The Sinner will always be admirable for how much care it puts into the ongoing effects of trauma and crime on the individual, and the new season leans further into the development of Harry Ambrose as a man trying to deal with the trauma of his life. Ambrose’s struggle to deal with the guilt he has for the events of the previous season—while still not fully dealing with the problems of his past—come through well. He is a man who has put his entire life into his career and cannot find a way to let his feelings of responsibility to others go. The obsession he has with solving a case and understanding the people involved that has been developed over the course of the series is the main event of Season 4, as he no longer has an actual duty to solving the case. On the island he is finally on the outside in every sense yet he is incapable of letting the past go.
The new cast is immediately striking, but the star of the series is clearly Kremelberg who gives an intensely tragic performance of Percy Muldoon. She appears to Ambrose after her disappearance throughout the series as he becomes obsessed with uncovering the person she really was underneath the person she pretended to be. In these appearances and in flashbacks her sullen performance always has the possibility of becoming one-note, but there is ultimately so much pain, even in her joy, that it never becomes so.
The one uncertain thread is the role of Sonya, whose desire to seek new subjects to paint after her traumatic ordeal with Jamie brings her and Ambrose to the island. While the character had some intriguing depth in the last season, her interior thoughts are not given as much attention in Season 4. It would be unfortunate for her role to be reduced to simply being Ambrose’s girlfriend, so hopefully as the season develops her role in his life and on the island becomes clearer.
But while the characters are captivating, The Sinner is really about strange crimes—and boy, is that still in store for Season 4. The inciting incident is Ambrose watching Percy seemingly jump to her death, but no body is found. Over the course of the first three episodes available for review, the mystery begins to involve the Muldoon’s racism-fueled fishing war with the Vietnamese Lam family, an island seeped in secret drug addictions, and also a hidden lunar witch coven that basks in the moonlight naked and performs rituals in the woods.
Despite how dramatic these elements are, the season is a breath of fresh (salty) air compared to the high stakes insanity of Season 3. The Sinner had to leave its original setting to find its roots again, and it’s a move that pays off well. The writers can lean on the confidence of how the mystery is plotted out while also sprinkling in some new crazy elements. While the idea of a witch coven may sound over-the-top, The Sinner takes its time and never lets individual aspects of the mystery supersede the characters development or the story as a whole. The end result is a season that feels undeniably slower than the previous but much more captivating to watch.
Ultimately, Season 4 understands exactly what changes needed to be made to continue the intrigue. If the theatrics of Season 3 turned you away, Season 4 will bring the mystery lovers of the first seasons back. In order to keep its momentum The Sinner must not lose sight of the careful balance between character-led drama and mystery thriller it has established, after it has done so much work in separating itself from the crowded pack of crime shows on television right now. Its empathy and unrelenting desire to discover the roots of pain and trauma continues to make it one of the most engrossing crime shows around. Staying the course may be a difficult challenge, but if anyone can make sense of the complexities of Season 4 it’s Harry Ambrose.
The Sinner Season 4 premieres Wednesday, October 13th at 10p.m. ET/PT on USA.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.
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