[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Sinner” Season 2, Episode 5, “Part V.”]
Mosswood has never felt like the sanctuary that it’s purported to be, but “The Sinner” introduced its most disturbing revelations about the commune yet on Wednesday’s episode.
In flashbacks, Mosswood leader Lionel Jeffries (Brennan Brown), aka The Beacon, presented the concept of scapegoating to Vera Walker (Carrie Coon) in the form of a calf. By raising the calf lovingly, naming it, but then putting all of one’s negative emotions on it, a bond would be created. And then the Mosswood members would kill the calf, thereby symbolically eradicating those emotions in a supposedly healthy way. While sacrificing animals is already a troublesome subject, how the episode ends hints that something worse may lay ahead when the Beacon allows young Marin (Hannah Gross) to remain pregnant, despite previously banning members from having children.
“We’ll raise him, all of us together. The child will bind us,” he says. “Has she picked a name?” The implication is clear: her child Julian could become Mosswood’s next scapegoat.
IndieWire spoke with showrunner Derek Simonds about scapegoating, Julian’s pivotal role, and Harry’s issues below.
“Scapegoating is the thing that’s making us polarized. Trump is scapegoating immigrants for trying to come to this country and citing violent crime statistics, and blaming them,” said Simonds. “We often blame others for the things we don’t want to own up to in ourselves. We demonize the other. We demonize Muslim Americans. We demonize various diverse populations for our ills. And it’s an easy way out. And what I found interesting was that this was embraced in a therapeutic context in Mosswood. And indeed it can be helpful up to a point, but we’re seeing where it gets over into dysfunction.”
The sacrificial nature of Mosswood had been hinted at in the Labyrinth symbol seen everywhere from the side of the barn to Marin’s tattoo. While it represents a journey inside to the center of oneself, to the beast within, historically the Labyrinth tale was about people being sacrificed.
“The reason things like the Labyrinth and the Minotaur come up, when you look at antiquities, and Greek and Roman culture, throughout various people in various continents in various times, there’s then the practice of sacrifice and scapegoating,” he said. “You find some symbolic object, whether it’s a person or a thing and you project on it the qualities that you want to purge yourself of. You sacrifice them, you scapegoat them. I think this is deeply embedded in western culture whether we want to admit it or not.”
Julian’s Pivotal Role
Simonds would not tip his hand as to how far Julian’s scapegoating role would progress, although in the present day, the boy is still alive. The events between Marin’s pregnancy and Julian poisoning the two Mosswood members at the beginning of the season have still not been revealed. But it’s clear now that choosing a child to be a central figure this season was no accident.
“When you have a child at the center of the story, you start to question how we live, what we tell ourselves, what we tell our children,” said Simonds. “What are our values and our morals? We realize that those are actually very flexible and they’re learned. In Julian, we’re seeing how drastic that range could be; what we learned from our parents and our culture. So my hope is that in experiencing Julian in Mosswood and these other ways of doing things. And I think by the end of the season, we’ll see them off with a very complex place with its problems, but also it’s idealistic progressive qualities that are actually quite admirable, that there’s a range to what we can call right and wrong, and healthy and unhealthy.”
Julian’s adoptive mother Vera also once described him as “a new man,” who is capable of things beyond imagination. Part of that is due to “the work” the commune does.
“Julian has been raised in a culture that’s not our selective culture. He’s been raised very close to nature. He’s been raised in an environment where all of his feelings are welcome and expressed,” said Simonds. “And so Vera holds Julian very dearly not just as a child, but as a symbol of the kind of person she wishes populated the world — someone who won’t lie. Someone who will express all of his feelings and won’t scapegoat someone else instead, who owns up to himself, who doesn’t compartmentalize himself. In her mind, Julian is kind of the answer to our ills. There’s a motherly love for him and there’s also this kind of pride in him as this creation that she’s designed. That might be her flaw, but it’s also her attempt at healing herself.”
In this way, Julian appears to have personal meaning for Vera, in addition to Harry (as the outer representation of his inner, traumatized child). All of these expectations feel weighty for the child, whose faith in his mother has been shaken.
Peter Kramer/USA Network
“Something we talk a lot about in the writers’ room is the way that adults try to heal themselves by creating a new environment for their children,” said Simonds. “An adult has had traumas that they experienced at the hands of their parents. When they have a kid, they’re like, ‘I don’t want my kid to ever feel this way, so I’m going to do it a totally different way.’ And I think that’s what Vera’s investment in Julian, to me, is a reflection of her own suffering, and her own struggle to make sense of the world. She’s trying maybe too hard with Julian.”
