We finally learn what happened at Carl's Taproom. It's not what you think
“Part VII” of The Sinner is just like Christmas morning, with considerably more suffering and grotesquerie. After six weeks of whiplash flashbacks, we finally get an uninterrupted look at really happened during Cora’s lost night at the Taproom with J.D. And after all the disjointed vignettes we’ve seen, the reality proves to be deeply familiar yet profoundly different from what we expected, with characters and elements distorted and displaced in Cora’s mind by both her trauma and the limits of her memory. Some of the exposition is a little clunky, but just watching this show without being jerked back into Cora’s childhood without warning every few minutes is a relief on a nearly physical level. I feel like I’ve been holding back a sneeze since early August!
As Cora hesitates on the steps down to a basement on the grounds of the Beverwyck, Ambrose waiting behind her, she’s suddenly back in 2012. It’s Phoebe’s 19th birthday. Mother Lacey gets a little tipsy on wine — her annual tradition — and is almost pleasant to be around for once. Almost. Cora gives her sister a pretty new dress. She eyes the clock. Phoebe eyes Cora eying the clock. Later, as Cora prepares to sneak out to meet up with J.D. (who’s held on to her phone, by the way — creepy), Phoebe begs her to take her along, just for an hour, as a birthday present. When that tactic doesn’t work, she threatens to scream their parents awake unless Cora obliges.
And so Cora helps Phoebe, wearing makeup and her new dress, into Carl’s Taproom. In all the glimpses we’ve seen of this fateful night, none of them ever gave us any indication that Phoebe was present, too. I’m here for this twist! J.D. and Maddie are already there when the sisters arrive. Cora’s sort-of-boyfriend offers them mystery pills, “molly and some other stuff,” and Phoebe takes one before her sister can stop her. I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV — nor do I even recap any TV shows about doctors — but it occurs to me that this is probably not the best course of treatment for Phoebe.
Maddie finds Cora in the bathroom and tells her about J.D.’s previous girlfriend. She lied about being on the pill, got pregnant, got excited, and had even picked out a name for the baby, Winter. When J.D. wanted nothing to do with it, she walked into traffic, killing the baby. (The way she’s telling it, the story sounds a lot more personal than it would if it happened to someone else.) So there we have the origin of Cora’s fake origin story, the one she told Ambrose early on. Phoebe emerges from a stall and tells Maddie she’s sorry for whatever happened to her, that she can see how sad she is. In general, Phoebe’s vibe here is like she’s playing a comically blissful, enchanted Titania in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She pulls Cora into a slow dance — this was Maddie in an earlier, flawed version of Cora’s memory — and dispenses more drugged wisdom. “You are waiting for him to ride up and choose you,” she says. “You’re a giant. You could lock up anybody you wanted. You could have anything you wanted.”
The bell rings for last call. There they are in the parking lot, and the speech that Cora’s memory previously attributed to Maddie is in reality delivered by Phoebe (prepare for this switcheroo to happen a lot), who won’t let Cora take her home. “You’re trying to get rid of me and then you’re just going to go and meet up with him anyway…You want me to die anyway,” she says.
The Lacey sisters sit together in the backseat of J.D.’s truck, until Phoebe loses control of her bladder and Cora makes J.D. pull over. Cora washes Phoebe’s new dress in a stream in the woods. Phoebe steps into the role of Maddie yet again: She’s shivering, struggling to be breathe, and generally freaking out on the effects of the drug. She wants to go home; Cora says it’s too late. When Cora steps away to retrieve her purse from a nearby tree, she watches Phoebe, standing in her underwear, her vision blurred, and hesitates, as if thinking of leaving her sister there.
But she doesn’t. As Cora gets her dressed again, Phoebe questions all the stuff that’s packed in Cora’s bag. She’s furious to hear Cora secretly agreed to move in with J.D. They ride in angry silence as J.D. — now joined by another truck full of hooting and hollering dudes — pulls up to the back of the Beverwyck. This isn’t exactly a country club crowd, but someone’s waiting there to let them in. Who could it be but our old pal Frankie Belmont (whom J.D. ham-handedly announces by his full name, in case we forgot the murder that this entire series is theoretically about), who greets J.D. with a big hug? (Recap continues on page 2)
He’s drunk, and he’s been squatting at the Beverwyck ever since he had a panic attack on his way to Los Angeles. Lo and behold, Phoebe and Frankie immediately and powerfully hit it off. (At first I was grossed out because I forgot she wasn’t a literal child, but then I remembered she’s 19 and he’s 23, so, fine?) Their connection is easy, and their conversation both flirty and emotional. He’s undeterred when she tells him she’s a virgin with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and “Swiss cheese for a heart.” She reads him Emily Dickinson. He tells her he feels like he’s always known her. She’s moved to tears. They kiss, gently. Get it, Phoebe.
J.D. asks Cora to help him impress someone he’s hoping to do business with. This is Todd, supposedly a real estate developer. We know immediately to be wary of Todd because he’s sitting in the shadows rocking both the polo shirt and the hair of an ‘80s movie villain, very on brand for the Beverwyck Club. He shoots up as they watch and lays an unwelcome hand on Cora’s knee. When Maddie enters, she gleefully sits on Todd’s lap, but J.D. tells her to scram. She’s devastated, and more practically, she doesn’t have her own car to get home in. He doesn’t care. “Getting pregnant doesn’t make you matter… neither does jumping in front of a car,” J.D. tells her. What a card, that J.D. — does he have a brother?!
Cora goes looking for Phoebe and eventually finds her dancing with Frankie in the same outbuilding where we left Cora and Ambrose (in the present day) at the beginning of the episode. Phoebe looks blissfully happy. Cora wants to go home; Phoebe refuses. “I know how much you’ve given up for me over these years and I’m sorry because I let you do it,” she tells her sister. “You have to think about yourself.”
Phoebe announces that the party is heading downstairs, down those stairs, to hear Frankie’s music. There, as they listen to a song by Frankie’s band — but not The Song by Frankie’s band — J.D. cuts lines of coke. Phoebe encourages Cora to loosen up and let go for once. Before long, Phoebe and Cora are kissing, Cora and Frankie are kissing, Phoebe and Frankie are kissing. This is not the MurderFest 2012 I’d expected. Then, The Song comes on. Cora snorts another line and J.D. takes her panties off on the carpet. On the couch, Phoebe and Frankie tenderly have sex. Her older sister sees this happening and smiles. But the next thing she knows, a deeply zonked-out Cora is having sex not with J.D., but creepo Todd, as J.D. pushes her head into the carpet. It is very upsetting.
Speaking of upsetting: Cora snaps out of her stupor when she sees Frankie frantically performing chest compressions on Phoebe, breaking her ribs as he does. Her heart couldn’t take it. She stopped breathing. But all Cora can tell is that something terrible is happening. She beats on Frankie’s chest with her fists as The Sinner cuts to her stabbing him on the beach, in the same exact pattern. (We get it, guys.) She smacks J.D.’s face as he tries to pull her off Frankie. In turn, Boyfriend of the Year and all-around amazing catch J.D. grabs an ashtray and smashes Cora in the head. So that’s how she got that terrible, mysterious wound.