Review: The murder-mystery series ‘The Sinner’ comes back with the same investigator, a new case and Carrie Coon

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Television Critic

“The Sinner,” USA Network’s sleeper hit starring Jessica Biel as an amnesia-prone murderess and victim, was intended as a limited series when it premiered in summer 2017.

A psychological thriller wrapped in a murder mystery dipped in a detective drama, the show was a critical success, garnering top Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. And as an extra added bonus: The show’s surprise success was followed by another surprise — the announcement of a Season 2.

The series returns Wednesday with a new plot and a new lead, Carrie Coon. “The Leftovers’” star plays enigmatic and menacing cult leader Vera Walker, a character whose intensity permeates every corner of this story. Returning to the fold is Bill Pullman, once again excellent as the dysfunctional and empathetic detective Harry Ambrose, a man whose rumpled emotional baggage has proliferated between seasons.


In the first three episodes available for review, Season 2 continues to pull viewers in with a carefully curated balance of talent and story. Included here is the same brand of dark intrigue and twisted storytelling that initially made “The Sinner” stand out among other lauded dramas like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Crown.”

Like its predecessor, Season 2 of “The Sinner” kicks off with a deadly crime perpetrated by an unlikely suspect who belies no discernible motive. The mystery here is not how he did it, but why.

Middle-schooler Julian (Elisha Henig) poisoned and killed his parents at a roadside motel in the small town of Keller when the trio stopped for the night on their way to Niagara Falls. Except they weren’t really on vacation, and they weren’t really his parents, and that licorice taste in their morning coffee wasn’t a Starbucks flavor of the month.

Keller detective Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) is in over her head on this one, so she requests the help of her father’s old friend, detective Ambrose. The investigator, who grew up in the region, returns to help solve the puzzle.

Dealing with the boy, however, causes Ambrose to face his own haunted inner child. Something bad happened way back when, and it likely explains why he’s such a mess as an adult. Ambrose’s disturbing flashbacks — curtains (or perhaps a nightgown) ablaze, bubbling oil, creeping shadows — and the concern of childhood friends who know more than we do are early clues that lead to some bigger reveal.

Both seasons of “The Sinner” are produced by Biel and are rife with images of devout spirituality, or perhaps it’s blind faith. Last time around, Biel’s character Cora was the product of a fanatical Catholic zealot who raised her to believe that even something as innocuous as eating a chocolate bar was a devilish indulgence that might result in the death of her sick sister.


In Season 2, it appears that Vera is Julian’s mother and that she’s brought him up to believe that his adherence to their faith (whatever it is) also has life-and-death implications for others.

The result is two perpetrators, seasons apart, informed by the warped religious teachings of their guardians.

Then again, this is “The Sinner,” a show with so many twists and turns that it’s hard to pin down any one character’s background or motives until presented all the facts, during the finale, which is months from now.

But if the first few episodes are any indication, this is yet another disturbing/thought-provoking mystery worth unraveling.

‘The Sinner’

Where: USA

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)