For USA, season 1 of The Sinner was proof that the success of Mr. Robot was no fluke, and the network previously known for blue-sky dramas could indeed replicate the compelling blend of darkly unnerving storytelling and distinct visuals in a way that earned the cabler greater distinction and some Emmy noms. That the series is back for a second season, then, is no surprise, though it does so without season 1 star and Emmy nominee Jessica Biel (though she remains attached to the project as an executive producer). But the manner in which The Sinner makes its return, as another limited series or installment of an anthology, rather than just a second season of an ongoing series, is somewhat surprising, especially since the new installment has ostensibly installed Bill Pullman’s Det. Harry Ambrose as the lead.
Aside from Biel, the elements that made season 1 work are largely still present, from creator Derek Simonds — who is now working without the help of Petra Hammesfahr’s novel — to director Antonio Campos, who established the series’ claustrophobic, washed-out look. Added to the mix are a new setting in upstate New York and a main plot that revolves around another seemingly open-and-shut murder investigation, but also a local commune that may or may not be a dangerous religious cult. The show also welcomes a handful of entirely new characters, like Carrie Coon’s mysterious and chilly Vera Walker, Natalie Paul (The Deuce) as recently promoted small town detective Heather Novac, and Tracy Letts (Lady Bird) as Jack, Harry’s childhood friend and Heather’s father.
The manner in which the story unfolds in the first three hours will be familiar to those who watched season 1, but it’s also unnerving enough to rope in viewers who either weren’t aware of the series or only came to season 2 after learning Coon had joined the cast. Either way, viewers will likely find plenty of what they’re looking for.
The opening moments of the new season (or installment, whatever you want to call it) play with a familiar formula, one that reiterates the series’ primary function is to uncover the why of a horrific crime, instead of the usual who or how. This time around, though, The Sinner pins its crime — a confounding double homicide — on an enigmatic child named Julian, played by Elisha Henig, who viewers of Mr. Robot will recognize as Mohammed, the boy Elliot spent a surreal day with in season 3. Julian’s crime isn’t as graphic or traumatic as the horrific, seemingly inscrutable murder carried out by Biel’s character, however. That distinction helps establish a different tone for this outing, one that works equally well with how the show seeks to simultaneously investigate the past and present, often by setting the two on a collision course through the show’s editing, which often creates the sensation that characters are experiencing both in a single moment.
Though Julian is presented as the perpetrator of the inciting incident, it’s Vera who quickly becomes one of the narrative’s primary drivers, though she hovers mostly in the margins during the first hour. Most often, that puts her at odds with Harry, whose prestige TV idiosyncrasies have been scaled back some (at least in the first few episodes). This affords more room to explore not only Vera’s past and the religious commune she’s the ostensible leader of (though she disputes the existence of a hierarchy), but also Heather, whose own trip down memory lane introduce Mindhunter’s Hannah Gross as Marin, her former girlfriend who was presumably lost to the the commune not too long ago.
Pitting Coon against Pullman gives The Sinner season 2 a surprisingly different energy than season 1 had, not only because the circumstances of Harry’s dynamic with Vera are so dissimilar to his investigation into Biel’s Cora Tannetti, but also because, as a performer, Coon is more of a dramatic heavyweight. She uses that to her advantage here, imbuing Vera with an iciness that, in the early goings, makes her an eerie and inscrutable antagonist. That otherworldliness follows carries through the series, so that when the second episode ends on a peculiar note The Sinner seems poised to explore a number of genres in its pursuit of this particular truth.
Though it never strays too far from being a gritty police procedural, the manner in which The Sinner lays out its storytelling cards and obfuscates others makes it an engaging watch. The added presence of Coon and her real-life husband Letts, in addition to the surprising performance of Henig, makes season 2 a different enough animal that it’s easy to overlook some of the familiar narrative paths the series takes in its acting as a “limited series” or “anthology.” The end result is an unnerving follow-up that stands a real chance at outpacing the original in terms of dramatic conceit and the level of performances that are on display.
The Sinner continues next Wednesday with ‘Part III’ @10pm on USA.