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Series / The Sinner

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The Sinner is an anthology series airing on USA Network, created by Derek Simonds and starring Bill Pullman.

In Season 1, on a beach in Dorchester, young mother Cora Tanetti (Jessica Biel) 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 an adult, 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 - whose members include Vera (Carrie Coon) - and issues from Harry's past.

In Season 3, Harry is on the verge of retirement when he gets called in to investigate Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer), a prep-school history teacher who was caught in a horrible car crash. Initially, it just looks like a drunk-driving accident, but Harry finds Jamie's behavior suspicious and starts looking into it.

In Season 4, a now-retired Harry travels to the island of Hanover in Maine, accompanied by his girlfriend Sonya. During a fit of insomnia, he goes for a walk and happens to see a distressed young woman seemingly jump off a cliff. The woman, Percy Muldoon, happens to be the prized daughter of a volatile local fishing family, and Harry soon finds himself drawn into the ensuing case.

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.
  • Accidental Murder: The protagonist in the series, who has a sister with a congenital heart issue and a weak sternum, suffers death by a heart attack after engaging in consensual sexual intercourse with others present in the same room, and under the influence of MDMA ("Ecstacy"). Just before, or shortly after she dies, the man attempts to perform CPR, but breaks her sternum in the process. This could quite easily be ruled an accidental death, but those present decide they should "bury the body" because they were "on drugs", and agree nobody would want to "explain that to the cops." Instead, they soberly discuss the course of action to take, which is to bury the protagonist's sister's body next to a bright yellow school bus abandoned in some woods, and then excessively illogically, decide to have the protagonist repeatedly injected with heroin and other drugs until she forgets most of her adolescent life, whereupon she is thrown into an alley in skid row.
  • 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?"
  • Bisexual Love Triangle: A very, very dark example. And an incestuous one. Cora was in love with her first boyfriend J.D., who represented a new "normal" life for her outside of her religious freaks abusive family. Her sick sister Phoebe loved Cora and lived through Cora's sex life because she couldn't have her own. This ended up with Cora and Phoebe having a pretty joyless sexual encounter when Cora was planning to abandon Phoebe and her home life.
  • 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.
  • Delicate and Sickly: Cora's little sister Phoebe spent most of her life in and out of the hospital due to a bad heart and cancer.
  • Depraved Bisexual:
    • During Maddie's relationship with J.D., she also carried on a relationship with her landlady in order to get lower rent.
    • Phoebe coerced Cora into having sex with her, but she fell hard for Frankie.
  • 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. We don't even get his first name until the last few minutes of the last episode of the season.
  • 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.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Frankie's father was trying to prevent Frankie going to prison for disposing of Phoebe's body, even though it was an accident. He imprisons Cora and drugs her, which causes her to kill Frankie on a beach several years later.
  • 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.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Frankie went to Cornell.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Frankie's father wanted to give Cora this through the drugging. It's portrayed as working pretty well, and being like a switch where, when Cora tries to remember, she is able to recover her memories despite being drugged.
  • 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.
  • Love at First Sight: Frankie and Phoebe may have only known each other for a single night but they seemed to have fallen in love.
  • Mistaken for Romance: The State Police official assumes Harry has taken a personal interest in Cora's case because he's attracted to her; in actuality, it's because he's recognized her as a victim of extreme trauma like himself and sees himself mirrored in her.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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.
  • The Scapegoat: Cora's mother blamed her for Phoebe's illness, causing her to develop a massive guilt complex.
  • Sex in a Shared Room: Cora and J.D. and Frankie and Phoebe have sex separated by a coffee table in the country club.
  • 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.
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: Cora did this in the past. It's as a result of being drugged by Frankie's father.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: "Part VII" takes place almost entirely in the past, detailing the night that Phoebe died.

    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.
  • Birthday Episode: The first episode of this season has Harry have a surprise birthday party.
  • Book Ends: The season starts with Julian on a trip to Niagara Falls. The season finale ends with him finally going there.
  • 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.
  • Happy Ending Override: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: As the season gets near the end, most of Mosswood leaves the compound.
  • 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 to get the attention of his severely depressed, neglectful mother, which ended in her losing custody of him.
  • Slashed Throat: Dr. Poole, the town obstetrician, slices his throat when asked about Julian's parentage.
  • 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.

