Despite the initial pilot setup, The Sinner turned out to be much more than a “whydunnit” (to borrow a phrase from creator Derek Simonds). The eight-episode event based on the novel by Petra Hammesfahr and starring Jessica Biel was arresting and serpentine, a (sometimes simultaneously) disturbing and sexy study of multiple characters, in which no one is purely good or bad. It’s a slow burn that escalates into a bonfire — the last three episodes will leave you breathless.
Little by little we learn that Cora (Biel) isn’t just a perpetrator of violence but a victim of it, too — and not just violence, but emotional, psychological, and sexual trauma. The detective investigating her case, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), is her mirror; the only real difference between them is the jail bars that keep them apart.
(WARNING: Spoilers ahead about the season finale of The Sinner. Read at your own risk!)
By the end of the finale (read our full recap here), we learned that Cora’s sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander) did die the night she went out with Cora and her friends. The opening sequence we’ve seen so many times, of Maddie descending down that mysterious staircase, wasn’t Maddie at all. It was Phoebe who went downstairs, and Phoebe who died there — in the arms of Frankie Belmont, the man Cora murdered. We also learned who’s responsible for that months-long gap in Cora’s memory: Frankie’s dad, who, in a both selfless and egregiously selfish act to protect his son, drugged Cora repeatedly (intravenously, ergo the scars) so she wouldn’t remember that Frankie accidentally killed her sister (or at least couldn’t save her) and that he’d buried Phoebe in the woods. That means this entire season, every time Cora’s shown up in court, the Belmonts were sitting there, knowing. They weren’t just grieving parents, they were grieving parents who had the key to our mystery, who hoped like hell that Cora would acquiesce under the weight of her guilt and never remember. (Or maybe they secretly hoped she would. Shame is a funny thing.)
Parents and children — what we will do for them, what we will do to them — are at the core of the show, and as the end credits roll we know that, if all goes as planned, Cora will be reunited with her son Lane and maybe be all right. We hope the same for Ambrose, but his future seems a little less certain.
EW caught up with Simonds to discuss the finale, the likelihood of another season, and the damaging nature of shame.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The initial commercials for The Sinner were very much, “This is a show about a woman who commits a violent act and we’re going to try to figure out why.” But in the end, it’s about so much more than that. This would be such a hard series to encapsulate in an elevator pitch. Now that it’s all aired, how would you describe this show?
DEREK SIMONDS: The clear tone when we were selling this show and marketing it was, it’s this “whydunnit.” This woman committed this astonishing act of violence and doesn’t know why. Cora has this trauma and she can’t process it with anyone because of her shame around her sexuality, her femininity, and what religion has done to her. Inevitably, if you don’t process that trauma, it rears its head in horrible, dysfunctional ways, hence the stabbing at the beach. To me, the show is an investigation of the consequences of shame. The relationship between Cora and Ambrose is the relationship between two people who have been traumatized.
They developed an interesting relationship.
At the end of episode 8, we hear Ambrose speak to that in the car scene with Cora, which is a hugely important scene for me. He says, “The things that happened to us when we were kids,” and you realize something happened to him and it’s why he connected to Cora; he saw the vestiges of trauma in her. And he couldn’t let it go. We said my thesis for this whole show over and over in the writers’ room: Shame shared is shame halved.
Cora has gone through a kind of catharsis, and in logistical terms, she’ll be back home at some point and she’ll finally get the help that she needs. But what’s next for her?
Cora’s completed her arc: She’s confronted her mother, she’s forgiven the criminal, and she’s going to a psychiatric institute instead of a prison. I hope that audiences feel, like Ambrose does, that she’s going to be out in two years and take these tentative next steps and actually save her family because Mason has dedicated himself to her as well. We do feel like Cora… has actually sorted through it and can move forward. And Ambrose in helping her is only cracking the door to his own traumas.
I don’t know if he’s yet gotten the help he needs, and I’m worried about what the end of this case will do to him.
The last shot of Ambrose in the car is an exact replication of the first time we see him in the pilot when he’s spying on Sharon. That was the first time we see the nails, when he’s absentmindedly touching the bruises, like the pain is a reminder that it’s something pleasurable and painful at the same time. And at the end, he actually looks at them directly. He actually takes them in and that’s the last moment of the season. There’s this idea that he’s starting to look at himself directly instead of compartmentalizing himself. He’s starting to look at the whole thing. The fingernails are obviously a sign of the sessions with Sharon and he’s playing out some type of trauma scenario with her, which is what happens with sexual abuse especially. The idea is that Ambrose has a long way to go but he is acknowledging it for the first time. He’s a pretty interesting character. It would be fun to continue to explore him in future seasons, if that’s one avenue we go down.
