I feel a little bad for The Sinner, because it is Really Trying to be good television, or at least someone’s flawed idea of what good television should look like. But this needlessly dark and moody limited series from USA — not a whodunit but a whydunit — is off to a less-than-thrilling start. Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) works with her husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott — hey, Charlie from Girls!), and his father at the heating and air conditioning company their family owns, then has dinner at her mother-in-law’s house every night. And did I mention they live next door?
Cora’s is a peaceful, predictable existence, if a suffocating one: It’s like Everybody Loves Raymond moved to upstate New York — minus the jokes, plus what seems like serious, untreated depression on its protagonist’s part. During the couple’s regularly scheduled Friday-night intercourse, to which Cora reluctantly acquiesces, she sees a brief flash of the unsettling vision that opens the episode and recurs throughout it: a gloomy wallpaper pattern, a little girl’s voice saying a Hail Mary, a spookily backlit blonde in a red dress. I hope, at some point during the series, one of these memories is just a scene pulled directly from 7th Heaven.
On Saturday morning, after Cora meticulously scrubs down the kitchen, she and Mason load their toddler son Laine into the car for a trip to Lake Minnewaska. It’s a picturesque summer scene, filled with kids getting their sunscreen reapplied, beer-filled coolers, and buckets perfectly sized for building sandcastles. Cora goes in for a dip, swimming beyond the buoys toward the lake’s opposite shore. She abruptly plunges below the surface. Is Cora trying to drown herself? After spending an alarming amount of time underwater, she hears Mason call out to her from the shore. She pops back up to the surface, sputtering for air.
Back on shore, she slices a pear in a close-up so ominous that it leaves no doubt that someone is about to get murdered with either that knife or that pear. (Your guess is as good as mine!) On a nearby blanket, a pair of childless hardbodies make out awfully sensually considering they’re on a beach full of children in floaties. Cora watches them with interest. The woman puts on a new wave-y song — she says it’s her snogging partner Frankie’s band from medical school.
Cora is disturbed by the track — it becomes very loud, and she seems transported, watching these two essentially dry hump. “Stop it, get off her,” Cora suddenly shouts. She runs over to their blanket and immediately stabs Frankie, first in the neck, and then all over his torso. The beach is awash with screams. Mason wrestles his wife to the sand until she releases her grip on the knife.
Cora walks back over to the mortally wounded man — sputtering blood, as his assailant did water just minutes before — as if to help. “Get the f— away,” the woman screams. It isn’t long before Cora is quietly led away in handcuffs. Mason, looking dazed on the back of an ambulance, turns away from his wife as she calls to him from the back of the police cruiser.
The man we’ll soon come to know as Detective Harry Ambrose (a very beardy Bill Pullman) is parked in an alley, spying on a waitress with binoculars. This doesn’t seem like official police business. There’s blue blood pooled under two of his bruised fingernails, which he presses into his thumb. By the time Ambrose is summoned to the crime scene at the lake, Cora has already confessed, with more than enough eyewitnesses to corroborate the events. We learn that her victim was a 29-year-old doctor named Frankie Belmont. As another investigator recounts that it’s been two years since their sleepy region saw a homicide, Ambrose is distracted by blight on the pine trees on the shore across the lake. “An ecosystem out of balance,” he says. I feel like Bill Pullman is trying to have his Rust Cohle moment on The Sinner, and I wish him well on this journey.
With her mugshot taken and Belmont’s blood swabbed from her body, Cora showers under police supervision. She flashes back to a memory from her childhood: saying the Hail Mary with her father, who encourages her to include her mother and her little sister in her prayers. Though it’s obvious that little Cora loves her dad, she tells him she doesn’t want her mom to come back.
