In case you haven’t heard yet, Jessica Biel recently returned to her cable roots with a hit limited series on USA. An eight-part event, The Sinner tells the story of a deeply troubled young mother who, after a seemingly idyllic summer day at the lake, attacks and kills a man in broad daylight. The ensuing mystery is no standard whodunnit: there’s no question whether Biel’s character, Cora Tannetti (née Lacey), carried out the brutal stabbing now recounted in shocking detail across news headlines. The mystery lies in the ever-changing reasons why she committed the crime, and audiences follow along as Harry Ambrose, a grizzled detective played by Bill Pullman, delves into Cora’s deceptions in search of the truth.
In frequent flashbacks, we see glimpses of Cora’s religious zealot of a mother, Elizabeth Lacey, who blamed every illness that befell her younger daughter, Phoebe, on young Cora’s perceived wickedness. Due in part to this Carrie -like fanaticism, a hint of horror hangs over the proceedings. At any moment, the genre might switch from suspense in the vein of Gone Girl to a Stephen King nightmare, or even a law and horror hybrid like The Exorcism of Emily Rose. More likely, though, the real horror could be simply that even the most terrifying violence is rooted in something brutally ordinary, and the sporadic appearances of Ambrose’s S/M-y mistress suggest violence and compulsion are closely entwined, a theme future episodes will likely further explore.
As a bona fide movie star—and one half of the Hollywood power couple legally known as the Timberlakes—Biel at first seems too chic to be cast as Cora, a woman who rides shotgun in her husband’s pickup, works for his family’s heating and cooling company, and folds his cargo shorts with obsessive precision. Once she’s covered in blood and effectively cleared of her red carpet celebrity, however, it’s a surprise to realize how captivating an actor Biel really is. Biel plays both quiet desperation (or a façade that mimics quiet desperation) and unbottled rage with alarming ease. It’s a multilayered role, and audiences still won’t know how deep her deceit or disease may run after the first three episodes.
Pullman’s Detective Ambrose, too, shows signs of a damaged psyche. Separated from his wife and temporarily living in his partner’s basement, he tends to pay closer attention to plants and animals than to the people around him. But something in Cora’s case stands out to him, something does not make sense. Perhaps because of his submissive relationship with his mistress, he understands what it means to obey a secret impulse, a point made inescapably clear when, one night, he stands outside undressed, staring at a lamppost, drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Ambrose begins to suspect Cora has been trained somehow to react violently to certain cues, and as Cora’s hidden memories come to light, his instincts may prove correct.
A masterful thriller, The Sinner arrives at the end of a summer filled with delicious mysteries like TNT’s Claws and Showtime’s Twin Peaks reboot, and just before the return of autumn scares like FX’s American Horror Story and AMC’s The Walking Dead. Appropriately keeping with this timing, the series strikes a perfect balance between investigative tension and the specter of something much more sinister, and on Wednesday nights USA will slowly reveal what (or who) that specter could be.
Watch The Sinner on Wednesdays at 10pm ET on USA.