Speaking of future seasons, is that a possibility?
That seems to be the question on everybody’s mind. I’m not being cagey in saying I really don’t know. We’re all very optimistic. The show has done very well for USA, and they’re super excited about it. So we’re definitely talking about it, but in terms of what the form of season 2 would be, it’s an open question. We’re in the midst of talking about it and seeing if it’s something we do want to continue or not.
If there were a season 2, where would you want to pick up or what you would want to focus on?
To be honest, the air date of this show was so tight after we got greenlit that I just finished the post-production on episode 8 last Friday. Over the summer, we’ve been shooting up until August 15, and I’ve been editing furiously and delivering episodes literally a week or less before they air. It’s been incredibly tight, so I haven’t even had a gasp of air to really think into what a season 2 would look like. There are different scenarios — and I don’t really have a preference right now. I think that the most important thing after the way audiences have embraced season 1 is to deliver a great story that we connect to emotionally and that delivers a lot of surprises and goes deeper than you expect. That’s my priority; and whatever form the show might take in season 2, that’s what we want to service first and foremost. But we really just don’t know. There are a lot of different scenarios like a total anthology reboot à la True Detective, where you have new cast, new story; there’s another scenario where some characters from season 1 would continue on to season 2, and season 2 would present a new case in the world we’ve already established. But whatever would happen, we do know our original intention that we’re sticking to: This mystery involving Cora Tannetti has come to a close. We’ve offered the answer to viewers. Season 2 and onward would be a new mystery centered around a new character every season.
Speaking of Miss Cora Tannetti, what was it like working with Jessica Biel?
A dream. Honestly, it’s so easy for me to say that. I don’t even have to sugarcoat or tell you a half-truth. She’s been the most incredible creative partner. I feel so blessed that she’s a part of this show. From the very start, she’s had great thoughts and notes on scripts. When we made the pilot in Charleston last year with [director/EP] Antonio Campos, the three of us really dove deep together in the character. Jessica is the type of actress and person who came with absolutely no attitude, no ego, no sense of superiority. She just opened herself up and said, “How do we make this as great as it can be? I want to go there.” She wants to excel, and it’s so wonderful working with someone like that because she’s open to giving input and really gracious about it. She’s got such humility. As an actress, I think everyone agrees watching her work, she’s really gone to some raw personal places and she’s really let us feel the weight of Cora’s past and the weight of her trauma and the intensity of her desires to figure it out. It’s such a huge service to the story.
We also haven’t really seen her in a role like this before.
I like to say, in the same way that Cora Tannetti, the character, is this kind of American, every woman, girl next door who suddenly reveals much more complexity and depth than we thought with this sudden act of violence, you also have Jessica Biel, who when she was younger, was America’s sweetheart and was this wholesome girl and has always had a very approachable, earthy, all-American quality to her. With this role in playing Cora, she’s ripped the lid off her image so to speak and revealed that she has a lot more depth and a lot more scale and a lot more emotional complexity than people assumed she had. It’s the perfect meeting of character and actress and they’re both subverting the surface.
People throw around the term “brave,” but there were parts of this show that were truly brave. I’m thinking specifically of the last two episodes and the places that it goes and in particular, of course, the Phoebe and Cora scene. Was there fear in going that far?
No, actually. There was never any doubt about the importance of that scene or its function in the story. There was a lot of care around it; we wanted to get it right. I wanted to be sure that it didn’t feel sensational, something to get people to sit up and talk about. To me, that scene is heartbreaking because both of those sisters need each other so badly and are suffering so badly. It really highlights how deep under guilt Cora is, how heavy the burden of being the healthy sister who Phoebe is living vicariously through is; it makes her feel she’s responsible in some way for Phoebe’s illness and limitations. She’s constantly compensating for that, that she would go as far as this incestuous act in order to give her sister some pleasure. It’s really moving to me.
I feel like, the next episode, it was terrible — but I was also so happy for Phoebe. She finally got that one day to live. But the drugs, the sex, the death, it’s all at the same time; it’s complicated.
I’m glad you felt that way. One of our executive producers, Charlie Gogolak, said something that really made sense to me when we finished the show: He said the story functions as tragedy. There’s a quality to it that is just like people doing the best they can in the circumstances they’re in and tragic things happen and then shame takes over and bottles it all up. And that’s the tragedy of it. My goal is always that there are no villains, we’re all human beings. How do we show everyone’s struggle and make that relatable? Hopefully that came through, where Phoebe isn’t just a manipulative sister who felt this but she’s also someone who’s trying to live. And in some ways had a greater sense of what it is to be alive than anyone else around her because she’s been cooped up.