[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Sinner” Season 2, Episode 6, “Part VI.”]
Serving tea appears to be a family tradition on “The Sinner” this season. Julian Walker (Elisha Henig) gave his poisonous brew to two former Mosswood acolytes who supposedly kidnapped him, and on Wednesday’s episode, it’s revealed that his mother Vera (Carrie Coon) also served tea to the commune leader known as The Beacon (Brennan Brown) as an apology.
Of course, having set a precedent for toxic tea in the premiere, “The Sinner” has taught its viewers to view any steeped hot drink with suspicion. If this is the case, that means Vera assassinated the Beacon and took his place. But only the viewers know about the tea having seen it in the flashback. In her confession to Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), she merely says, “He was unhappy for a long time; one day he left us.”
IndieWire spoke to showrunner Derek Simonds, who would neither confirm nor deny Vera’s homicidal ambitions.
“We really like making a strong implication, but not saying one way or another what exactly happens. We’ll never know, and I think in our show we try to answer the most important questions, but I think it’s fun and also just more sophisticated to not spell everything out,” he said.
“We really were excited that Ambrose smells a rat in that moment, but doesn’t pursue it quite yet. It’s a thing that he lets go, and hopefully, audiences will see Carrie’s performance in that moment and what she went through in the flashbacks, and think, ‘Okay, this is the truth, this is what happened.’”
The Tragedy of the Self-Sacrificing Mother
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This is not the first time that Vera has been shown to be an unreliable narrator or — as her own son would consider her — an out-and-out liar. The hypocrisy is rich considering Mosswood and “the work” are all about facing and embracing our shadowy sides.
Nevertheless, she has chosen to deliberately lie or withhold the full truth from Julian (and others), and this is because of the lofty goals she has for Mosswood and her son.
“He is this opportunity to raise a new kind of man who is not like the Beacons or the Glen Fishers of the world, but a man who is more in touch with all parts of themselves, so they don’t rear their heads in dysfunctional ways,” said Simonds. “So I think there’s a lot of protection and wish-fulfillment for him to be this new individual, and she wants to create this idyllic healthy environment for him. But in order to do so, she has to lie, and I think that’s the tragedy in Vera’s story.”
In some ways, the signs do point to Vera being chosen to be Julian’s mother. Even after Marin (Hannah Gross) gave birth, she couldn’t seem to bond with her infant son and wouldn’t even produce breast milk. Vera, however, began lactating, and for all intents and purposes, became Julian’s mother.
“There’s a lot of things that women and mothers can do to stimulate breast milk when that’s an issue, herbal supplements and other such things,” said Simonds. “And then also there is the stimulation that if the child latches on repeatedly, it can excite someone who’s not the mother, a woman’s hormones and production of breast milk. So we had researched that, and we thought that was really compelling.
“She started breastfeeding Julian and taking over as the mother. She encouraged Marin, but she also took advantage of an opening there,” he said. “Marin wasn’t quite interested, but there’s an interesting gray area there. So I think there is shame about what happened for Vera to have Julian as a son, and I think there’s also shame certainly about what Vera allowed to happen at Mosswood when she was there. She says herself, ‘I wish I had stopped it sooner.’ I think there’s a lot of regret, and also the knowledge that if these secrets get out in the public, that Mosswood will get demonized even further, even though it’s not her fault.”
The Boys’ Club
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The episode continues to reveal how various men are drawn to doing “the work” and benefiting from it, while the women, such as Bess (Ellen Adair) and Marin are abused both physically and emotionally. This gender inequity isn’t an accident since it appears that most communes are patriarchal.
“From our research, I’d say 90 percent of the leaders of cult-like organizations are men. I don’t deign to explain why that is. That’s above my pay grade, but we did find that most were men,” Simonds said. “We were really interested in the idea of a patriarchal system that Mosswood is under the guidance of The Beacon, and it changing under Vera’s hand, and actually becoming a matriarchy.
