[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Sinner” Season 2, Episode 2, “Part II.”]
In its second week, “The Sinner” adds another mystery behind the initial murder that piqued the interest of Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman): an enigmatic commune called Mosswood, where Vera Walker (Carrie Coon) leads and lives with a group of people. She also claims she’s the real mother of Julian (Elisha Henig), the 13-year-old boy who poisoned two people posing as his parents… but they may have been actually trying to escape Mosswood before drinking that fateful cup of tainted tea.
It’s not entirely clear what the commune does based on an initial visit, but Vera says it’s a sanctuary community that accepts everyone — as long as they abide by specific rules that have not yet been revealed to viewers. Also, members must do “the work,” which she describes as “to shine a light on inner shadow […] and encounter parts inside you.” Sounds like maybe Harry could use some Mosswood in his life. And oh yeah, Det. Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) stumbles across a looming stone structure in a remote barn during her exploration.
IndieWire spoke to showrunner Derek Simonds to shine a light on some of the inner shadows of the episode, specifically digging into Mosswood, Vera, and more.
“We refer to it as a commune because we avoid the word cult, which just has so many particular associations with it,” Simonds said. “I think a lot about communal organizations like this and utopian communities, and I question often our sort of economically driven lifestyles, especially in urban centers. To me, the subject of how people come together and create their own versions of community has been just an interest of mine as a writer for a long time.”
“I’m also really interested in psychology and therapy and the ways that we investigate ourselves,” he continued. “It was interesting to create Mosswood as this community that evolved around a therapeutic process. We didn’t want to create a cult or a commune or a new religion, so to speak. There’s no God or figurehead in Mosswood. There’s no belief system. It’s about deep self-exploration, so it has a very therapeutic, psychological aspect to it. I thought that was a great thing to put in front of Harry Ambrose, who is pretty closed off psychologically as a character. To encounter a woman like Vera, who comes from this community would be particularly challenging and also seductive for him because he’s interested in being exposed and being known and yet terrified of it.”
The Mother of All Leaders
Peter Kramer/USA Network
Speaking of Vera, Simonds’ comments could hint at some of the more cryptic statements in the episode, such as when Vera tells Ambrose, “My son is far beyond anything you can understand. You have no idea,” and when Julian himself claimed, “My mother can read minds.”
While telepathy or other extrasensory traits have not been confirmed, they can’t be ruled out either. For now, Simonds explains just how important Vera is to Mosswood and Julian. This, in turn, reveals how she might be the key to unlocking why the boy committed murder, confessed to it, and then backtracked once she arrived.
“She has all of the influence and authority of a parent in Julian’s life, but she’s also the leader of this community, and she’s the practitioner of this particular psychological work that she’s very invested in and that she’s raised Julian in the midst of and done the work on him and with him. I think she is much more than a parent,” said Simonds.
“She’s kind of a parent writ large. Parents imbue within their children a path, and Vera’s worldview is specific and very different from conventional worldviews, so she holds a very powerful place in Julian’s life,” he added. “She’s created this bubble of a world that he’s existed in until now. A lot of Julian’s story is about being thrust into the judicial system, criminal system, and it’s his first view of a reality outside of Mosswood, which is literally a Garden of Eden. This Edenic, kind of secluded place in nature.”
The Trouble With Harry
Julian’s exposure to the outside world means that Vera’s influence is no longer absolute. We see this, in particular, during his interactions with Ambrose, who appears to have forged a bit of a connection with the boy. Not only did Harry get Julian to admit which toxic plant he used in the tea, but in this episode they exchange confidences.
Ambrose confesses why he wears a beard — “I think I have a weak chin, and with the beard, it feels more imposing. I can get people to respect me more” — before revealing some sort of accident rendered his mother unable to care for him, and he, too, was put in a foster home. After this candid confession, Julian explains he has nightmares of a hooded specter who puts its hand inside his chest. Later, Ambrose reflects that nightmares are how kids translate trauma, which could be psychological or physical abuse or both.
“I think [Julian] senses that Harry understands and has a genuine curiosity about him,” said Simonds. “Ambrose was never designed to be the kind of character like Sherlock Holmes who’s so much smarter than everyone else, has everything figured out. He’s a real human being in the world, but I think his superpower is his empathy, and his openness because of his own pain, his openness to understanding other people’s pain.”
“I think Julian sees and appreciates Ambrose’s interest in him, and then on a more elemental level too, he becomes the potential of a father figure,” he continued. “Julian has been raised in a very maternal bubble. A lot of Julian’s trajectory in the show is moving away from the feminine and towards the masculine father figure. In a weird way, Ambrose and Vera become parents, parental figures to Julian in their own very specific ways.”
”The Sinner” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.