Peter Kramer/USA Network
August 09, 2017 at 11:02 PM EDT

The Sinner

TV Show
Drama, Thriller
run date
Bill Pullman, Carrie Coon
We gave it a C+

To the murder of Frankie Belmont, Cora Tannetti pleads guilty. The judge tries to talk her out of it: She has no criminal record, she can’t explain the murder, and yet she’s forfeiting her right to a trial. She could spend the rest of her life in prison. Concerned by Cora’s behavior, the judge orders an examination to determine her competency — which Detective Ambrose, lurking beardily in the back of the courtroom, seems pleased about. His partner, Detective Dan Leroy (Dohn Norwood), correctly guesses that Ambrose had something to do with the judge’s decision.

Mason and a young policewoman recognize each other near the courthouse entrance — they went to high school together. She takes him out a side door to avoid the press waiting outside. Later, he’ll get back to work installing air conditioning (or is it heating?), only to hear the homeowner whispering on her phone that she recognizes him from the news and feels “creeped out.” In a flashback, we see how Cora and Mason met, at a restaurant where she waited tables (a job she got through her aunt) in the city. He told her she should be a hostess at a “fancy 30-dollar salad place,” and that he’d gladly pay the steep price if she worked there.

Ambrose goes to see Cora to ask her why she’s pleading guilty. Why not try? Plead temporary insanity! Something! If the Twinkie defense worked for Dan White, maybe the slicing-a-pear ennui defense could work for Cora. “Why not fight for a shot at reuniting with your family?” Ambrose asks. “What makes you think I want my life back?” Cora answers. In her mind, she returns to a childhood memory: Her parents are fighting because her mother insists on letting Cora’s sick sister Phoebe sleep with them, so Dad sleeps in the tiny twin bed opposite Cora’s. Hmm.

Cora’s bloody visage is printed on the cover of a newspaper that is clearly supposed to be the Post (“BLOOD BATH BEACH” reads the headline, which I give a C-). The man who seems to be the police chief — though maybe he’s just the county’s loudest police officer — is worried that this sordid affair will discourage the “leaf peepers” from visiting this fall. And if Cora’s case goes to trial, they’ll have to establish motive.

Ambrose sits down with Leah Belmont, who’s looking bedraggled and exhausted in a hospital gown. Frankie never mentioned Cora, she says, but she did know that he had an “intense connection” with a woman years before they met. There was something wrong with her. There was an accident. “It almost ruined his life,” Leah says.

Our intrepid detective is staying with Detective Leroy’s family, and his idea of being a gracious guest is wandering the backyard in the middle of the night admiring the stars in only a pair of boxers. “You doing more of that plant whispering s—?” Leroy asks the next morning. As it turns out, Ambrose is staying there is because his marriage is on the rocks, and in couples therapy, his wife Faye mentions that she woke up alone in a hospital recovery room after a knee replacement because he was home spraying his dogwoods for anthracnose. That’s a dealbreaker, ladies. But Ambrose is so determined to reunite with Faye that he drives to his dominatrix-slash-waitress friend’s restaurant to break things off in person. “Text me next time,” she says.

Childhood memory alert: Cora watches a circle of people saying a rosary over Phoebe, who has on a oxygen mask on. Seemingly cool and sane Aunt Margaret sneaks Cora a chocolate bar before she heads home to the city: “Eat it before your mother finds out.” Alone in her bedroom, Cora removes thick blankets from a box to reveal a secret little-girl treasure trove beneath them: mascara, nail polish, bracelets, and a coin purse, among other innocent contraband. She places the chocolate bar inside.

Back in our timeline, Ambrose is pushing Cora to find out if there was a history between her and Frankie. He won’t stop until she tells him something. Is she just going to let her family suffer, without explanation? “I met Frankie on July 3,” Cora says abruptly. That shuts Ambrose up. The story goes like this: Five years ago, at a bar called Carl’s Taproom, Cora met a guy named JD and his friend over Fourth of July weekend. They all took pills and drove off in his car — a black truck with a white top — to somebody’s house. They spent the night together. She remembers only an orange carpet and that song (by the man’s own band), playing over and over again. Two weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant, but she didn’t have his number. And in trying to track him down, she found out “JD” was a fake name.

Thanks to her nutso Catholic upbringing (as a nutso Catholic myself, I use the term “nutso Catholic” advisedly), telling her parents about the pregnancy wasn’t an option. Neither was abortion. Instead, she stepped in front of a car. When she woke up in the hospital, she had a fractured hip, a concussion, and no pregnancy. “I used to pray a lot when I was little,” she tells Ambrose. “What kind of a God kills your baby but lets you survive?” At least the cops have a story now, but Ambrose is less than 100 percent convinced that this adds up. (Recap continues on page 2)

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