It's been almost three years since USA's Jessica Biel-produced thriller The Sinner first shocked viewers with a family beach outing-turned-vicious-stabbing within its first hour, but in Season 3, the USA anthology series is still able to mystify audiences with an equally disquieting story.
But like its prior seasons, Season 3 starts out just as unassumingly. Matt Bomer joins the series and gives it a burst of alacrity as Jamie, a high school teacher living in upstate New York with his wife, Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley), who's pregnant with their first child. He's the Good Will Hunting-esque educator encouraging students on the cusp of college, while she is the glowing, free-spirited owner of a boutique shop. They are the picture of suburban bliss. In fact, the couple is so disarming that their greatest entertainment comes from Jamie divulging the daily routines of a fellow commuter he calls "Banker Bob" as they skewer some food for the backyard grill.
As in previous seasons, though, it takes just a single unexpected presence — in this case, Jamie's estranged buddy, Nick (Chris Messina) — to tip this storybook tale on its head.
Under the effectively dark cinematography of Radium Cheung and Justin Charles Foster, Messina's natural swagger — usually so ingratiating on dramas like Sharp Objects — turns Machiavellian as an unanticipated guest at the couple's dinner table one night when he shows up on their doorstep, to Jamie's chagrin.
Nick wastes little time needling Jamie, who succumbs to each of his former friend's baits: Whose idea really was it for the two to move from Brooklyn to the virtually desolate town of Dorchester? Just like that, Leela's welcoming demeanor dissolves into apprehension not because Nick, who she's just meeting for the first time, seems shady (quite the opposite, actually). Rather, her concern comes from Jamie's palpable anxiety as he's rooted in his chair with a nearly empty glass of wine pleading with his eyes — and eventually verbally — for Nick to go away and never come back.
It's a masterful scene with mounting tension between Bomer and Messina, then eventually between Bomer and Fitz-Henley when Leela tries to confront Jamie about his reaction, which pivots the narrative to something far more foreboding. The audience doesn't quite know at this point what exactly is at the root of Jamie's fear (and even after watching the first three episodes available to critics, I'm no closer to figuring it out). But this dinner scene, with its mounting tension, is so riveting and slyly executed that it immediately hooks you as a viewer to want to learn what's lying beneath this storyline.
That's where The Sinner has always excelled: mystery. The series' commitment to slowly unraveling its plot layer by layer is unlike anything else currently on air. The first episode instantly provokes questions including: Is Jamie running away from something... or perhaps someone? What is the nature of his relationship with Nick? Then just as quickly as those questions arise, something happens between Jamie and Nick, catapulting the urgency of those ponderings.
But The Sinner, created by showrunner Derek Simonds, is never interested in giving you the answers all at once. At its core, it is a police drama in the sense that it delivers you information piece-by-piece as its avatar, the drained-yet-determined Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, reprising his role from the two earlier seasons), arrives at a clue in this increasingly bizarre case, contextualizing each episode. The series' pulse, however, comes from the personal conflicts and trauma of its protagonists.
In Seasons 1 and 2, we watched Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) and Julian (Elisha Henig) confront unfathomable events from their past to process the crimes of their present. It's too early to tell in Season 3 what the real crime is, but — without spoiling anything — it's clear from the start that Jamie is definitely struggling to work through something that happened in his former life and back when he and Nick were thick as thieves.
As the episodes progress, The Sinner teases us with flashbacks of Nick and Jamie's friendship, which haunts Jamie as he struggles to move on with his family. The disturbing nature of his former relationship threatens to destroy the serene present he's desperate to maintain.
Jamie's not the only character grappling with his familial commitments, though. We also see more of Ambrose, the only consistent character in this anthology, as he tries to reconnect with his daughter and grandson following his divorce in a previous season. And not to be overshadowed by the central storyline is Leela navigating a marriage to a man who's experienced a devastating event. At first it seems like her character will be reduced to the stereotypically trivial "wife" role, but as the episodes continue, she emerges as a critical voice that asks the questions from which Jamie wants to hide.
In its third season, The Sinner remains a calculating and tortured human drama, baked into a detective narrative, that probes our deepest fear: Can we ever really escape our past? The answer, at least so far, remains unclear.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The Sinner Season 3 premieres Thursday, Feb. 6 on USA.
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