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)