We’ve just binge-watched the third season of “The Sinner,” and boy do we have a lot to talk about. We appreciate that some of you won’t have seen it yet, though, so to those people, we have two things to say. Firstly, stop reading this article and go and watch it. Secondly, come straight back here after you’ve finished watching it so you can join in with the conversation. OK, maybe not “straight back.” You might need a day or two to compose yourself and process everything you’ve seen first. You have now been warned. If you continue reading this and see spoilers, that’s on you!
If you’ve seen the previous two seasons of “The Sinner,” you’ll know that it doesn’t play out like most police dramas. It’s true that the central narrative of all three seasons of the show so far have focused on a crime being committed and the subsequent criminal investigation into that crime, but unlike the majority of police dramas, we know who committed the crime right from the very start. This drama, shown on the USA network domestically and Netflix internationally, isn’t a “whodunnit.” It’s a “whydunnit.” The unusual format makes the show refreshing, and the dynamic between Bill Pullman’s character of traumatized and slightly sinister detective Harry Ambrose and the criminal he’s trying to understand is always electric.
In season one, we saw Harry try to clear the name of Cora, a young woman who inexplicably murdered a young man in broad daylight on a beach and was unable to explain why. As well remembered for its incredible soundtrack as its insightful study into the human psyche, that first season was adapted from the original novel “The Sinner,” and put the show on the map. There were concerns that the show might not have a future in the hands of a television writer as opposed to the person who devised the character of Harry Ambrose, but the second season, in which Harry looks into the case of a young boy named Julian who appears to have murdered his parents for no reason, confirmed that it could have a future beyond the original text. In season three, it turns a whole lot darker.
Watching the third series of “The Sinner” is like having a very gentle background headache, and yet enjoying it at the same time. It’s frequently dark. There’s an almost-constant heartbeat-like drum in the background during tense scenes. For as long as it’s possible to do so, it refuses to tell us whether central character Jamie Burns is a good man trying desperately hard not to turn bad, or a bad man trying to cling on to being good by the skin of his teeth. Having watched it, you might not think it ever answers that question, and you’re entitled to that opinion. Jamie is a complicated character, and it’s impossible not to feel drawn to him despite his unfortunate tendency to kill people and then feel bad about it afterward.
Life might have been very different for Jamie. He had a good job as a teacher at a private school and was married with a child on the way. That would be enough for most people, but Jamie was never happy. That’s because back at college, he was best friends with Nick Haas, a Nietzche-obsessed Nihilist who was both an adrenaline junkie and an existentialist. Nick exuded dark charisma, and Jamie fell under his spell. For a while, they were inseparable, but Nick pushed Jamie further and further, urging him to jump from a great height into rivers and bury himself in a shallow grave for hours on end. Ostensibly, it was to help Jamie defeat the fear of his own mortality. In practice, it pushed Jamie so close to the edge that he could no longer ‘feel’ normal emotions once he was free of Nick’s influence.
Many years later, with the baby due any day, Jamie realizes he doesn’t feel the joy that a prospective new father should feel, and he reaches out to Nick. It’s a fatal mistake. Nick has only grown darker in the years since they last met, and he’s gone from pushing himself to the outer limit of mortality to murdering innocent people for the thrill. He wants Jamie to be like him. Jamie’s battle against becoming what Nick feels he’s always been destined to be is the central tenet of the plot – and yet Nick dies in the first episode. It isn’t Nick that drives Jamie to extremes. It’s the ghost of Nick, and Jamie’s sense of regret at taking a wrong turn earlier on in his life. Nietzche’s philosophies still hold appeal to a great number of people today, and according to this show at least, it’s hard to let go of them once they’ve taken hold of you.
Behind all of this, there’s a story between Harry and artist Sonya Barzel, who unwittingly becomes a murder target for Jamie and Nick before Jamie deliberately crashes Nick’s car to prevent it from happening. Aside from being a somewhat-improbable love interest for Harry, she’s struggling to accept that she was targeted for murder at random. That’s also a central aspect of the plot, by the way. Jamie selects targets for murder at random, using an old paper-based game you probably played while you were at school. The idea of taking a life with all the triviality of an online slots game is exceptionally horrifying. Imagine playing popular online games like Aztec slots where you got the jackpot if you won, but you paid with your life if you lost. Most people would never go anywhere near it. To someone like Jamie or Nick, that would be the greatest online slots game in the world. To people like them, nothing matters but the extremes, and there are people out there in the world who think and act like them. There may not be many, but they’re out there. That’s the true horror of “The Sinner.”
Not everything you see in this season of the show is hyper-realistic. There are moments where you’ll have to suspend your disbelief. There are aspects of it that verge on being silly. Overlook that, though, and you get eight episodes of high-quality television that ought to rival anything else you’ll see this year, along with some stellar acting performances by a gifted cast. The biggest sin you could commit regarding “The Sinner” is not watching it.