“Some of what we’re saying with Vera’s story is the struggles of a woman today establishing herself, establishing leadership when there is the legacy of patriarchy to contend with. And that never quite goes away. So you have the efforts of someone like Vera, are always haunted by what happened before, what happened when she was not in control.
“There’s a really key line in Episode 6 when she confronts the Beacon, and she says, ‘We used to do imaginative work, and now it’s become so literal,’” he added. “Vera took over and brought the work back to its roots. We see a piece of that, of her working in front of the rock in Episode 3, so it’s this idea of the matriarchal leadership under Vera actually brought the work back to its healing roots, rather than the perversion that the Beacon steered it towards.”
Glen Fisher (Marc Menchaca) is one of those men who benefited from the perversions, and even after Vera turned him away, he continued to seek out his own particular kind of therapy. Both Carmen Bell (Jamie Neumann), who had left Mosswood, and the stripper whom he spends time with in his car’s backseat, exhibit similar markings on their feet that appear to be a series of small, circular burns that may have been made from a cigarette. Although Carmen sought legal action against Mosswood and even related her experiences on a videotape, her case never went anywhere. It’s implied that the DA helped to cover it up in exchange for some monetary contributions.
“We wanted to flirt with the idea that the tentacles of Mosswood extend into the town, and they do to a certain extent clearly with Dr. Poole and Glen Fisher, and others that we don’t necessarily mention by name but we imply are there,” said Simonds. “Also, when Ambrose confronts Jack, and he says, ‘A town like Keller, no one wants to rat each other out. They’re all covering for each other.’ There is that thing in small communities where there’s a tribalism that occurs, and we felt that the DA and the men around him, they’re all men of a certain age group and generation who have been in this town for a while. They’re helping each other out. I think we see evidence of that in our politics today.”
Jack (Tracy Letts) is older than some of the men involved, but he’s nevertheless been in Keller his whole life. Lately, he’s had friction with his daughter, who’s been working the case. Perhaps he has something to hide also.
The Other Boys’ Club: Harry and Julian
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Despite all of Vera’s work with Harry, it’s Julian who helps the detective finally face up to his past. After Harry blackmails the DA into kicking back Julian’s case to Family Court and releasing him back into foster care, Harry confesses to the boy what really happened with his own mother. Young Harry, not his mother, was the one who had set fire to their home because he was just exhausted with dealing with her mental health issues.
Simonds said, “When he sees Julian suffering from this guilt of killing Adam and Bess — and realizing for sure that his conception of death was not quite accurate, and that these two people are not coming back — Ambrose sees that Julian could be haunted for a good long time by these events. That’s what compels him to reveal something that he hasn’t revealed to anyone else before. When Ambrose says, ‘Will you stare down that hooded figure, because it might be your guilt, will you do that?’ He’s essentially saying, ‘Please do it; don’t be like me. Don’t let this guilt fester and follow you the rest of your life.’ I think it’s a real fatherly or mentor-like sharing of, ‘Don’t make the mistake I made.’”
The hooded figure had been haunting Julian for a while now, and both Vera and Harry had differing interpretations of what that specter meant. In the last minutes of Episode 6, however, it seems that the hooded figure might be real when it appears to enter his room at the foster home and abduct him. Only part of this (the figure itself) is seen from Julian’s point of view, and the rest takes place offscreen. Thus, it’s still not clear if Julian has been abducted, is in mortal danger, or has somehow orchestrated his disappearance himself from an overblown sense of guilt. Regardless, he’s not in his bed or room.
“Was it a dream? Is it real? I think the show is leaning towards this actually happened, this figure actually has come into this room,” said Simonds. “ We don’t know who it is. We will find out who it is, I promise.”
Another possibility could still be in play. Although Vera may have foiled plans to sacrifice Julian as a scapegoat, that doesn’t mean the Beacon’s more diehard followers had given up on the idea.
Simonds wouldn’t tip his hand on what will come in the next episode, but did offer up this cryptic hint, “There’s a big flashback section where we get a little more information again, but about a different time in the past. More pieces of the puzzle will be revealed.”
“The Sinner” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.