Last summer’s “The Sinner” was one of the year’s biggest surprises. It’s a show that people are still talking about, especially since it recently popped up on Netflix and landed a much-deserved Emmy nomination for star Jessica Biel. In other words, the timing is perfect for the USA Network to bring it back for a new season, shifting focus from the mystery of a seemingly ordinary woman who commits murder on a crowded beach to the story of a deadly child in a remote motel. Having seen the first three episodes of season two, I’m more on the fence than I was about season one (which I loved from the beginning), but I’m hooked enough by the mystery of it all to stay tuned in. Some of the storytelling feels less refined than last year—people often sound like they’re over-explaining everything or verbalizing every question flitting through their minds when more subtlety would make for more effective drama—but the cast is again strong enough that “The Sinner” could again be an addictive summer distraction right when we need it.
Biel and co-star Christopher Abbott are gone, but Bill Pullman returns as Detective Harry Ambrose, this time called back to his hometown to investigate a truly strange double murder. Compared to last time, this season of “The Sinner” will be more of a whydunit than a whodunit because we again see the actual crime take place. And our killer confesses to it. One of several twists in the first trio of episodes is that the killer (Elisha Henig) happens to be 11 years old. After a mysterious few conversations in the opening scenes of the premiere, we watch him check in with his parents to a roadside motel. Something isn’t quite right, though. The parents are acting awkward and combative. The next morning, the boy comes back with tea, and poisons the adults in the room, watching them die in pain. What could possibly make a boy kill his parents? Once again, Ambrose senses there's more to this story than it appears, and the investigation digs up some skeletons from his dark past at the same time.
The big draw this season is the addition of real-life couple Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon, two phenomenal actors (who actually don’t share a scene in the first three episodes). Letts plays an old friend of Harry’s whose daughter is now the lead detective on this baffling case. Coon gets a much juicier (at least for now) role as the leader of what appears to be a cult on the edge of town that’s related to the case. Coon’s complex portrayal is that of a determined, protective leader, the kind of matriarchal figure who can be supportive one minute and cut your throat the next if she thinks you could betray her. Even though she’s only really in two of the episodes I’ve seen (she has a small part in the first), she’s the main reason to watch “The Sinner” and remains one of our best TV actresses.
After three episodes, it’s still very unclear how the second season of “The Sinner” will compare to the first. As mentioned, some of the storytelling feels a bit more manipulative here than it did in season one, but the pedigree of the production remains top-notch (as he did last year, Antonio Campos, director of “Christine” and “Simon Killer,” helms the first few episodes) and it seems like the themes of the season are just coming into focus. A murder mystery like “The Sinner” is harder than most shows to review based on only seeing part of the season. But I guess all that really matters is that I’m curious to see where this year of “The Sinner” goes next.