“The Sinner” has captured the imagination of viewers with its central murder mystery, in which the killer has already confessed, but the motive for the brutal act is not yet known. As the limited series takes yet another foreboding step towards answers, a new revelation deepens the show’s ongoing examination of abuse.
The mystery begins on a beautiful day as Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) and her family are at the beach. When a couple who is necking nearby plays a particular song on their phone, something is triggered inside Cora, and she stabs the man with a fruit knife repeatedly, killing him. The suddenness of the murder isn’t as shocking as the fact that Cora claims to not know the man, and therefore has no motive for the killing.
The out-of-character killing, plus blanks in Cora’s memory, point to some trauma in her past. Each episode has been a gradual unspooling of her messed-up youth that involves a mother who is a strict religious fanatic who claims that Cora’s so-called “wicked” behavior — such as eating chocolate or having fun — is the cause for younger sister Phoebe’s (Nadia Alexander) poor health. As for Cora’s father, he can no longer find affection at home and has sought out comfort in the arms of a neighbor.
While it’s still not clear how Cora’s upbringing has contributed to her damaged psyche, it’s not entirely surprising that incest has entered the picture. In Wednesday’s episode though, it’s revealed that her sister Phoebe is the instigator. Because of her sickly constitution, she’s constantly bedridden and therefore lives vicariously through her sister. In a flashback, when Cora begins to have her first sexual relationship, Phoebe insists that Cora demonstrate everything that she’s experienced on her.
Peter Kramer/USA Network
It’s a heartbreaking scene, one that highlights how “The Sinner” is treating incest seriously as abuse. In the past, television has often treated the activity as a joke or used it for shock value. Even “Game of Thrones” has featured an incestuous relationship that has mainly been treated by other characters as a punchline, such as when Tormund Giantsbane identifies one queen as the one who “fucks her brother.” (Another recent incestuous relationship has yet to be revealed to the characters on the show.) Crime procedurals have probably treated incest the most seriously, but since storylines are often wrapped up within the hour, the long-lasting effects of the abuse are not emphasized.
Another important way that “The Sinner” has depicted how harmful incest can be is that it may not appear to have a victim initially. In the scene, Cora looks like she enters into the activity with full consent, but she has been the subject of ongoing emotional abuse for so long she no longer can refuse her sister. Cora is healthy in body, but in mind and spirit, she is the creature that her mother and now sister has made her. She’s been raised to think that at birth she used up her mother’s health, and that caused Phoebe to be born sickly a year later. Every bit of health, every bit of joy that Cora enjoys has been twisted to be an affront to Phoebe. Guilt had become the default emotion in how Cora deals with her family. Therefore, the activity is not one that Cora enjoys but feels obligated to perform, and this is made clear by how the show quickly cuts to Cora in the present day, looking disturbed by her memories.
“The Sinner” may have started out as a seemingly straightforward murder mystery, but it’s become more of a modern-day gothic story. Even though whatever triggered Cora to murder a stranger will probably be revealed in the finale in two weeks, that answer won’t necessarily bring her peace, as she must finally face what brought her to that point.
“The Sinner” airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.