Did Cora and the man she murdered have a history?
The Sinner - Season 1
Credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network

The Sinner

S1 E2

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)

But he has other things to attend to first. At a family gathering, Ambrose gives a pair of binoculars as a birthday present to his grandson. The kid isn’t exactly thrilled: It’s not the Star Wars Legos he wanted. At least Harry and Faye, while doing the dishes, bond over how annoying their progeny is and how much they enjoy each other’s company. He tells her he wants to move back in.

Childhood memory alert: Cora’s mother, of course, found that bundle of treasures. “You have got to be stronger than this…One bite of this chocolate, and he could take Phoebe’s life,” she says. At Mom’s urging, Cora buries her keepsakes in the yard.

Mason returns to a memory of his own: having sex with Cora. She freaks out when he initiates oral sex, smashing his head between her thighs. Outside of Memory World (can you tell I am growing increasingly tired of Memory World?), Mason’s policewoman friend interviews him. Did Cora ever mention a JD? “No,” he says, shaking his head less than convincingly. In turn, Mason begs her for some information, anything to go on. Who’s this JD? She gives in, telling him Cora got pregnant from a one-night stand with him. Mason is rocked by this revelation.

Ambrose digs through the case’s neatly bagged evidence until he finds a phone. “Do you know how to get the music off of this?” he asks another cop. He drives to Carl’s Taproom, listening to Frankie’s song in the car all the while. The bartender there recognizes Cora both from a photo the detective shows her and from the news. She remembers she came on the Fourth of July (I guess, conveniently, this bartender has an eidetic memory). Cora had been dancing with another girl “so sauced she couldn’t stand up straight.” There was a guy with them, too, but not Frankie. The man was blond.

Ambrose’s next stop is Frankie’s parents’ house. They never heard their son use the nickname JD, and they refuse to believe Cora’s story. “Frankie was good. He was too good. Even as a child, all he ever wanted to do was help people,” his distraught mother says. Stranger still, Frankie’s father has documentation to prove that Frankie was working at a volunteer clinic in Los Angeles the summer Cora says they met. And that’s not all. Detective Leroy has been sleuthing himself, discovering that (a) no area hospitals have any records of Cora being admitted after a car crash and (b) Cora’s parents are not, as she told the police, dead. They’re alive and well, living just half an hour away.

Cora returns to her cell from the shower to find the mattress and bedding stripped from her bunk. “As long as you’re a loner, they’ll push you around,” says a fellow prisoner. Childhood memory alert: Cora’s mother, visibly upset, tends to sores on Phoebe’s back. Cora tries to comfort her, but it’s no use. Cora’s mother blames her yet again for Phoebe’s illness, demanding she tell her sister why she’s so sick. “Because I’m a sinner and I took the chocolate from Aunt Margaret,” Cora says. That night, she digs up the chocolate. Cora eats it under cover of darkness, defiantly staring up at the house.

In another interview with Cora, Ambrose asks why she lied about her parents and the pregnancy. He insists he’s trying to help her; she tells him he’s full of s—. Ambrose plays Frankie’s song on his phone as he presses her yet again on the events leading up to the murder. She insists he turn it off. He turns it up. She’s lost in a new iteration of her recurring vision: a blond woman leading her downstairs and two people having sex. Then Cora flies into a rage, beating Ambrose’s chest with her fists and screaming that she’ll kill him.

Mason pays a (thankfully less violent) visit to Cora himself. Why didn’t she tell him about the pregnancy? And why did she lie to the cops about Frankie? “I know JD,” Mason says. “He’s got that truck. I knew some of his friends before we met.” Did JD hurt her? She says it doesn’t matter anymore. But he insists it does. Mason, apparently up for some Hardy Boys-style investigating of his own, goes to see an old friend to ask if he remembers JD. He’s still around, the friend says, and not too far away. Cora’s husband requests an introduction.

Ambrose carries his suitcases back into the house, where he and his wife share a peaceful dinner. But their meal is interrupted when a bird flies into their sliding glass door. Ambrose gently picks it up (in the words of Michael Scott, you can’t get diseases from a bird). “Come back,” he whispers, and it soon perks up, flying off seemingly unharmed. “Metaphoooooor,” the birdsong might as well whistle through the wind. As the Ambroses get ready for bed, Harry notices the scrapes and bruises Cora left on his chest.

Ambrose has Leroy meet him at the station late that night. He’s had an epiphany: The song triggers Cora. They review Ambrose’s injuries and the security footage of Cora attacking him. She struck him seven times, in exactly the same pattern as the seven stab wounds that killed Frankie Belmont.

Episode Recaps

The Sinner
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