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‘The Sinner’: Why This Mystery Is Swapping Out Red Herrings for Something Much More Satisfying

The central murder still drives the story, but the USA series has found plenty other effective ways to keep its audience guessing.

THE SINNER -- "Part III" Episode 103 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti, Bill Pullman as Detective Harry Ambrose -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

“The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Sinner” Season 1, Episode 4, “Part IV.”]

In the lead-up to “The Sinner,” the creators, actors, and loglines stressed the idea that this was a crime story that concerned itself more about the “why.” But Wednesday night’s episode, down to the horrific discovery that closed out the show’s fourth installment, proved that the show has still been concerned with plenty of those other “w” questions, particularly “what” it is that every character in this USA drama thinks they’re pursuing.

The murder that opened the series has been combed over by all the show’s major players: possibly unwitting perpetrator Cora (Jessica Biel), detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), and Cora’s husband Mason (Christopher Abbott). Determined to stumble on some sort of meaning to a senseless act of violence, each of them have had to confront times when they were not who they purported to be. Harry is struggling through his infidelities and Mason even pretends to be someone else to snag a stray bit of information on a figure from Cora’s past. Cora herself is cycling through touchstone moments in her own life, from a youth colored by mistrust through an adulthood where she’s capable of unconscious terrors.

Aside from offering a fractured timeline to mirror Cora’s psychological state, the flashbacks to her time as a child in a fundamental household are also underlining what “The Sinner” is doing with the concept of information. Thematically, Cora’s upbringing is another example of how the lack of information, whether withheld, forgotten, or repressed, can lead to unintended consequences.

In the world of “The Sinner,” there’s also a danger to too much information. Caitlin, in revealing . In the informational free-for-all as these parallel investigations each try to reach their own conclusions about who Cora really is, it’s interesting to see a mystery series take that challenge head-on without having to lean on red herrings to advance things forward.

THE SINNER -- "Part IV" Episode 104 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti, Bill Pullman as Detective Harry Ambrose -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

“The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

Instead, “The Sinner” is intent on building its foundation on a different kind of untrustworthiness. From its outset, it’s trained its audience to never fully assume that what they’re seeing is the truth. That it’s managed to keep that general aura of instability while still maintaining a throughline that the audience can follow is no small feat. The show taps into the elasticity of memory and the universal anxiety that there are some recollections of our past that we might not be able to trust.

It isn’t just using the gaps in Cora’s memories and knowledge as a shortcut to narrative secrecy. It’s taking that same sense of uncertainty and replicating it within the frame of the camera. Returning to that tiny scrap of wallpaper, slowly moving in and treating it like a Magic Eye picture is a sly literal interpretation of the idea that one event and one image can shift with a changing perspective. The camera panning away from that tight section of wallpaper to the rest of the room was a graceful parting touch as director Antonio Campos handed off the reins to Brad Anderson for Wednesday’s fourth episode. It’s a thrilling, terrifying reveal that puts the audience closer to Cora’s mental state more than any bit of her testimony could.

Harry himself isn’t a typical detective antihero. Yes, his marriage has problems. His impulses lead him astray from a productive relationship and towards professional choices that others might not be so willing to take. But rather than use those flaws as a secret rallying point to make him the show’s good guy, “The Sinner” repeatedly shows that his actions have consequences, too. When he sits in on Cora’s most recent evaluation, the psychiatrist serves as an effective audience proxy, pointing out that what he’s doing is professionally and ethically murky at best and dangerous at worst.

Keeping Harry’s intentions ambiguous has been as much of a driving force for the show as keeping Cora’s motivations obscured. We may not know exactly why Cora murdered someone on that beach, but we also don’t know the reason for Harry’s odd permasmile, reassuring when he needs to be and unsettling when it suits his purposes.

THE SINNER -- "Part IV" Episode 104 -- Pictured: Christopher Abbott as Mason Tannetti -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

“The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

As he and Mason follow through on their respective investigations, they’re becoming more like TV viewers as they become more thorough detectives. Cora’s is the story they’re being given. As she continues to dive back through her memories, these other two men are left to fill in those gaps, parsing over any details but they can get their hands and brains on.

Few of these new revelations have been telegraphed. In fact, these later episodes have reinforced how strong an opening the show has. Many of the details that Harry ends up using to make advances in the case are present in that opening depiction of the murder. The sequence of stab wounds, the presence of the music, the victim’s interaction with another woman, all of those threads are there in that unbroken take that’s as terrifying as it is well-executed.

The show’s dedication to character work has even extended to the song that soundtracks the opening murder. “Kissin and Huggin” by Big Black Delta has been a constant, pulsating force in the opening four episodes, not just when it plays but when Ronit Kirchman’s score adapts certain elements of that persistent rhythm and incorporates it into other moments of the show.

“The Sinner” is still circling around the “why” behind Cora’s actions. Harry might be pointing to an X on a map, but the show is so much more than a series of unconnected events guiding him there. It’s stacking our knowledge about who these characters are and how they present themselves in order to arrive at a surprising conclusion. With four episodes down and four left, as the skeletons from times gone by are becoming literal, there’s no guarantee that the crime that kicked this story off will even be the most important one by season’s end.

“The Sinner” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.

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