If you’ve seen the previous two seasons of The Sinner, you’re aware the crime drama wastes no time introducing a grisly murder scene before spending the remaining seven or so hours uncovering the mystery behind it.
“Part 1” of the anthology series’ third installment adopts a slightly more slow-burn approach before spilling any blood. It opens in a bathroom stall, where Jamie Burns (a bearded Matt Bomer) is stealing a few puffs off a vape pen and dropping some Visine in his peepers. Things brighten up beyond the men’s room, where we discover Burns is a popular high school teacher, adored by his female students and fellow staffers alike.
While “Mr. B” is giving one of his charges a nice confidence boost, encouraging her to write a glowing college recommendation letter for herself, the scene shifts to a more familiar, bearded face. Dogged detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) — the one constant, connective tissue between seasons — is chatting with his superior, who’s gently proposing Harry retire. The subject sends Ambrose bolting for the door, but not before his boss mentions Harry’s increased stress… ”Ever since that case last summer with the kid.”
The offhand reference to season 2’s creepy cult poisoning not only confirms where we’re at in the show’s timeline but also Harry’s penchant for getting drawn into bizarre, complicated cases. But five minutes into the episode, there’s no sign of wrongdoing. In fact, the recently divorced detective is enthusiastically greeting his estranged daughter and grandson at the train station.
The happy reunion isn’t without a hint of the inevitable darkness to come, however, as Burns — coming off the same train — hurriedly passes Harry after having been annoyed by the smartphone-obsessed passengers on his commute. Back at Harry’s new homestead in the woods — an upgrade from his post-divorce rental — his daughter expresses concern for Harry’s safety given the house’s remote location (this also sets up a recurring joke where Harry runs outside every time he gets a call because he gets “two bars by the maple tree.”) While Harry awkwardly attempts to connect with his grown daughter, who’s also recently divorced, she turns the discussion to her son Eli, who’s in therapy and is described by his mother as a friendless bookworm.
Back at the Burns’ picturesque upstate New York home, Jamie’s domestic life seems as blissful as his professional one. While the teach tends to chicken on the BBQ, he shares light conversation with Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley) his beautiful, pregnant, artisanal candle-making wife. Jamie becomes a bit distracted, though, and while the missus discusses candle scents, he places a hand dangerously close to the hot grill. And then the doorbell rings.
It’s Nick Haas (Sharp Objects‘ Chris Messina), Jamie’s old college buddy. He jokes that he’s delivering an Amazon package. A surprised Jamie is not amused. “What the hell are you doing here?” “I told you not to come here,” and “Get the hell out of here,” are among the greetings he offers his apparently former friend. A confident, cocky Nick doesn’t take kindly to this, drops the episode’s first f-bomb, and weasels his way into joining the Burns for dinner. Awkward conversation ensues, as the not-so-invited guest digs into the couple’s personal lives, accusing Jamie of wanting to move from Brooklyn and have a baby, against his wife’s wishes. Cue f-bomb No. 2, from Jamie this time, before Lela comes to the rescue and shifts the topic to Nick’s profession. Upon lifting a glass with a hand wrapped in fresh bandages, he cryptically responds, “Private equity.” Lela follows up to ask if he’s in town for work, to which he creepily and calmly replies, “No, not really.”
At Ambrose’s house, a late-night call sets Harry in motion to do what Harry does best. Following a quick apology to his daughter — who’s annoyed he’s on-call during her visit — he arrives at the scene of a car accident. Flashing police lights and roadside flares illuminate a vehicle wrapped around a tree. A first responder brings Harry up to speed. The passenger, now at the hospital, called 911, there’s an open container of alcohol in the car, and the vehicle was traveling well above 80 mph down a private, one-residence road. That one resident, by the way, was not expecting visitors. Oh, and they’re going to need hydraulics to remove the driver from the crushed vehicle… ”Idiot wasn’t wearing a seat-belt.”
As Ambrose rounds the wreckage, we get a close-up of the doomed driver. It’s Nick, his cocky gaze replaced by a lifeless, blood-soaked stare. Cut to a nearby hospital, where a bloodied and bandaged Jamie flashes back to the car careening down the dark road. His worried wife interrupts his hazy recollection, but he gives her a hug and assures her he’s okay, even though they lost control of the car because his frenemy was driving too fast.
Back at Harry’s office, he takes a call from a Michigan veteran’s home eager to send him some of his deceased dad’s personal belongings. Harry’s not so eager to accept, and so begins this season’s narrative thread into Ambrose’s persistently troubled personal life. There’s no time to dig up the past just yet, though, as Burns shows up for a chat. The meeting was set up as a formality, due to the presence of the open alcohol container, but Harry being Harry soon steers the line of questioning into areas Burns isn’t prepared for. A tearful Jamie soon concedes he was inebriated, but answers the best he can (or at least pretends to.)
Things take a turn for the weird when Jamie says, since the accident, his hands don’t seem like his own and his house doesn’t quite feel like his home. He also says, when Nick looked at him — splayed out on the hood of the car — it was like the first time he’d really seen him. Harry chalks the bizarre comments up to shock, suggests he see someone to sort it all out, and sends him on his way.
