Carrie Coon is the star of The Sinner season two, which premieres tonight on USA. Honestly, that could be the end of my review, since she’s reason enough to watch the latest installment of this anthology crime series. Coon established herself as such a commanding presence in The Leftovers and Fargo that whenever she joins a show, it automatically becomes must-see TV.
But there are plenty more things to recommend about The Sinner, including another murder-driven narrative that immediately draws in the viewer, a precise balance between character development and plot advancement that doesn’t succumb to lulls, and a fine lead performance by Bill Pullman as the grizzled yet compassionate Detective Harry Ambrose. In particular, Ambrose serves as the primary connective tissue between the first season — which starred Jessica Biel as a wife and mother who suddenly stabbed a man to death for reasons that slowly came into focus — and the second, which also begins with a crime that seems to solve itself, until motive enters the picture. (Biel remains onboard, but this time off screen as executive producer.)
The first episode opens on a couple and a preteen named Julian (Elisha Henig) taking what appears to be a family summer road trip to Niagara Falls. After car trouble delays their journey, they find a hotel to stay in overnight where, the next morning, Julian returns from the breakfast bar with mugs of tea for his parents. Shortly after a few sips, Dad falls dead in the shower and Mom does the same on the floor of the hotel room. We see what happens, so we know what happens: This 13-year-old boy just killed his parents.
Except we don’t totally know. There’s something off-kilter about the kid and odd about the circumstances surrounding that trip to Niagara Falls that suggests there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Heather Novak (Natalie Paul of The Deuce), the detective-in-training assigned to investigate the deaths, reaches out to Ambrose, an old friend of her father (played by Coon’s husband Tracy Letts), and asks him to serve as a consultant on the case. That brings Ambrose to Keller, New York, the upstate scene of the crime and also his hometown — which, as sparing flashbacks sprinkled throughout the first three episodes indicate, contains a wellspring of troubling childhood memories. While grappling with those recollections, Harry tries to develop a bond with Julian and help Heather poke at the most relevant holes in the story of what happened in that hotel. Then a woman named Vera (Coon) enters the picture, and things get even more complicated. She walks into the Keller police station demanding to see Julian for one very important reason: She says she’s his mother.
Elements of other shows may creep into your head while watching season two of The Sinner, the same way memories simmer to the surface for Harry and, eventually, too, for Heather. The whole “reluctantly returning to one’s hometown to investigate a crime” scenario is reminiscent of Sharp Objects. The fact that Vera lives in a “utopian community” just outside of town, a place that’s viewed skeptically by Keller locals, gives this season a whiff of Wild, Wild Country. And naturally, certain story elements — like the fact that what seems to be an easy open-and-shut case is made more complex by Ambrose’s probing — share a lot in common with the first season of The Sinner.
Yet it doesn’t feel derivative. One of the greatest strengths of this season is its confidence in the compelling nature of the story itself to carry the day. Under the supervision of showrunner Derek Simonds, who also wrote the first episode, The Sinner takes twists and turns but is neither flashy nor heavy-handed. It’s straightforward, smart, and doesn’t condescend to its audience.
The same can be said of the cast’s performances. Coon is, as ever, thoroughly controlled, and she turns that steadiness into Vera’s biggest tell. The more firmly Vera says something, and the more sturdy and calm her demeanor seems, the more you get the sense that she’s hiding something. You also get the sense that you do not want to piss off this woman; if you watched The Leftovers, you already know that watching Carrie Coon dance right up to the line of losing her shit is one of the greatest pleasures TV has to offer.
Pullman — whose early reputation was built on playing ridiculously nice guys and presidents — resettles into his role as Harry beautifully. With a beard that’s a month away from going full Letterman, a beleaguered slouch, and eyes that still radiate warmth, he’s a detective raging very quietly against the dying of his own light. Meanwhile, as a confused kid who can suddenly lose all control, Henig (who played Zach Braff’s son on the short-lived Alex, Inc.) is also very believable.
The idea of a child killer is obviously disturbing, but The Sinner avoids drowning in its own grimness. Perhaps this is because, at least in the first three episodes, it backs away from getting overly gratuitous in its depictions of violence. The series is dark, but doesn’t revel in that darkness. It tells and shows what it needs to tell and show, and nothing more.
That’s why I’m tempted to say it’s a shame that The Sinner rolls out each episode on a weekly basis, since its addictive properties make it highly conducive to binge-watching. But consuming it week after week allows us to prolong the experience, the same way we try to extend the pleasure of a well-crafted, literary summer read. That’s what this season of The Sinner is: an intelligent August thriller that’ll hook you in so firmly, it’d be impossible to disengage from its grasp, even if Carrie Coon were not involved.