‘The Sinner’ Season 2 Tackles New Murder Mystery and Strange Cults

USA’s “The Sinner” is designed in a smart way. Instead of dragging out one continuous storyline, it is an anthology series that offers a new case with every season. Season one found Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) trying to solve the case of a woman who randomly stabbed a man to death. In season two’s case the story gets more gothic and strange. We still learn a bit more about Ambrose and his past, but it is all within the context of a new mystery, filmed with much atmosphere and fine pacing.

What appears to be a regular family goes on a road trip to Niagara Falls. Bess (Ellen Adair) and Adam (Adam David Thompson), along with young Julian (Elisha Henig), stay in a motel. But the next morning Bess and Adam are dead, laying on the motel room floor, poisoned, with Julian huddled in a corner. Ambrose drives in and takes a look at the case. This part of rural New York is his hometown. He soon starts working with a detective named Heather (Natalie Paul). They interrogate Julian and come to the stunning conclusion that he poisoned the two dead adults. Another twist comes when his actual mother, Vera (Carrie Coon), shows up to claim Julian and attempt to take him home. Heather does some digging and discovers that Vera belongs to a local, rural commune which is notorious with the locals for its distant, secretive locale. Apparently the two murder victims who were with Julian in the motel were also members of the same group. Heather herself had a disturbing encounter with the group long ago while hiking with an old flame. To get to the bottom of what happened, Ambrose and Heather decide they need to venture into the compound where this strange group resides.

“The Sinner” works purely on the level of a good mystery. It does seasonally what shows like “Law & Order” and “The X-Files” used to do episode by episode, namely having central characters solving a new case every week. Murder is again the heart of the case in season two, but set in a world of strange cults, eerie dreams and memories kept under the rug. The director is Antonio Campos, no stranger to mystery and atmosphere. He produced the intense cult drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and is the attached director for an upcoming remake of the “Omen” horror franchise. In “The Sinner” he shoots the story with deep shadows and cold environments, bringing out the eeriness of small town life you also get in another recent thriller, “Castle Rock.” The opening murder of Bess and Andy is memorable TV macabre, with the couple crawling to their deaths in agony and vomit. When the show enters the cult’s compound in the second episode, the place looks like a cross between Waco and the Manson Family. For the first few episodes the show keeps a strong air of mystery all around. Locals talk about the cult in the vaguest terms, making us the viewers continue watching to figure out just what is going on in that strange place. Once inside Heather recognizes a face as someone who might have been spying on the detectives in town, but everyone stays silent. The flashback scenes with Heather hiking and discovering the camp are intriguing, and again, say just enough to raise our interest but not give everything away. Campos also finds a strong pace for the material. The first three episodes don’t reveal too much, but move briskly, never lagging.

In the tradition of good TV thrillers, “The Sinner” also has well-written characters that bring the story to vivid life. Pullman is lit like a noir hero, his face nearly always in half-shadow, his eyes always sad. He is a haunted detective, running from a past (aren’t they all?). As the case progresses and he interrogates Julian and Vera, we get slight flashbacks to his own childhood as he wanders darkened halls, searching for his mother. Jay O. Sanders plays Chief Tom Lidell, who does as he must and is hesitant to support Ambrose’s theories. One of the best supporting roles is Tracy Letts (who is married to Carrie Coon) as Jack, Heather’s retired father and friend of Ambrose’s who tries to get his old friend to take a vacation for once. But the best performance this season is by Coon as the strange, disturbing mother Vera. Last season Jessica Biel (who is a producer on the show) received much acclaim for her performance as the daughter of the show’s key suspect. But Coon, who recently made waves in HBO’s “The Leftovers,” creates a personality both threatening and vulnerable. It soon becomes obvious to Ambrose and Heather that Vera is not just a regular member of the commune, she projects a specific authority over everyone, signaling people when to shut up, or has a tendency to call them over when they seem to chat with the detectives for too long. Coon plays the role with a subdued and dark touch. Pullman and Natalie Paul have good chemistry, but Coon is the stand out.

This is the kind of show that you can keep going for many seasons because the format allows for something new with every new turn. “The Sinner” is a throwback to classic mystery television, but with the kind of craft now common in this age of peak TV. It drips with atmosphere, strong performances, and a plot that confuses us in a good way. We keep tuning in because we truly want the answers.

The Sinner” season two premieres August 1 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.