Cora tries out controversial recovered-memory therapy. What could possibly go wrong?
The Sinner - Season 1
Credit: Peter Kramer/USA Network

The Sinner

S1 E4

As of this week, we’re halfway through The Sinner‘s eight-episode run, and I am exhausted. How are you holding up? With flashbacks layered inside flashbacks, slathered with a thick layer of flashback, and bedazzled with more flashbacks still, it’s hard to imagine that whatever the truth about Cora Tannetti’s past turns out to be will justify the convoluted path we’ve taken to learn it. Unless Agents J and K personally zapped her memory with a neuralyzer after a close encounter with Frank the Pug, I’m going to be disappointed.

At the station, Leroy and Ambrose interrogate Mason, who blames drug dealer J.D. for starting their fight — even though eyewitnesses disagree — and for all of Cora’s troubles. He also manages to out his policewoman friend Caitlin for feeding him info about his wife’s case on the lowdown. Before J.D.’s fancy-pants lawyer swoops in and puts an end to his interview, J.D. denies “direct contact” with Cora to the cops, even though a flashback reveals the two of them had some extremely direct contact on a coffee table. (Wait, so Cora doesn’t even have to be in a scene for us to have a flashback now? Are there no rules? Is the entire series a flashback?)

Did somebody say flashback? Because, great news, here’s a flashback: Young Cora, now 13 or so, sees two teens making out against a pickup truck in the driveway next door. The boy actively gropes the girl’s breasts under her shirt — in broad daylight, given that this is happening at, like, 3 p.m. Young love! Phoebe, watching from her bedroom window, knows them to be their neighbor Kevin and his girlfriend, a “shameless harlot” she’s seen with another boy. As Cora tucks her in, Phoebe encourages her to make a play for Kevin, so that she can watch their canoodling from afar. Forget the murder, forget their over-the-top wackadoodle mom, forget Jessica Biel, forget even — I’m sorry to say it — Bill Pullman’s beard: The bond between these two odd little girls is easily the most interesting part of The Sinner.

That night, they curl up together on the couch, eating fistfuls of cereal out of the box and watching porn on a laptop. “Boobs are weird,” observes Phoebe. (Just wait ’til you hear about penises, my young Padawan.) When they hear their father coming downstairs, they slam the computer shut. But he doesn’t even notice his daughters: The girls watch him sneak outside to the neighbor lady’s house, where they embrace just beyond the sliding door. Phoebe already knew about the affair.

When Ambrose asks her about J.D. Lambert, Cora says she lost her virginity to him; she doesn’t think he ever hurt her, but he’s indeed who she was with on Fourth of July weekend at Carl’s Taproom. She remembers driving from there to a house and having sex (with…someone), but that’s it. “Then it just all goes blank.” The next thing she can recall is coming to on the street in Poughkeepsie, by which point two months had passed. (Okay, so that whole accidental-pregnancy-plus-suicide-attempt thing was just a lie? Great. Cool. Glad we spent so much time on that.) Ambrose convinces Dr. Chang, one of Cora’s 730 exam evaluators, to try recovery memory work with Cora, despite the doctor’s reluctance — it’s impossible to distinguish between real memories and fabricated ones, she warns, and there’s even the possibility that the patient could be re-traumatized.

Dr. Chang sits Cora in a reclining chair to begin the process, which she likens to a guided meditation. Chang tells her patient to imagine she’s standing beside a body of water — we see Cora beside a placid, lovely lake, exactly the kind you probably wouldn’t expect to watch someone get brutally stabbed next to. The psychologist counts down from 10 and instructs Cora to visualize walking into the water’s depths. “Let the first memory of July 3, 2012, come to you,” Chang says. Cora sees a distant water tower. Her feet are mired in the mud of a swamp; she feels “hopeless.”

Then she’s making out with J.D. in the Taproom parking lot. J.D.’s ex Maddie, who hates Cora, is also there, whispering in his ear. They offer her a mysterious pill. Suddenly, she flashes to an unrelated memory: She waits for the school bus as a little girl, but it barrels right past her without stopping. Back outside the Taproom, Maddie confronts Cora. “You’re trying to get rid of me, and then you’re just going to meet up with him anyway. You want me to die,” she says. Cora, bubbling over with rage in her semi-trance state, says she hates this young woman: “I want to hold her underwater and I want to break her into pieces.”

Ambrose studies the transcript of Cora’s session with Chang. She mentioned that, at the time, J.D. would siphon gas from strangers’ cars into a gas can. Ambrose figures that such a can could hold a gallon of gas, and that J.D.’s old SUV could do 14 miles a gallon at most. That means that wherever Cora was driven from Carl’s Taproom, it must have been within a 14-mile radius of the bar. (This, kids, is why geometry is important.) And within that distance, there are two water towers, only one of which is in the woods.

