It’s another open and shut case for Detective Harry Ambrose, after successfully unravelling the convoluted psychology behind a disturbed woman’s frenzied knife attack at the beach in series one of The Sinner (series two available from Friday). This time the perp is an angelic-looking 13-year-old boy, Julian Walker, who has apparently committed double parricide in a motel after an unscheduled stop on a trip to Niagara Falls. From the get-go there’s something strange about the grown-ups’ behaviour and their interaction with the lad. Soon they’re writhing first in sexual congress then in their death throes. They’ve both been poisoned via their cups of morning tea, helpfully brought by Julian, and what’s more the boy readily confesses to the crime.
On the face of it, there’s not much for the cops to tie up, but the town’s newest detective, Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) is concerned enough by the boy’s demeanour, and his ritualistic display of the bodies, to call in her dad’s old pal Harry (Bill Pullman) as a second pair of eyes. An ethical question arises; why spend valuable police time probing further when “we already have everything we need,” as Novack admits. The arrival of a woman who claims to be Julian’s mother challenges their assumptions.
The sleepy little town of Keller, New York, just happens to be where Harry grew up; his own childhood trauma, at roughly the same age, is regularly signalled in flashbacks of a catatonic woman and burning curtains. Just in case we miss the inference, the juxtaposition of young Harry and young Julian underlines his identification with and compassion towards the boy. The character notes for Harry seem to be no more explicit than “bearded, dependable” and Pullman deploys two basic expressions — narrow-eyed, quizzical; and narrow-eyed, mildly consternated. For young Elisha Henig’s acting chops, no praise is high enough. Creasing the strangely adult heavy brows in his childish face, he projects Julian’s abject terror, confusion and obstinacy with emotional intelligence.
Pulling Julian’s strings is Vera Walker, the putative mother (there’s no point taking anything at face value), outwardly bland and ordinary but imbued by Carrie Coon with searing inner conviction. Further investigation drives Harry and Novack to Mosswood, Vera’s cult-like organisation in the woods. She’s been rearing Julian as a kind of Nietzschean uber-boy, beyond good and evil, in a programme she calls The Work, seemingly comprising three parts Gurdjieff and two parts Jung, with a dash of Bikram.
A local recommends “heavy metal and tear gas — it worked at Waco.” Tapping into this deep vein of American self-reliance and suspicion of state action, Vera maintains: “‘To protect and serve’ doesn’t apply to Mosswood.” The small town whose secrets are blown into the air by a gruesome crime is a familiar enough narrative, but mysterious doings in the woodshed, underlined by a tinnitus score, are enough to give this a sinister edge.
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