Mosswood’s Relationship With Violence
Whether all the members of Mosswood are down for sacrificing a child remains to be seen, but in this episode, it appears that The Beacon has nurtured this violent side of them. Through “the work,” one male member begins to take his anger and frustration with his ex-wife out on a stand-in, in this case, Vera. While the scene cuts away before the full physical interaction is seen, a conversation alluding to the session hints that it may have crossed the line to what most of us might define as abuse. Vera appears shaken, but still defends The Beacon’s methods.
“There’s this running theme in Season 2 of this idea of the shadow, which is a Jungian concept, which Vera talks about it in that session in the cabin with Ambrose,” said Simonds. “She says, ‘The shadow is all the parts of ourselves that we don’t lead with, but they’re not necessarily bad parts of our psyches. But they’re the ones that we don’t want to present to the world and I’ll own up to.’ That can be sexuality. It could be violence. It could joy even. What I found in working with that concept in my own work and my own interest is that there is a lot of anger in people that is unexpressed — anger and fear that people don’t own up to. And then what happens is they project it onto others.
“I think the idealistic work of Mosswood is to play out all of these parts of the self: the violent self, the sexual self, the joyful self, whatever it may be. And get to know it better and be comfortable integrating it into your personality,” he said. “That creates a healthy psyche. And what we’re starting to see is the dark side of that, which is that the shadow can also be dangerous if you don’t treat it with respect. It can take over, and we’re seeing elements of this work going off the rails a little bit.”
Harry’s Baffling Memory Loss
Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) had his first brush with “the work” with Vera in the previous episode, but his session did not offer him the catharsis or release that others have experienced. Or at least Harry doesn’t know if it did or not because he has no memory of the session, finishing it, or later driving to the motel where the poisoning happened. What occurred that night is still a mystery.
“Harry is very disturbed by the fact that he doesn’t recall how he got to the motel room,” said Simonds. “It makes him distrust Vera and yet, it makes him need her all the more. He realizes that she has some intimate knowledge about his past or whatever he revealed that night, that he doesn’t remember what it is. It puts him in a vulnerable position.”
Peter Kramer/USA Network
Harry’s memory loss could relate to the case in Season 1, in which Cora Tannetti’s (Jessica Biel) reasons for stabbing a stranger had to be slowly revealed as she dug into her psyche and past.
“We did a lot of research in Season 1 about suppressed memory and what happens psychologically after trauma,” said Simonds. “One thing that stayed with me with all that research was that the ego part of our brain when threatened, when the status quo thinks it’s threatened — perhaps in a very, very dramatic way — memories can be suppressed. It’s almost like a survival mechanism.
“I don’t think that happens commonly in therapy, but the session between Vera and Ambrose, we don’t know what it is. But there is this idea in Episode 5 where Vera says, ‘Your ego is trying to block what’s coming up.’ It’s a sign of Ambrose’s resistance to looking at the full span of his life and encompassing what happened to him.”
The beginning part of Harry’s work with Vera also hints at what may have happened between them. As Vera wraps his ankle, which he twisted on the way to the cabin, he winces, which prompts her to ask if it’s too tight. Unbeknownst to her, but well-known to viewers who watched Season 1, is that Harry not only likes pain, but he is sexually attracted to women who can take control.
“We definitely put that in assertively as a nod to what we’ve learned about Harry in Season 1,” confirmed Simonds. “There’s an interesting dynamic that happens there of just suddenly she’s just very in control of what he’s feeling. The work that she does at Mosswood is that it’s all about authenticity and it’s about owning the feelings, whatever they may be, that come up in the moment. So Vera is very versed in expressing contradictory emotions that happen at the same time. She might also be repulsed by him two seconds later. She has this quality of being very present in the moment, and accepting what’s coming up, and articulating it. That’s something that’s perhaps the thing that’s difficult for Ambrose to do. So in the scene at the end of Episode 4, we’re really seeing these opposites in Vera and Ambrose come together, and collide. And it puts him in a very, very vulnerable place.”
With only three episodes left, “The Sinner” has a lot of ground to cover in order to get some answers about what happened at Mosswood with Marin, The Beacon, Vera, and Julian. Presumably, this will also offer illumination on why Julian poisoned two people in the first place. Perhaps this whole murder case is part of scapegoating. But at this point, it’s still too early to tell. Simonds was able to tease a little of what’s coming in Episode 6 though.
“A lot of the things that we hint at and flirt with in Episode 5, that’s the subtext of, ’Is this what they really mean? Is The Beacon going to sacrifice Julian?’ Those things become more of the text, more apparent in Episode 6. This is where we’re going to see Vera pushed to a crisis point. We’re going to see some finer shadings, in terms of the work as Vera understands it, the work that The Beacon is pushing it towards, and that those aren’t always in agreement. We’ll have an even deeper look into Mosswood, and in particular Vera’s own personal struggle at Mosswood, and a very fateful decision she has to make.”
”The Sinner” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.