Demonstrating the kind of basic internet fluency that eludes every single person ever to appear on Catfish, the detective also manages to dig up a Facebook photo of Maddie: She’s Madeline Beecham, aged 21 (wait…does this mean she was only 16 in 2012? Because, ew), no current address found. She’s mentioned in J.D.’s vice file because her former landlord blamed both her and her then-boyfriend for a theft. Ambrose and Leroy interview this landlord, a middle-aged, capital-a Adult who reveals she became romantically involved with Maddie — she and J.D. told her they were polyamorous. “Did he kill her?” this woman asks as soon as she hears the men are there as part of a murder investigation. Weeks after the landlord accused the pair of theft, Maddie disappeared, but she left behind all her jewelry, makeup, and clothes. This was back in — I’ll give you a dollar if you can guess it! — July 2012. (Recap continues on page 2)

Parked at a distance, Mason watches J.D. drive away from home, leaving behind a woman and a baby. Mason approaches the front door, switching on a recorder on his phone before he knocks. He introduces himself as “Mike” — a friend of a friend of J.D.’s — and asks if he could buy “supplies” from her before he heads out of town. She lets him in, taking a break from decorating cakes (for what it’s worth, I would much rather watch a TV show about a part-time baker, part-time drug dealer new mom) to sell him some cocaine. She covertly texts J.D. to let him know Mike is there, and her boyfriend calls her before Mason has the chance to leave. “I don’t know who the hell is in our house,” he says. J.D.’s girlfriend screams at Mike-slash-Mason to get out, and so does the baby (well, the baby does not scream words; the baby just screams, generally).

Mason meets Caitlin in a parking lot and promptly hands her a small manila envelope filled with the coke. Great police work, Junior Inspector Tannetti! The actual adult in this situation is, of course, horrified — in official law-enforcement parlance, this is “crazy illegal s—” — despite Mason’s insistence that J.D.’s girlfriend’s fingerprints and his recording of their conversation are enough to charge them. You are such a bad cop, Mason; have you ever seen a single cop show? Not one Law & Order? CSI? Columbo? Hell, I would even accept a Miss Marple. “This is what you do. You use people,” Caitlin tells him, revealing a chapter from their high-school past he clearly would prefer not to remember. “You screwed me in the photo lab and then you wouldn’t look at me in public.”

Preteen Cora waits for the neighbor boy beside his truck. “I’m your neighbor,” she introduces herself (strong opener; Cora’s got game). “I was wondering about something,” Cora says. She follows him into the shed, where he takes his pants off for her inspection: “Well, go ahead.” Back in their shared bedroom, Cora tells her sister that she had two orgasms. Phoebe gasps with delight. “Tell me everything.”

Ambrose wants to sit in on the second memory-recovering session, despite the doctor’s disapproval. Cora doesn’t get why he’s so invested — he should at least tell her that much. “Maybe it’s that swamp,” Ambrose explains. “You know, that you described, the last session. How you felt like you were going to be stuck there forever. I know that swamp.” Fine, okay, whatever. At the request of her shrink, Cora sinks back into the body of water. She returns to Carl’s Taproom, but this time, the person she’s standing close to is Maddie. They sway and hold one another as Maddie gently strokes the side of her face. “She can barely stand up,” Cora recalls.

Then, Maddie is waiting in the truck, ready to go. Ambrose, proving himself to be an unconscionable backseat driver, passes Chang a note: WHERE. Cora’s not sure. Next, she and Maddie, who’s full-on freaking out, are in the woods, where someone is “hunting” them with a bright searchlight. We hear what sounds like gunshots. Cora’s childhood memory of a school bus keeps flashing back into her mind. Maddie lures her into the basement of the house they drove to from the bar. The song (yes, naturally, the murder song) is playing.

Cora’s real-life breathing becomes labored, and she asks to stop, but over the doctor’s protests, Ambrose gently encourages her to keep going. She descends to the bottom of basement stairs, though she feels physically ill. Her reward for continuing is a new version of a familiar image: It’s Maddie’s rib cage, not Cora’s, that gets crushed, and by a foot clad in what appears to be one of the same sandals that Cora had been wearing. Debriefing after the session, Cora grows upset that Ambrose doesn’t seem satisfied with her answers, despite how hard she’s trying. She asks him not to give up on her, and he agrees.

One more childhood flashback for the road: Late at night, preteen Cora intercepts her dad downstairs, begging him not to go over to the neighbor’s house. Her dad says she called — she needs help with a broken sink — and leaves anyway, telling Cora to go to sleep.

Under the auspices of joining his wife for a hike, Ambrose — who has not made a wistful observation about plants yet this episode! — surveys the area of the woods he believes Cora was referring to. Faye is in the midst of a (one-sided) serious talk about their marriage; he’s distracted by the sight of the water tower in the distance. But then something else, something lower, catches his eye: It’s an abandoned school bus, dilapidated and covered in graffiti — and just beyond that, a curious patch of soil dotted with distinctive fungi. It looks not unlike a shallow grave. (Unlike Mason, I have watched a cop show.)

Before long, a team of CSIs are working the scene. Just below the surface of that spooky soil, they unearth a skeletal hand.

Episode Recaps

The Sinner
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