Murder, motive and memories in ‘The Sinner’

In this USA Network miniseries, young wife and mother Cora Tannetti, played by Jessica Biel, attacks a stranger unprovoked while at the beach with her family.

click to enlarge Jessica Biel is Cora Tannetti in "The Sinner" - Photo: Courtesy of USA Network
Photo: Courtesy of USA Network
Jessica Biel is Cora Tannetti in "The Sinner"

What’s more terrifying: a cold, calculated murder by an evil villain or an unsuspecting woman who snaps sans motive to commit a heinous crime? Based on the novel by Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner (Series Finale, 10 p.m. Wednesday, USA Network) poses this question when the unassuming Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) attacks a stranger, unprovoked.

The mystery, then, in this compelling eight-part thriller is not the “who,” but the “why.” The Sinner is akin to fellow miniseries The Night Of and Big Little Lies (both recent Emmy Award winners) in that a murder occurs in the first episode, but the details surrounding the killing — in this case, motive — are slowly revealed week by week.

Before the attack, it’s clear Cora is battling some internal struggle — her detachment from her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott, Girls) and an ominous swim into open water, sinking below for a little too long, foreshadow a dark turn as the series opens. But they don’t explain why, in a split second, Cora would stab a man repeatedly on the populated shore of a picturesque lake, her family’s relaxing beach day coming to a screeching halt. She immediately tries to comfort the wife he was kissing just moments before, as if she’s protecting her. 

While Cora is a sympathetic enough character as a beautiful young wife and mother, no one comes to her defense — even Mason initially ignores her call from jail. After all, what could possibly justify this act? In fact, Cora is eager to accept her punishment, foregoing a lawyer or even public defender. She knows she committed a horrible crime, just not why. While Mason eventually takes action to help his wife, Cora has another ally in her corner — Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman). While hers is an open-and-shut case for the D.A., Ambrose is one of the few in law enforcement asking the same questions as the audience. There’s much more to this story, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of it.

Ambrose is an odd bird — he connects more with nature than other people, including the wife he’s trying to reconnect with after a separation. He sees something in Cora, and, in a fragile and confused state, she’s able to trust him in return. 

In his conversations and interviews with Cora, he discovers she is missing significant chunks of memory. If she can dig them up, they might find an answer to why she killed this man. With the assistance of a reluctant psychologist — recovering repressed memories can be a dangerous game with inaccurate results — Cora revisits the 20-some years before she became a wife and mom. Much like no one on that beach could have predicted her behavior, few would guess Cora had such a troublesome upbringing. But it is in her complicated past that we eventually find answers, buried deep in her psyche.

Cora survived a staunchly religious, sheltered upbringing with a spiteful mother and gravely ill sister. Her desire to escape leads Cora down a dangerous path, though it’s obvious she would be just as messed up if she never escaped her family. Her mother blames young Cora — “the sinner” — for sister Phoebe’s sickly state and the two young women develop a demented codependent relationship, with Phoebe pushing Cora into situations for the younger sister to experience vicariously — and eventually first-hand.

As the story unfolds, current-day scenes are spliced with flashbacks. Cora’s recovered memories result in hits and misses for her case. With every clue and answer she unveils comes a dead-end or misplaced memory. We must take a note from Gone Girl and Girl on a Train (also novels adapted for screen) and question whether Cora is a reliable source.

The puzzle pieces of this slow-burner begin to come together and Cora’s motive becomes clear, but the truth reveals a web of abuse that reaches far beyond Cora.

The beautifully shot miniseries is a win for USA Network, which is raising the bar on its programming with offerings like Mr. Robot. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime for Biel, who hasn’t had a regular TV role since playing Mary Camden on the squeaky-clean family drama 7th Heaven. To see her embrace such a gritty, layered character — and the executive-producer role — is refreshing, much like this female-driven drama itself.


CONTACT JAC KERN: @jackern