Over its three seasons, “The Sinner” has largely been built on the idea of a coiled snake. The central figures at the core of each season have each been figures who seem at first like blank slates, numbed by their proximity to the acts of violence they stand accused of perpetrating. Inside each of these stories is some variation on “How could someone like this be capable of something like that?”
It’s a question that, especially when asked through a controlled exterior, is designed for maximum uneasiness. If the calmest person in the room can cut through any bit of serenity and unleash something horrific, then no silence is safe. “The Sinner” mostly succeeds in building its story around a mystery that incorporates “how” and “why” into its grand equation, yet somehow still seems to de-emphasize both as it goes along. At the end, all that’s left is that little bit of quiet peace, but knowing that it can only last for so long.
So after a pair of seasons that put a woman seemingly on an ordinary day at the beach and a child in a motel room square in its sights, “The Sinner” rounds out its triptych of potential killers in a place where these stories usually start: with a man who seemingly has it all. Jamie (Matt Bomer) has a lovely wife, a dependable commute, and a child on the way. When Nick (Chris Messina), a figure from his past, shows up unannounced, both his arrival and the ensuing events puncture that ideal facade in a way that captures the attention of Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman). (Given the general premise of the show — and the menacing, trillion-watt laser stare that Nick is boring into Jamie at every single opportunity — it’s not a shock when Nick’s visit does not end in a simple, friendly goodbye hug.)
In this USA anthology, Ambrose has been the connective tissue, the main investigator trying to piece together the truth from a handful of tiny leads. The suspects’ faces and the individual cases may change over the seasons, but these new episodes show how both the construction of the character and Pullman’s performance are a foundation worth building on again and again. Ambrose isn’t written as a needful rube, constantly three steps behind the case so that the audience can follow along.
The facts of the accident that he’s called in to investigate here are fairly straightforward. The strength of “The Sinner” Season 3 isn’t in some labyrinthine plot, but in the fact that Jamie isn’t apprehended (at least not yet). Some of Jamie and Ambrose’s initial conversations take place in the usual police station interview room. It’s as the season progresses that “The Sinner” takes advantage of excavating the life of a potential criminal rather than a formally accused one.
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Instead of being sidetracked by sneaky misdirects, “The Sinner” can live with Ambrose and Jamie and see what form each of their obsessions take. Season 3 swaps out Ambrose’s extracurriculars of years past, some of which centered on him using his specific desires as a way to numb the consequences of his job. In its place this season is a more measured look at the physical and mental toll that an ambiguous investigation can have on someone who’s removed so many of the distractions that used to provide a therapeutic escape. At the outset, this season is a tad more banal: Ambrose is dealing with back issues in his office when officemates come to ask him questions about his workload. It feels more illustrative of what living in a grisly headspace can do to a person as they try to match wits with the unthinkable.
Of course, it’s still “The Sinner.” (After all, this happened three episodes into Season 2.) So the heightened details here are less about unconventional behavior as much as it is looking in the unexplored corners of an investigation. There’s a laid-back gardening session. One of Ambrose’s house calls leads to an interested party’s detailed portrait studio.
And aside from Pullman, the strongest anchor of “The Sinner” is composer Ronit Kirchman. Her strings waver between dissonant and mournful, drenched in an electronic haze that can be dreamy or dread-inducing. It makes for a fascinating psychological ballet all its own. Combined with the ongoing inner turmoil on display in the faces of the characters at the show’s center, the score continues to be a fundamental part of what makes the overall push-and-pull of “The Sinner” a compelling balancing act.
Where “The Sinner” usually rises or falls is in the way it shows repetition. So much of what usually goes into on-screen portrayals of criminal investigations is the parsing of details over and over in a search for clarity. With so many of the variables largely in place at the end of the Season 3 premiere, most of that emphasis gets shifted to Jamie’s psyche. Like Jessica Biel’s Season 1 protagonist, there’s just as much (if not more) self-interrogation happening than probing questions from outside detectives.
As Nick keeps popping up in Jamie’s sightline — either real or imagined — his presence doesn’t bring the same kind of nuanced dread the show has mined before. Even when Bomer and Messina delicately play the shifting Jamie/Nick dynamic, it’s not quite as much for the show to build around as it has in the past. Still, those hallucinations do provide “The Sinner” with one of the most unsettling sequences it’s done to date, both in what’s seen and heard. (A pretty high bar, considering the show’s pilot kicked off with someone being remorselessly stabbed in broad daylight on a public beach.)
Over the first three episodes of the season, Jamie is walking pendulum, going from cool, affable high school teacher to tearing-his-hair-out haunted within the confines of his own home. Even so, Bomer is slyly using and manipulating his on-screen charisma to show how a man like that can easily earn the trust and love of the people in his inner circle. “The Sinner,” as it progresses through his side of the story, builds that pressure about as meticulously as any other drama on TV. The main question as this season goes forward is how effectively that tension will be harnessed to illuminate something outside its own continuation.
“The Sinner” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on USA.