At home, Mason and his parents are shell shocked. Cora calls him from the station, but he lets it go to voicemail. Ambrose and his partner come to question her. She’s been married for three years; both her parents are dead. She has no history of mental illness and takes only the occasional sleeping pill. Cora tells them she doesn’t want a lawyer, not even a public defender. If, as she claims, she’d never met this man before in her life, then why kill him? “Because they were playing that music and they kept turning it up,” she says. (I mean…people have killed for less.) Ambrose gently presses her as to a motive, but she doesn’t really know why she did it — only that she did. It’s about as open and shut as a case could be, a district attorney’s dream, but Ambrose can’t wrap his brain around this particularly brutal homicide. When women kill, the victim is normally someone they’re intimately involved with. What really happened here? (Recap continues on page 2)
Now in the county jail, an increasingly distressed Cora believes she hears that fateful (and actually pretty catchy!) song blaring in her cell. She bangs on the walls and on an intercom buzzer, begging the guards for help — she can’t sleep without her pills. She falls to her knees, rocking back and forth with her hands on her head as she recites the Hail Mary.
Ambrose has things to do, too. He appears on that waitress’ doorstep, explaining that he couldn’t sleep. “So did it work? Did your wife take you back?” she asks, letting him in. This woman, it turns out, is a server by day and a dominatrix by night. (I feel like we’re playing Prestige TV bingo.) She tells him to get down on his knees, and he obliges, gladly. She steps on his hands, digging her shoes into the blue tips of his fingers. Somehow I feel more squeamish watching someone getting their fingers stepped on than I did watching someone else getting stabbed to death?
A throng of reporters armed with cameras and mics are already waiting outside the Tannetti home by the time Ambrose arrives the next morning. Mason still hasn’t been to see his wife. “The look on her face and the things that she said, it was like she was someone else,” he tells Ambrose. Huh? His statement didn’t mention anything she said. Mason explains that, right after the stabbing, Cora went to Leah, Frankie’s wife and canoodling partner, saying, “You’re okay. You’re safe. He’s gone now.” Apparently, on some level, Cora thought she was rescuing her.
In her cell, Cora seems even more zonked out. She revisits another childhood memory, this one of her parents arguing before introducing her to her baby sister, who is clearly unwell, with a black-and-blue cast to her skin. To say their mother is weird would be a vast understatement. “When you were a baby inside of me, you took up all my strength,” she tells little Cora. “Enough for three children. So when Phoebe came, there wasn’t any left for her. That’s why she’s so sick. But I prayed. In that hospital I prayed like I never prayed before, and it worked, you see?” Now, if they don’t do “every single thing He expects of us,” then baby Phoebe won’t make it. This deeply creepy monologue is exactly what you should say to your child if you’d love to see them grow up to randomly stab someone on a beach one day.
Mason finally goes to see Cora. A guard tells them “no touching,” which is not quite as lively outside of the context of Arrested Development. She immediately asks about their son, who Mason says is confused. He apologizes for not coming. He tries to reassure her but proves to be very bad at it. (On the other hand, he is very good at saying “uh,” which he does in most sentences.) Cora tells him that none of this is his fault, that he should move on, and that she won’t blame him. “You were such a good husband to me. I never thought I would have a normal life, and I did, I really did. And that’s because of you,” she says. Choked up with emotion, he leaves.
Ambrose calls his partner to tell him he’s heading to see Leah Belmont. If she can confirm Cora was in “some kind of delusional state,” the judge won’t accept a guilty plea. But Ambrose only has two hours before her hearing. He finds Leah sedated at the hospital, with her friend Patrick — a bystander to the murder — at her bedside. The two men sit down together in the hospital cafeteria, where Ambrose points out a rubber plant that needs more light than it’s getting. (So we’re gonna keep this plant thing up all season, then, huh?)
Borrowing a one-more-thing style of questioning from Colombo, Ambrose suddenly asks Patrick why he didn’t try to stop Cora. Mason ran 15 feet to tackle her — Patrick was four feet away while his friend was stabbed seven times. Patrick reveals that right after Cora stabbed Frankie the first time, he could see Frankie grab her arm. “And the thing is, Frankie’s a strong guy,” he says. He could have forced her off, but he didn’t. Why not? “It looked like he recognized her,” Patrick explains. “When he saw who it was, he let her go.”
At Cora’s arraignment, our heroine slash villainess enters a plea of…um, I guess we’ll have to wait till next week? Rude.