Peter Kramer/USA Network
August 16, 2017 at 11:02 PM EDT

The Sinner

TV Show
Drama, Thriller
run date
Jessica Biel, Bill Pullman, Christopher Abbott
Current Status
In Season
We gave it a B

At the start of “Part III,” Cora’s son Laine is calling out to her, dragging his blanket around the house. He steps out the front door, and a car honks — just as Cora wakes with a start in her cell. Another nightmare. Cora calls Mason to ask him for a favor, even though they’re not on the very best terms: She wants him to bring Laine to see her. To her surprise, her husband agrees without hesitation.

Despite how extremely, desperately unwell Cora may appear to be to us, or to anyone who has watched 10 consecutive seconds of The Sinner, she passes her 730 exam and is deemed legally competent. Mazel tov! Undeterred, Ambrose goes to see Cora’s parents. Her mother, Elizabeth, is seriously ill, with a nasal cannula and sores on her hands. The Laceys haven’t spoken to Cora for years, they say. She ran away five years ago, at the age of 23 (wait…Jessica Biel is supposed to be 28?!) — around the Fourth of July, which happens to be Phoebe’s birthday. Phoebe died a month later. It’s clear Mrs. Lacey hates her elder daughter as much as she ever did. So why didn’t they file a missing person’s report? “Cora died when she left this house,” Mommie Dearest explains.

Cora, per usual, is lost in a bad dream: sex. A bell rings at bar. A blonde woman whispers in a man’s ear, “Give her another hit, it’ll loosen her up.” A foot steps on a topless woman’s chest, collapsing the sternum and making a terrible, bone-shattering sound. Cora wakes up screaming. Guards retrieve her from her cell, wrestling her to the ground to sedate her. They roll up her sleeves, revealing distinctive scar tissue in the crook of her arm.

When Ambrose goes to see Cora the next day, he recognizes her scars as telltale evidence of a heroin addiction. It started five years ago, Cora explains, before she met Mason. So where’d she really go when she ran away? Dorchester and Kingston. She doesn’t remember who she was with — she’d exchange sex for drugs back then — only that she was high. Cora begs him not to tell Mason (who thinks her scarring is from a childhood infection), her in-laws, or her son. Ambrose can’t promise her that. Cora says she hates him, which seems fair.

After Aunt Margaret visits Cora in jail, our intrepid detective drives into the city to interview her at her lovely apartment, which is not only conspicuously free of the terrifying Christian iconography her sister-in-law favors, but decorated with framed posters from plays and built-in bookshelves. (Can I Airbnb Margaret’s apartment?) She tried to be close with Cora, she says, but Elizabeth was a nightmare. But Cora did live with Margaret for a time — after she disappeared in July 2012, she resurfaced at a Poughkeepsie detox center. Elizabeth saw her prodigal daughter’s scars and called her “a whore, a degenerate,” so Cora’s aunt took her in instead. But Margaret harbors her own guilt for ignoring obvious-in-retrospect signs of Cora’s distress: a mysterious scar on her scalp (medium obvious), the nightmares from which she’d wake up screaming like clockwork at 3 a.m. (medium-to-very obvious).

Mason does show up to visit Cora, but without Laine. Ambrose, it turns out, came to question him about Cora’s drug habit. Mason is devastated that she lied to him. He asks if it was J.D. who got her hooked, but Cora still tells him nothing. Mason is “done.” Why would he subject Laine to this? And what will their son think when he comes to understand that she pled guilty, that she “didn’t even try to be his mother”? This strikes a nerve.

Another childhood memory (don’t lose your punchcard, because the 10th one is free!): Cora, now a preteen, still shares a bedroom with Phoebe. “Do you think dad is screwing mom now that they’re sharing a bed?” her little sister asks. Cora is scandalized by this language, but Phoebe is carefree: “God doesn’t mind if you’re sick.” She produces a contraband women’s magazine she nicked from the hospital and asks Cora to read her an article on “anal foreplay.”

Before long, a furious Elizabeth finds the mag. Phoebe says someone left it on the sidewalk; Cora immediately admits her guilt. As punishment, Elizabeth makes Cora kneel on dry rice and pray, about six inches in front of an unreasonably large crucifix. Later, Phoebe picks at her sister’s skinned knees and asks why she didn’t lie. “He’d only punish us and make you sick,” Cora explains. But Phoebe assures her that God isn’t listening — she knew a girl at the hospital who prayed, but she still died. The girls sneak wine, crackers, and that enormous crucifix into their bedroom for a mock mass, then lie down next to Jesus and tell him they love him, as you do. (Recap continues on page 2)

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