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Series / The Sinner

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The Sinner is a limited series airing on USA Network, created by Derek Simonds and starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman.

In Season 1, on a beach in Dorchester, young mother Cora Tanetti murders a young man in broad daylight, but can offer no explanation for why she did it. The season follows the efforts of Detective Harry Ambrose as he tries to figure out why.

In Season 2, Harry, now divorced and making time until his retirement, is called out to the town of Keller to help investigate a double homicide carried out by a 13-year-old boy. When the boy is suddenly tried as a minor, Harry and new partner Heather Novack struggle to find some way to explain the boy's actions, all while dealing with a secretive religious sect and issues from Harry's past.


This series contains examples of:

    Season 1 
  • Abusive Parents: Cora's mother is a Jesus freak who blames everything related to Phoebe's illness on Cora. Their father is cheating with the lady across the street and lets the abuse happen. Getting away from their parents is a huge motivator for Phoebe and Cora, as we find out later.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Phoebe's love for Cora was way more than sisterly, and she was very obviously jealous of J.D., but she also fell head over heels for Frankie, eventually losing her virginity to him.
  • Asshole Victim: Zigzagged. On the one hand, Frankie was not an especially bad person, despite initial hints to the contrary. He was having consensual sex with Phoebe when she died, and made efforts to save her life, which Cora even acknowledged when those memories resurfaced. On the other hand, Cora was put through hell because Frankie was unwilling to face the consequences of what happened, and he either allowed his parents to do what they did to her or chose to remain ignorant about her fate.
  • Bad Samaritan: Dr. Belmont kept Cora at his house for weeks after the incident at the Beverwyck Club, ostensibly to help her recover from the probable concussion she suffered at J.D.'s hands. In reality, he was simply pumping her full of drugs so that she wouldn't remember that Frankie might have accidentally killed Phoebe.
  • Big Sister Worship: Phoebe idolized Cora to an unhealthy extent.
    "You are a giant... you could have anything you wanted. Do you know that?"
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Detective Harry Ambrose has a tendency to get distracted by plants. Everyone just looks away awkwardly. His personal life is a complete wreck. He loses his wife, his mistress, and in the finale implies he's been through traumatic experiences much like Cora.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: In the season finale, Cora finally gets to call out her mother for her terrible parenting.
  • Cool Aunt: Cora's beloved secular Aunt Margaret was the only healthy influence on her childhood.
  • Corrupt the Cutie: Knowing that she would never have the fun enjoyed by other girls, Phoebe pushed Cora into sexual behavior so that she could live vicariously through her.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Averted. When Phoebe blacks out during sex, the guy tries CPR. He's a doctor's son, but possibly intoxicated, and we soon hear a crunch and he stops trying in horror.
  • Daylight Horror: The first episode sees Cora murdering a man in broad daylight.
  • Death by Sex: Phoebe died in the middle of losing her virginity, when her bad heart gave out. Her paramour tried CPR and accidentally crushed her ribs, which probably did not help. The fact that she had cocaine and booze in her system at the time surely didn't help either.
  • Depraved Bisexual: During Maddie's relationship with J.D., she also carried on a relationship with her landlady in order to get lower rent.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: The person responsible for Cora's trauma and missing memories turns out to be Frankie Belmont's father, who had only spoken in a single scene in Part II and a couple of background appearances. Further emphasizing this, he is not even given a name other than "Dr. Belmont".
  • Dramatic Irony: Dr. Belmont pumped Cora full of drugs so that she wouldn't remember that his son Frankie played a role in her sister's death, all to protect Frankie from the consequences of his actions, but Frankie ended up accidentally triggering Cora's repressed memories years later, causing her to kill him in a rage.
  • Fan Disservice: "Part VI" has a lesbian sex scene, but the participants are Cora and Phoebe (who are sisters), Phoebe looks sickly, and the only reason Cora's going along with it is because she's planning to abandon Phoebe and wants to soften the blow by granting her deepest, darkest desire.
  • Friendless Background: Harry was an awkward, lonely child, so he compensated by going on long hikes and learning about plants.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Cora was Raised Catholic, so she wouldn't have an abortion. Rather, she stepped in front of a truck. This led to a miscarriage, though she survived obviously. She seems unaware of the fact this essentially is just abortion by other means. It turns out that she is lying; in reality, it was Maddie who got pregnant and jumped in front of a truck.
  • Ill Girl: Cora's little sister Phoebe spent most of her life in and out of the hospital due to a bad heart and cancer.
  • Incest Subtext: Most of Phoebe's sexual experiences, such as they were, involved Cora's participation, whether it was cuddling together as teenagers, watching porn together, Cora reading magazine articles about sex to Phoebe, or Cora having sex and then describing it to Phoebe. And then it stops being subtext.
  • The Littlest Cancer Patient: In the third episode, the Laceys tell Harry that Phoebe died of non-Hodgekins lymphoma. This turns out to be a lie; Phoebe died during drug-fueled sex.
  • My Beloved Smother: Cora's mother was a religious zealot who demanded absolute obedience from Cora in the belief that Cora's wickedness was somehow responsible for Phoebe's illness. When she is reunited with her mother in the season finale, she tells her off.
    "I am more free now than I ever was with you."
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Cora is distressed after murdering Frankie and is completely willing to give herself up to police to pay for her crimes.
  • Nice Girl: What everyone knew Cora as, being a volunteer mom and a mother, which makes her sudden murder disturbing to everyone. Just about everyone is willing to help her figure out what happened when the case starts.
  • Out with a Bang: Poor Phoebe ends up dying in mid-coitus after her heart gives out.
  • The Peeping Tom: Stuck in her house all the time because of her illness, Phoebe entertained herself by watching the neighbors, and, after finding out that a neighborhood boy's girlfriend was cheating on him, she goaded Cora into having sex with him.
  • Potty Failure: In the flashback in "Part VII", Phoebe loses control of her bladder while high on ecstasy.
  • Red Herring: When the Beverwyck Club is introduced, the plot starts to heavily imply that it's some sort of nefarious sex ring operated by the ultra-wealthy, with at least one confirmed victim and they are beginning to push back via J.D's lawyer and Detective Farmer, who seems very eager to pin the recently found corpse on Cora. The club's membership is later revealed to be entirely irrelevant: everything that happened there happened while the club was closed for the night.
  • Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Cora's relationship with Phoebe was... extremely close, to the point that JD tries to push Cora into abandoning Phoebe.
  • The Scapegoat: Cora's mother blamed her for Phoebe's illness, causing her to develop a massive guilt complex.
  • The "The" Title
  • Shower of Angst: Cora undergoes one during her intake at the local jail.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Phoebe subverts this trope; because her parents were afraid to punish her for fear of making her sicker, she cheerfully indulged her blasphemous whims, and encouraged Cora to join her.
    "Life's too short to be good, said the dying girl who's barely lived."
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Cora spent her late teens sandwiched between two terrible influences - Phoebe was needy and manipulative and pushed her into sexual activity so that she could live vicariously through her, while JD was a drug dealer with delusions of grandeur who planned to pimp Cora out to his business partners.
  • Trauma Button: Cora has a bad reaction to a certain song, which causes her to go into a berserker fury when she hears it. It's the song that was playing when Phoebe was accidentally killed.
  • Unkempt Beauty: Cora's hair is limp and she does not appear to wear makeup, but is not exactly unattractive.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: "Part VII" takes place almost entirely in the past, detailing the night that Phoebe died.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Cora and Phoebe's dad had a long-running affair with the woman next door.