    Season 3 
  • Afraid to Hold the Baby: The point at which Jamie Burns realizes that he's mentally ill is when he tries to rock his newborn son to sleep and suffers a vivid, terrifying hallucination of his alter-ego crushing the baby in his hands. Later, talking to a doctor, he confesses that every time he picks his son up, he has a terrible fear that he will drop him, and that eventually, he'll actually do it just so that he'll stop feeling that anticipation.
  • Bisexual Love Triangle: Although Jamie denies that his and Nick's relationship was explicitly sexual, they had a lot of Homoerotic Subtext which is why everyone keeps asking him. Jamie was divided between Nick and his wife Leela. Nick wanted him to kill Leela and others, and let in his inner "ubersmench". Leela is heavily pregnant and just wants to settle down with him. Jamie left Nick to die, but the Psychotic Love Triangle didn't even end there.
  • Cool Teacher: This is Jamie's reputation at his school; one of his former students tells him that all the girls in her class had a crush on him.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Constantly teased as being the case between Jamie and Nick and the "hypnotic" relationship that broke out between them in college which everyone around them finds disturbing.
  • Experimented in College: When pressed about it by his wife, Jamie admits that he and Nick experimented with each other in college. Of course, their experiments turned out to be way beyond sex.
  • Fingore: Nick acquired a nasty hand wound in the days before his death.
  • Generation Xerox: Harry's grandson Eli is an introvert like him.
  • Harmful to Minors: Eli sees Harry attack Jamie. His mother promptly rescinds Harry's visitation rights afterwards.
  • Madness Mantra: "'Round we go the prickly pear, prickly pear, prickly pear..."
  • No Social Skills: Sonya Barzel is terrible with people— not unlike Harry.
  • Spotting the Thread: Harry first notices something awry when nobody can find Nick Haas' cellphone. Vic notices that the parking break on the car was engaged when it crashed.
  • Straw Nihilist: Jamie and Nick's worldview is built around an extreme misunderstanding of Nietzsche.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Harry manages to tail Jaime for a whole night and knows for a fact that he killed Kyle, but since it happened outside of his jurisdiction, he can't investigate it.
  • The Teetotaler: Harry's new partner Vic Soto is in AA.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Nick was obviously one to Jamie.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Harry has been trying to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter Melanie and her son Eli, but his work is getting in the way.

    Season 4 

  • Awful Wedded Life: Brandon Keyser has been cheating on his wife Kat for months, even after becoming a dad. Consequently, she isn't too broken up about his murder.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Even before Percy's disappearance, the Muldoons were a mass of racists and drug addicts, barely held together by the force of matriarch Meg's domineering personality.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Harry unearths the secret that drove Percy to suicide and convinces Sean to testify about his family's crimes, but also exposes that the Lams took a bribe in exchange for not going to the police when Percy shot their son, which creates a rift between CJ and his parents. And it's not clear that this brings any peace to Harry, who ends the series sitting ominously at the cliff where Percy killed herself.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • This may or may not be the fate of Percy Muldoon. Harry is certain that he saw her jump off a cliff, and when her body is finally found, there's no sign of foul play, but he is the only one who saw her and it's possible that there was someone else there that he couldn't see.
    • Harry himself ends the series sitting on the cliff where Percy killed herself, with it being left ambiguous whether or not he's planning to make a similar exit.
  • Dying Town: In the backdrop of Percy's suicide is Hanover's sinking economy, caused by years of over-fishing, creating a much uglier competition for resources between the major families like the Lams, the Keysers, and the Muldoons.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Meg was willing to look the other way on her sons over-fishing or even killing an employee who skimmed from them, but she is horrified when she learns that they've been running a human-trafficking operation.
  • The Fundamentalist: Colin Muldoon is heavy into religion, and constantly pushed his niece Percy into adopting the faith, too.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Percy's big secret is that she shot Bo Lam by accident during a fight between him and Sean.
  • Junkie Parent: Sean Muldoon is addicted to painkillers as a consequence of an injury on the job. It turns out that this injury came about after he tried to carry Bo Lam's dead body and tore something in his shoulder.
  • Karma Houdini: Meg manages to avoid any consequences for her role in the death of Bo Lam or the ensuing cover-up; it's implied that Colin took the rap on her behalf.
  • Missing Mom: Percy's mother, Risa, had her when she was only 16. She left her with the Muldoons and went off, married someone else, and had other kids.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Percy's deep, dark secret was that she accidentally killed Bo Lam, CJ's older brother, which led to her family bribing the Lams with a fishing permit. The guilt ate her alive.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Hanover is home to a small coven of women who worship the moon. Percy got involved with them in the months before her death, with her guide fearing that she contributed to Percy's eventual suicide.
  • No Medication for Me: Harry was on antidepressants after his experiences with Jamie Burns, but has stopped taking them before heading off to Hanover.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Percy was raised by her grandmother, Meg, as her birth mother abandoned her and her dad, Sean, wasn't really up to the task of being a dad.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: In the finale, Sean finally turns against his family, agreeing to testify about his part in the death of Bo Lam and his and Colin's trafficking operation.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Even a year after the Jamie Burns case, Harry is still recovering from the trauma. He's been suffering from chronic insomnia, which in turn is causing him to hallucinate.
  • Twofer Token Minority: The house where Harry and Sonya are staying is owned by Sonya's friend Greta, a black lesbian.