Another skeleton claws its way out of Cora Tannetti's closet
The Sinner - Season 1
Credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network

The Sinner

S1 E3

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)

Cora’s assigned public defender tells her she can get a “decent deal,” looking at the possibility of parole in 30 years. She asks if she could change her plea. The lawyer discourages her: It’s really, really hard to be found not guilty for temporary insanity. And everything about her — her family, her past — will be dredged up. Cora’s reaction, basically: So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

At the detox center, an employee explains to Ambrose that Cora got clean easily, after two weeks of inpatient treatment. Her head wound had been stitched up before she arrived there, and she came in wearing memorably new, clean clothes, unlike many of the homeless addicts they treat. A Caleb Walker — no address, no number — signed her intake form.

Ambrose spots the waitress-slash-dominatrix at the grocery store. She dumps a box of clementines on the floor. When he kneels at her feet to pick them up, she pushes her cart away, leaving him there. That night, Ambrose is bored out of his mind as he and his wife host another couple for dinner. They’re both curious about the Tannetti case. The condescending husband seems vindicated to hear that drugs were involved; he says his wife sees Cora as a “feminist revenge-of-the-millennial-housewife hero.” This sets Ambrose off: “You have no idea who Cora Tannetti is. You don’t know what happened to her. You don’t know what she’s been through, how she feels. You don’t know anything.” After their guests leave, the Ambroses adjourn for some lovey-dovey, missionary vanilla sex.

At Cora’s second plea hearing, she waffles in front of the judge. What should she do? But when she sees her cranky-ass parents seated in the courtroom, she decides: Cora enters a plea of guilty, to Ambrose’s dismay.

Next thing we know — and speaking of anal foreplay — Ambrose is back for another may-we-remind-you-that-this-is-cable session with his dominatrix. His philandering mojo restored, he manages to track down the mysterious Caleb Walker, a good Samaritan who just happened to spot Cora passed out on the street when he was taking out his trash.

After Mason’s friend pointed out J.D. at a bar, Mason returns alone and slides into the booth across from him. He asks J.D. how he knows Cora Lacey. “You don’t know s—, do you?” J.D. says, laughing cruelly. They fight. “Does she still like three guys on her?” J.D. taunts Mason as the pair tussle on the floor. They’re both arrested.

On a hunch, Ambrose demands Cora demonstrate shooting up, giving her a sugar packet, a spoon, a needle, a lighter, and other paraphernalia to mime it with. Defiant, she uncaps the needle, but she almost immediately loses steam. She has no idea what she’s doing. Just as Ambrose suspected: Addicts would normally inject in their hands and feet before their arms would get scarred like that, he says. How much of the two months between the Fourth of July and Poughkeepsie does she remember? “Fragments,” Cora says. She may have blamed herself for years, but it’s clear to Ambrose that the real story, whatever it is, is very different: “Somebody somewhere did this to you.”

The familiar creepy wallpaper finally comes into focus in Cora’s mind. We see, from her perspective, the bedroom it decorates. The door opens and a man in a scrub top steps inside. He wears a terrifying, featureless mask (part balaclava, part plague doctor), with two holes for the eyes and another for the nose and mouth. “How are you feeling today, Cora?” he asks. This is easily the best minute of the series so far, and if it is any indication that The Sinner is about to get extremely weird, I will be utterly delighted.

Episode Recaps

The Sinner
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