But as Harry drives past the scene of the accident again, you know he’s thinking it was more than a joy ride gone wrong. In fact, his destination is that sole residence on the private road the men were racing toward for no apparent reason. Harry asks the owner, a painter named Sonya (Jessica Hecht) if she was expecting company the night of the accident. She wasn’t, nor does she claim to know the two men despite her eyes saying otherwise when Harry flashes their photos. If that doesn’t raise any red flags, then Sonya’s defensive posture and query as to whether or not the men were armed should do the trick.
When we next see Jamie, the ever-dutiful husband is helping his wife pack candles in her shop until he sees Nick peering at him from the street. The apparent hallucination sends Jamie stumbling into the stock room, where the blood under his bandaged hand begins to blossom through the dressing. Another hallucination or a real, stress-triggered reaction?
The next face we see is Nick’s, stiff, close-up, and caked in dried blood. The morgue’s medical examiner informs Harry that Nick would have survived had the medics arrived sooner. She also points out a knife wound through Nick’s hand, unstitched and sustained a few days before the accident. Harry and his partner begin going through his personal items, where they discover he was single, well-off financially, and didn’t have a phone among his belongings. This sends them to the impounded wreckage, where they quickly notice the parking brake was pulled, and blood and fingerprints indicate Nick struggled a bit before dying. More fingerprints on the radio knob also suggest someone was eager to crank some tunes post-accident.
While Jamie attempts to clear his mind with a brisk jog, he’s subjected to more disturbing flashback memories, including a bloody Blackberry on the side of the road. Meanwhile, Harry’s seen enough questionable details to call in a forensics team, officially turning this accident into a crime scene. Jamie soon drives to the scene, which is now covered in yellow police tape and crawling with dudes in lab gear, but quickly backs up after briefly locking eyes with Sonya, who’s also checking out the new developments.
Harry next follows the investigation to Burns’ house, where he meets his wife and fires a few questions her way regarding her husband’s relationship with Nick. Apparently, Nick had been staying at a nearby hotel for a few days, and Ambrose wondered if Jamie had seen Nick prior to that fateful night. Growing increasingly uncomfortable with the questions, Lela remains polite but offers little in the way of helpful information. The exchange also jolts her into a flashback memory as soon as Harry leaves.
“Did Jamie ever tell you about what we used to do in school? Did he ever mention me?” Despite Jamie’s protests, Nick continues with the antagonizing line of questioning during dinner. “Should I tell her? How would she react?” Before he can share more, Jamie brushes it off as “normal college bullshit,” while Lela shuffles off to get dessert. As she preps some ice cream treats, she overhears part of a hushed, hostile exchange, one that brings the episode’s f-bomb tally to three.
The next stop on Harry’s find-the-foul-play tour takes us to Nick’s hotel room, where he finds one of those paper-made fortune-tellers kids love to make. A call from HQ also comes in, informing Harry a Blackberry (apparently easier than the average smartphone to encrypt) was found at the scene.
While Harry’s giving the directive to track cellphone pings, Jamie and Lela make small talk over dinner prep. When the conversation shifts to Ambrose’s visit earlier in the day, Jamie’s hallucinations kick into high gear. This time he doesn’t just see Nick, but his old buddy enters the house, grabs a knife, and slits Lela’s throat. Jamie jumps out of his skin, frightening Lela, and bringing the scene to a tense close.
Back at work, Harry’s watching videos of Sonya, a painter focused on subjects of male vulnerability. After a few pics of creepy old naked men pop on Harry’s screen, he stops the video to analyze the intel on Nick’s Blackberry pings. Bottom line: It seems Jamie used Nick’s phone to call for help but waited an hour from the time of the accident before entering the digits. Harry immediately jumps to an accusation of “impeding a rescue,” which carries a charge of second-degree murder. Harry’s soon-retiring commanding officer thinks he’s grasping at straws, but Ambrose’s theory gains traction when he also learns the phone was intentionally powered off at some point.
While administering a foot rub to his wife, Jamie finally opens up a bit about Nick. “He’s a troubled guy. He’s self-destructive. I had to cut him off.” He also admits Nick was in town to meet him, despite Jamie repeatedly putting him off. Lela even questions if Nick was in love with Harry, but he assures her it was never like that.
Back at Harry’s backwoods domicile, he’s taking a call by the maple tree where he gets those two bars. Turns out Nick’s phone was wiped clean — no prints — strongly suggesting someone’s hiding something. Fast-forward to Jamie’s bathroom, where he’s replaying the previous night’s events in his head. In the speeding car, Nick says, “Once we get there, the less you speak the better.” Jamie replies, “I’m not doing this.” Nick says, “Yes you are. Just watch me and follow.” Jamie replies with f-bomb No. 4 and insists Nick stop the car. Nick speeds up, Jamie pulls the emergency brake, and the vehicle winds up where we first found it, nearly halved by a tree.
We get a bit more context this time, though, as we see Jamie crawl from the wreckage, while a still-alive Nick is stuck in the windshield. The latter begs for help as best he can with a massive glass shard piercing his torso; he grabs his phone, asks Jamie to call 911, then drops the device. Jamie picks up the bloodied, cracked Blackberry and… turns it off. He then kneels before Nick and watches what little remaining life he has drain from him.
No cliffhanger here, but Ambrose is clearly on an intriguing path.