    Season 2 
  • Affably Evil: Before he became The Beacon, Lionel Jeffries was able to pass himself off as a kindly middle-aged college professor. Eventually the power went to his head and he wasn't able to maintain the illusion.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Julian is prone to panic attacks and extremely violent outbursts. It's established as the story goes on that it's likely the result of his traumatic childhood.
  • Child by Rape: Julian was conceived when Jack Novack raped Marin Calhoun in a fit of rage.
  • Church of Happyology: Mosswood Grove bears a number of similarities to a certain well-known religion, including its book-writing founder, its belief in inherited trauma, and its use of questionably-therapeutic devices.
  • The Conspiracy: Mosswood's ties to Keller go deeper than Harry imagined, with at least one ally among the laypeople.
  • Cult Defector: The season opens with an attempt to rescue a young boy from a cult. The effort goes horribly, horribly wrong, resulting in a double homicide.
  • Disappeared Dad: Julian's mom says his father "isn't in the picture". His dad is, in fact, Jack Novack.
  • Driven to Suicide: Dr. Poole commits suicide in order to avoid giving Harry and Heather information about his dealings with Mosswood.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Inverted with the cult. They will force female members to have abortions if their pregnancies haven't been "approved" by the leader. However, an exception is made for Marin.
  • Hidden Elf Village: Mosswood Grove has operated in the shadow of Keller for years. Its residents avoid dealing with the people of Keller. The people of Keller prefer it that way.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Vera poisoned The Beacon and usurped him as the leader of Mosswood Grove in order to prevent him from hurting Julian.
  • It's Personal: Heather has a personal stake in taking Mosswood Grove down, because her ex-girlfriend got sucked into it and is Julian's biological mother.
  • Lesbian Cop: Harry's new erstwhile partner Heather Novack is a lesbian.
  • Mama Bear: Vera is fiercely protective of Julian, to the point that she poisoned The Beacon and had him removed from power out of fear that he would abuse or kill Julian.
  • Missing Mom: Julian's biological mother, Marin Calhoun, has been missing for years. She later turns out to have been alive the whole time, but Vera has prevented her from reuniting with Julian.
  • Primal Scene: Narrowly averted; Julian almost walks in on his parents having sex in their motel room, but the door is closed. Later it turns out they aren't really his parents though.
  • Reality Ensues: At the end of season 1, Cora's release from prison is presented as an unambiguously good thing and a career highlight for Harry. Season 2 reveals that Harry has earned the wrath of every District Attorney in New York through his actions, because he destroyed an open-and-shut case on a hunch that just happened to prove correct. The DA in Keller is horrified when Harry decides to get involved in Julian's case.
  • Red Herring: For much of the season, it looks like Julian's plight is somehow related to the power struggle between Vera and The Beacon. In reality, The Beacon is long gone and Vera has long since purged Mosswood of his loyalists, and Julian's kidnapping was the result of Marin trying to get him back.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: With his career in its waning days, Harry has become more willing to bend or break rules if he thinks it'll help him solve a case.
  • Self-Made Orphan:
    • In the first episode, 13-year-old Julian poisons his parents. Except it turns out they aren't really his parents.
    • As a child, Harry set fire to his house in the hopes that he would be rid of his abusive mother. At the very least, he succeeded in having her lose custody of him.
  • Shoot the Dog: As part of The Work, The Beacon brought a young cow to Mosswood and had the residents raise him. He then had the cow sacrificed.
  • Spotting the Thread: As Brick, Heather, and Harry look through the contents of Julian's family's car, Harry notices that there's no sign of any luggage for Julian, which is his first clue that something isn't right with the supposed family.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: At only 13 years old, Julian has already committed a double homicide.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Bess vomits quite profusely just before dying.

Example of: