Following the success of the first two seasons, the latest instalment of The Sinner had a lot to live up to. Based on the book of the same name by Petra Hammesfahr the series was only intended to run as a mini-series. The first season, led by Jessica Biel, proved such a hit for the USA Network that they decided to turn it into an anthology putting Bill Pullman’s police detective Harry Ambrose and the twisted crimes he’s drawn to the focus.
Season three centres around Dorchester teacher and father-to-be, Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer). As he sits down to dinner with his wife, Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley), they are interrupted by the appearance of an old friend on his doorstep. But former college buddy Nick Haas (Chris Messina) is far from welcome at the dinner table, and hours later Jamie and Nick are involved in a car crash that proves fatal for one, and life-changing for the other.
Suddenly, Jamie finds himself at the centre of an investigation conducted by our favourite humanly flawed detective, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman). To Harry, the case is much deeper than a simple instance of a speeding car that veered off the road, and he finds himself dangerously drawn to damaged Jamie – but he’s not the only one.
For the first three episodes, I found myself gripped by the same tension and suspense that I came to expect from the show. The issue is that, for whatever reason, this season the story isn’t able to maintain that momentum.
The pressure mounts as Harry begins to put the pieces together as Jamie’s sanity unravels reliving the events of that night. And in a familiar fashion, the writers begin to feed us just the right amount of information to keep us guessing. Why such a long wait between the crash and the call to emergency services? Where were they going? How did Jamie and Nick know each other? Unfortunately, rather than maintaining this momentum, it tapers off and the suspense that they spent the first three episodes building dissipates when by the end of episode three, we know the answers to most of our questions.
Rather than pursuing the eight-part layout of previous seasons, the series would have done well to end here, as the basis of the plot was strong. The intense, dangerous relationship between Jamie and Nick, and the mysterious circumstances of the crash had huge potential, but just before the midway point, the focus shifts onto Ambrose and the two halves of the story don’t knit together quite as neatly as they have before.
As Jamie’s sanity unravels further, Harry repeatedly derails his own investigation in misguided and ridiculous attempts to gain his suspect’s trust. For at least a few episodes, Harry’s role as detective seems to be almost entirely lost in a series of far-fetched, ridiculous escapades.
The weak explanation offered for this is the idea that Jamie and Harry are linked by some secret, unnameable darkness that lies dormant within them – and, as is implied, all of us.
Exactly what this darkness is, is never fully explained. Instead, it plants within each episode a series of feeble, winding monologues about the monotony of life and the futile nature of morality. Perhaps it is the current circumstances in which we find ourselves in that renders these speeches feel inconsequential, or perhaps it is that there are so many of them, but for me, they fell flat.
For while some have praised this season for drawing attention to male vulnerability and men’s mental health, I struggle to make that connection. Despite one explicit reference to the innate trauma of internalised male emotion, there is a distinct lack of emotion from the leads here which makes it harder to connect with them let alone empathise. And rather than capturing ideas about male vulnerability, the monologues that characterise each episode are more similar to the self-indulgent, privileged whining that Jamie’s wife accuses him of. Any insightful remarks made about the nature of male emotionality are only ever awkwardly applied to the characters.
The distinct lack of personality cannot be solely applied to Bomer’s Jamie, however, as it is present in the majority of the characters. Not being a particularly character-driven series, they probably could have gotten away with this if it weren’t for one vital component: the plot of the remaining episodes centres around how the captivating intensity of Jamie leads others to do dangerous and unintelligible things. The level of intensity required from Bomer’s performance to make the other characters’ actions believable and acceptable to the audience simply isn’t there. The result is confusing and seemingly contradictory motivations, particularly on the part of Harry. Time and time again, Jamie and Harry reference a connection between them, a certain similarity that simply isn’t conveyed to the audience.
As a viewer, it is unclear whether this is an issue of performance, direction or writing. Though the fact that we experience this same flatness from most of the characters suggests that the issue likely does not lie with the cast. Particularly as Bill Pullman has been a highlight in earlier seasons. Yet here, even with the final episode’s towering potential for drama and suspense, you find yourself wanting to shake the actors to try and force some emotionality and energy out of them.
Unfortunately, one of the only characters that we can empathise with and understand as an audience – Jamie’s wife Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley) – barely gets any screentime. Despite his distinct lack of personality and charm, we can better understand the lure Jamie has over her as her husband and father of her child than we can in Harry’s case. Fitz-Henley delivers the rawest and believable performance of the cast, and Leela’s storyline showed promise for more direction than the character was given.
While the final episode does something to bring back the tense and suspense-building scenes from the beginning, by the end I was left disappointed that nothing after the third episode really added anything to the story.
The case that the season is meant to be built around was more-or-less abandoned from that point onwards, and crucially, by the end, I wasn’t entirely sure what the audience was intended to feel towards Jamie. Were we meant to see him as a twisted, damaged human being, or an empathetic figure that could potentially represent something inside us all? Even in the final moments of the series, it was unclear to me, as although we are repeatedly led towards this route of empathy, it never quite pays off.
Especially when compared to its earlier seasons, season three of The Sinner certainly did not live up to its potential. The first three episodes led us down a dark and interesting path, the following episodes left us there. Though while this season proved disappointing for some, it has still received a great deal of acclaim and Netflix has renewed The Sinner for a fourth season. Perhaps I missed its point entirely, but either way, I will be streaming season four whenever it hits our screens in the hope that the show can recover from this misstep.
The Sinner is Available on Netflix Now.
Contributed by Megan Hyland