[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of “The Sinner.”]
This season of “The Sinner” began with a boy murdering two people who appeared to be his parents and then concluded by upending the picture-perfect image of a man who was supposed to be a model father. The challenges of parenting, the hopes a parent has for their offspring, and the ways in which children could be damaged by those who raise them all came to a head in the finale, which exposed a few more secrets while still leaving some lingering questions.
Perhaps the most horrifying revelations, however, involved Marin (Hannah Gross), whom last we saw dead from a gunshot wound on the grounds of the First Nations reservation. It turns out that she had met up with Jack (Tracy Letts), the father of her former best friend and cop Heather (Natalie Paul). An argument and struggle ensued, and her gun went off, accidentally killing her.
Covering up his involvement in her death was bad enough, but the reason why Marin called him in the first place was even more heartbreaking. It turns out that he had a vested interest in helping her kidnap her biological son Julian (Elisha Henig): Jack, not the overbearing Mosswood leader who wanted to use her son as a scapegoat, is the one who fathered her child. Furthermore, Julian was not the product of some illicit affair, but rape. In a flashback we see that while Jack and Marin are making up the couch for her to crash on after a long night, he kisses her and then forces himself on her despite her protests. This violation and betrayal by someone whom she had trusted became the instigating event that made Marin join Mosswood. Only later did she discover she was pregnant.
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IndieWire spoke to showrunner Derek Simonds to discuss the finale, including how that scene started out as congenial and turned into a nightmare for Marin.
“We wanted to look at how complicated those moments can be, but we were always approaching this as a violation of Marin. It was definitely rape,” he said. “There’s no question that there is a moment when Marin is saying that she wants to stop and wants to [leave], and he does not stop. Consent was not given.
“What we were very mindful of is that we wanted to make sure that Jack, who was this affable character suddenly, didn’t seem a totally different person. I wanted to make sure that this seemed in the realm of possibility for the character. What we responded to in the writers’ room was this idea that we project all of these dark things onto Mosswood, and onto Vera, and onto these easy symbols of fear. And yet, it can also happen right in our own backyards, among people we know quite well. Those boundaries, we can flip through them very easily, and I think that’s what this show is about. We were trying to show the balance between things we fear that are out in the open and things we fear that aren’t.”
Jack had set up a shell company through which he donated money for Julian’s care monthly, but other than that, he never showed any interest in his son’s well-being or to tell his daughter that her best friend had a child, much less that Heather has a half-brother. The police had also been tracking these transactions to Mosswood, but hadn’t any proof of wrongdoing related to it.
Julian’s Decision Not to Run
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Jack’s violent act, Marin’s inability to deal with life, Mosswood’s therapeutic techniques, and Vera’s (Carrie Coon) hands-on mothering – all led up to Julian brewing the toxic tea that killed the two Mosswood members at the beginning of the season. In last week’s episode, however, he learned that they weren’t kidnapping him to do harm but to reunite him with his bio mom Marin. Realizing that his act of self-defense wasn’t needed hits him hard, and therefore by the end of the season, he refuses to go on the run with his mother. Instead, he turns himself back in to be judged and sentenced in family court.
“We were really interested in tracking his awareness of his guilt, how he’s feeling with his conscience, and how he’s realizing that there’s a whole other value system that he’s not familiar with at which he’s being judged, that he has to learn and grapple with in a strange new world,” said Simonds. “He needed a final feat in his journey. I see it very much as a coming of age story for Julian. He’s moving away from the world of his mother, in a sense, he’s moving towards the world of Ambrose, who’s a de facto father figure.
“It seems really important that Julian, at some point, because he’s a pawn… he matures to an adult of sorts and he makes a decision that actually takes control of his fate. He’s willing to accept guilt and atone for what he did so that he can move beyond it.”
His adoptive mom Vera had brought him up to always be honest, including facing up to one’s darker side. Therefore, even though she wanted to save him from sentencing and go on the run, it’s her teachings that ultimately made him decide not to try to escape. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the series, she comes to the realization of what he’s asking: to stay and face justice, to stay and never know a regular childhood, to stay and be parted from his mother.
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“That’s one of the ironies that I think is so moving for me, personally, in Vera’s story,” said Simonds. “Everything that Vera has taught Julian and felt so passionately about, which is to follow your inner impulses and be true to yourself and honest, are the things that eventually wrests him away from her and cause her to lose him. That just felt like a really poignant tragedy and, in a way, a metaphor for parenthood in general. Eventually, the child has to move into the world on his or her own and become the person they’re supposed to be. In this case, that very person is someone that Vera can’t hold onto.”
Despite being sentenced to four years in a juvenile facility in lieu of jail, Julian had one last taste of freedom first. He finally got to visit Niagara Falls, his original destination where he was supposed to meet with Marin before he committed murder.
“Julian’s ultimate relationship is with nature, and its connection to the natural world and that beyond all of the problems and struggles with parental figures and family that he goes through,” said Simonds. “He goes and witnesses these falls and they’re beautiful and majestic, but they’re also frightening and really powerful. They can tear you apart. It was very specific that we got these shots of the water crashing down on the rocks. That’s when Julian says, ‘My mother would have liked it here,’ because it’s the awesome and the terrible, and the beautiful and the frightening that he’s learned from Vera. That’s what the world is. It felt like this very expansive, spiritual ending for Julian and for Heather.”
The Trouble With Harry
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Twice now, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) has helped people who have killed to come to some sort of peace as a result of uncovering more about themselves or the past. It’s his own past trauma that has been alluded to – in Season 1 with his attraction to pain and this season with flashbacks to his mother’s seeming antipathy – that made him uniquely suited to identifying with those victims-turned-killers.
But peace is something that has eluded Ambrose himself, despite doing “the work” with Vera. Earlier this season, he engaged in one of Mosswood’s therapeutic sessions with Vera, but afterwards, his mind blacked out his memory of it. In the finale, he listens to a microcassette tape of the session, in which he says he wanted his mother “to stop,” that he thinks Vera is smothering Julian, and that what he wants most is “oblivion.” At that point, Ambrose stops listening to the tape.
“Vera is exactly the kind of person to push Ambrose into an uncomfortable area because of her own experience with the work she does. It starts out as a very, sort of, conflicted relationship that’s not entirely filled with trust,” said Simonds. “We see most of it in Season 1 in terms of the BDSM relationship he has with Sharon. But, I think this scene takes it a little further where he expresses a deeper philosophical, existential unease, terror, desire. When he says what he wants is oblivion, there’s such an instinct to avoid this pain and that he’d rather extinguish himself, that there’s that aspect to him and in his psyche.
“I felt like once he shows Vera that, and she helps him explore that, it’s so raw and naked, and in his face that he stops the tape,” he continued. “Ambrose isn’t quite ready yet to confront all of this head-on. He’d rather stop the tape and have it remain tightly bound in a small microcassette than out in his conscious mind.”
Having just wrapped up its second season, there’s no word yet if a Season 3 is in the works, but clearly Harry Ambrose still needs to face certain things in his past.
“Ambrose is our main character. We can’t resolve him quickly because he is the character we follow through these seasons. So, his journey is a longer one,” said Simonds.
As for what a possible Season 3 could bring, he said, “I have a particular thought that would bring Ambrose on the next step of his personal journey. It’s a darker and scarier step. That’s all I’ll say.”