[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Sinner” Season 2, Episode 1, “Part I.”]
Det. Harry Ambrose’s arcane knowledge about plants has paid off in his latest case. In the Season 2 premiere of USA’s “The Sinner,” a young boy has killed his parents at a motel by giving them tea laced with… something. It doesn’t take long for Ambrose (Bill Pullman) to figure out what the 13-year-old boy used.
Jimsonweed (datura stramonium), aka devil’s snare, is a member of the deadly nightshade family. IndieWire spoke to showrunner Derek Simonds about the premiere, including why the show settled on using this particular plant and method for murder.
“We did a lot of research. What would be a deadly poison that occurs in the natural world in upstate New York? There were a few options but Jimsonweed proved to be the deadliest,” he said. “What we liked… is that it’s a very common shrub. Most people have walked right by Jimsonweed. It grows on the sides of roads, in backyards; it’s a weed. It doesn’t need a lot of cultivation, so it’s very commonly found. We liked that idea that there was this kind of sinister quality to this plant that’s so common and widespread. It kind of hits on our themes of the turmoil underneath the sort of placid surface of our daily lives.”
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In the episode, Julian (Elisha Henig) is on a road trip to Niagara Falls with two people who appear to be his parents, Bess (Ellen Adair) and Adam (Adam David Thompson). One morning at the Rockford Lodge Motel, Julian brings them two cups of tea he made. Later, both Bess and Adam begin to cough, convulse, and then finally collapse dead.
Simonds revealed that these painful deaths aren’t even close to the horrific symptoms people must endure if they’re poisoned by Jimsonweed in real life.
“We took a few creative liberties. The length of time it takes from ingestion to actually dying is longer in reality,” he said. “We elided that a little bit, obviously, so that they’re not waiting around forever for them to die. The process is longer and you’re sicker for a longer period of time before you die. The convulsions are definitely part of what happens. Your body basically seizes up.”
“There’s also another symptom that we were interested in but it was difficult to dramatize, and that was that people have hallucinations when they take it,” Simonds added, “It ended up making it seem like they would be crazy, that they were seeing things that we didn’t see, so we kind of stayed away from that. But Jimsonweed is definitively a deadly plant, and there are cases every year of fatalities from ingesting Jimsonweed.”
Of course, when it comes to “The Sinner,” the mystery goes far beyond who the killer is and how they did it. The question of “why” plagued Season 1 when Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) stabbed a stranger on the beach. And just as in that case, Det. Ambrose looks like he’ll be the key to getting to the bottom of a motivation for murder; one that involves delving deep into a person’s psyche.
In Season 2, Ambrose already seems invested in getting to know Julian, but the detective has his own troubles as well. He’s called in to consult because of the curious nature of the case but also because he once grew up in that same small town in New York. Apparently, visiting home has brought this prodigal son flashbacks of his own childhood. Specifically, he’s reliving one disturbing scene over and over in which his younger self returns home from catching fireflies and calls out to his mother, who ignores him. Instead, he finds water on the stove boiling furiously and the kitchen engulfed in flames.
“We designed Season 1 to be a handoff from Cora to Ambrose. Cora finishes her journey in excavating her personal experiences and her traumas, but that helps Ambrose just crack the door open to his,” said Simonds. “With Season 2, what are the circumstances that we can create both in the case that Ambrose takes on and where it happens that would help us unpack personal history?”
“We like the idea that he’s brought back to his hometown in a place where he suffered his own family trauma and has not had much occasion to revisit, so bringing him back there and also having his investigate the case of a child murderer when his traumas as a child happened at roughly the same age, I kind of liked the inner/outer child parallel there.”
While the premiere also included many more mysteries — such as why Julian put white stones on the corpses’ eyes, and what happened to Ambrose’s mother — it ended on one big question mark in the shape of Carrie Coon. The Emmy-nominated actress plays Vera, who can be seen in flashbacks guiding Julian through some sort of therapy in which a box with a blue light flashes periodically as she tells him to let “Shadow Julian” in if he comes knocking.
In the episode’s final moments, however, it appears she might be more than just Julian’s therapist or teacher. When she goes to the police and they ask what her interest is in the boy, she responds, “I’m his mother.”
While Simonds couldn’t reveal much about the meaning of that last line, he did offer some clues about who Vera is.
“She’s this formidable, very capable leader of this group of people. She’s also clearly been working with Julian in some kind of therapeutic context, but we don’t really know all the details about what that is [yet],” he said.
“I’ll say this. She’s an antagonist, and someone who holds certain keys to the larger mystery, and then at the same time she’s also one of the people we’ll be relating to as the story unfolds, and seeing from a very different perspective further in the season,” Simonds added.
“She occupies this interesting area that I think we play with throughout the season, which is at times we are suspicious of her and fear what she’s up to, and then there are other times when we really relate to her both as a mother and as a human being who’s had her own traumatic experiences. We play a lot with who Vera is and what we can expect from her and find out if what she says is true or a version of events. There’s a lot of layers of mystery around her.”
“The Sinner” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.