[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the season finale of “The Sinner.”]
“I know you did it for your son,” Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) tells the man who had imprisoned her for two months, during which he shot her up with heroin and obliterated her true memories. It’s a curiously generous statement for her to make, but it’s not the first time that “The Sinner” has found sympathy and common ground for people’s failings.
USA Network’s summer psychological thriller began with Cora stabbing Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd) to death seemingly without provocation during a day at the beach. It turns out that five years ago at a party, Frankie had tried and failed to revive Cora’s sickly sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander) with whom he had been intimate. A song that was playing at the time of the tragic accident was the same song that triggered Cora to attack Frankie during that day at the beach.
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The season finale reveals the author of Cora’s deeper psychological trauma: Frankie’s father Dr. Belmont (Christopher Innvar). In order to protect his promising med student son’s reputation, Dr. Belmont sent his son off to California for a job and took care of covering up Phoebe’s death without his son’s knowledge. Part of that cover-up involved holding Cora prisoner in a small bedroom and giving her heroin until she was addicted and her arms were scarred up. During these two months he also brainwashed her into forgetting the events of that fateful night and into thinking she was a drug addict and female escort.
In adapting the German novel “The Sinner” for the USA miniseries, showrunner Derek Simonds was satisfied with keeping the biggest reveals – the parts that Frankie and his father played in Cora’s trauma – the same for American audiences.
“In the end, I’d say the big reveal and such are faithful to the book,” Simonds said in an an interview with IndieWire. “The thing that I love about this material is that it engages like a great suspense novel should, but every reveal and twist — and there are a lot of them – deepen the humanity of the characters rather than cheapens the humanity of the characters.
“There’s a lot of thrillers that by the third act, characters start acting in really extreme, unbelievable ways,” he added. “Someone you sympathized with suddenly is just plain old evil and they’re sort of reduced to a bad guy. ‘The Sinner’ never jumps the shark that way. It never exaggerates human behavior or resorts to cheap shocks. The reveals end up showing a lot of parents and children doing the best they can in tragic circumstances, and then the shame that results from that and the consequences of that shame. It feels like a very human story that could happen in the house next door versus a really overblown stylized gruesome thriller.”
The Creepy Ski Mask
One difference in the series is that Frankie’s dad hides his face behind a ski mask, instead of relying on Cora’s faulty memories to protect his identity.
“That’s one aspect that was not in the book at all that we created for some additional mystery and also just to make the backstory more plausible,” said Simonds. “If Dr. Belmont was keeping Cora for two months in her room, why would he show his face to her if he really wanted to hide his story. So that was something that we put a lot of logic that we parsed in the writer’s room.”
The imagery was effective, especially since the ski mask was a dark beige color, which made it appear more like a burlap sack, sort of like the one used on scarecrows.
“Our props master Duke Scoppa brought in a whole range of masks. This particular one, we all responded it,” said Simonds. “It was a vintage hunting mask for cold weather hunting. I think I responded to it partly because of the beige, that there’s something plush and kind of friendly and comfy about the material. It’s like a stuffed animal. Yet, when you put it on, it creates these dark holes for eyes and a kind of creepy, unknown face. So it’s this scary Muppet kind of [character], which is disturbing… and kind of unnerving.”
PTSD and Trauma
“The Sinner” isn’t only an exploration into the events of that one night or what Dr. Belmont did to Cora afterward. How her religiously fanatic mother raised her and the ways Phoebe took advantage of her instilled a deep sense of guilt and shame in Cora. She was already primed her for the shameful narrative that the doctor fed her. That deep repression of actual facts is also what led Cora to snap at the beach.
“We did a lot of research about PTSD in particular, the performance PTSD psychosis that Cora suffers from where she’s actually reenacting the moment of trauma,” said Simonds. “We talked to several social workers and psychologists who also work in the justice system and evaluate prisoners and suspects. This was a part of the story that we wanted to take very seriously. This is a genre story, it’s a psychological thriller and we wanted it to be entertaining, but we also wanted it to be responsible and speak authentically to these issues and ground them in as much reality as the story could in the time that we had.”
Simonds has been gratified that many viewers are responding not only to the mystery aspects of the show, but also to the psychological issues.
“It’s fascinating the responses from people. For instance, the incest scene in Episode 6 between Cora and Phoebe, there such a range of reactions to that scene,” he said. “There were people who were incredibly offended and wanted to stop watching the show because we portrayed that scene. Then there were other people who really responded to exactly how traumatized Cora was, how she had lost her agency, how she was being manipulated by her mother and then her sister and JD. They saw what we were trying to say psychologically with that scene. It just reflects to me how open or not open people are to the sort of relating to others, how easily we can either judge or empathize.”