Wednesday, September 13, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Sinner' - Cora Remembers the Traumatic Night That Changed Her Life Forever in 'Part VII'

USA's The Sinner - Episode 1.07 "Part VII"

Cora journeys into the past, finally remembering the night in question.

The Sinner has promised its audience a satisfying but equally devastating conclusion to its main story. It's a murder mystery about the reason why someone like Cora would seemingly commit murder at random. This entire season has been building up to this reveal. As such, the audience's expectations have been set high. The answers that have been promised were kept from us at the end of last week's episode. Instead, it just built up the anticipation for "Part VII" even more. This hour needed to provide a satisfying amount of answers in order to make this entire story and narrative decision work. After all of this buildup, the resolution better be effective. And now, "Part VII" is set entirely on that fateful Fourth of July weekend from five years ago. It reveals to the audience what exactly happened there. Cora is able to remember all of this as well. This is her memory that is being shown to the audience. It's no longer clouded. It's not just random bits of pieces that her mind is tricking her into believing in order to cope with this tragic time. Instead, all of the monstrosity is on full display. It relives the moments of this night that have played out across this season. And yet, they all have new meaning to them now because Cora can remember that one thing that her mind has been protecting her from. She now remembers that she brought her sister, Phoebe, along for this evening. This is the true horror story of how she died. It's such a brutal and effective reveal that is so absolutely chilling.

All of this works as well as it does because the show has explored the upbringing Cora and Phoebe endured. In the beginning, it felt like it could be connected to the central mystery in some way. Then in the middle stretch of episodes, it seemed more like important backstory to have in order to understand Cora's behavior. She grew up in this household where every single action that was deemed to be wrong would be immediately punished. She grew up with extreme religious beliefs where every bad thing she did would have horrible complications for her sister. It was such a destructive world. It forced Cora and Phoebe to bound together. They wanted to escape it and just be happy on their own. They wanted the freedom to do whatever they wanted. It was their fantasy. But it was Phoebe being controlling as well. Cora lived her entire life always needing to be protective of her sister. Everything she did needed to serve her in some way. It was so defining to her entire personality. She couldn't have any happiness that was purely her own because she needed to share it with Phoebe. So, that makes it inevitable that Phoebe would want to become a part of this evening with Cora and J.D. It just sets up a dark and bleak reality for the show that is much more complex and destructive than Cora ever could have imagined.

The audience knows all of this going into this hour. We have the understanding that all of this is now replaying for Cora in her mind. The true reality of this weekend is coming back to her. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see how damaging these actions would ultimately become. Phoebe just wanted to be a teenager who broke the rules and got to experience life. Cora felt the need to listen to her. It was her role to play. She needed to offer Phoebe a version of life that was normal and not the carefully controlled world of their parents. Both Cora and Phoebe know that it was wrong to take Phoebe out into this environment. And yet, they did it anyway. That's the action that is truly destructive to this family unit. It frees Cora from the burden of her family. She is allowed to escape this horrible start to her life because of this weekend. It radically changes everything for her. But now, she's realizing her own role in all of it. She's seeing how damaging her own actions are. Perhaps Phoebe would still be alive if she didn't sneak her out of the house as well. But she just felt the need to gift her sister with something special for her birthday. That's the most chilling reveal of this hour. It's all building to that tragic ending. The audience can see it coming because we know that things have to go awry at some point. But actually experiencing it is extremely difficult and traumatizing. It's all so effectively inevitable as well.

There is also just so much more of an impact to Phoebe being the one who is killed during this weekend and not Maddie. All season long, Maddie has been the image of a dead girl killed from these crimes. It's the association Cora made in order to protect herself. She didn't want to realize her behavior led to her sister's death. So instead, she fixated on this image. First, it was the wallpaper of the club. Then, it was Maddie leading her around. None of it really made all that much sense. It added to the puzzle of this night. But now, Phoebe is able to step into that role for the evening. Maddie is simply nothing more than J.D.'s ex-girlfriend who got pregnant and threw herself into traffic to kill the baby. That's where Cora got that story to give to the detectives. But that's all the importance that Maddie really has in this story. She's hanging out on the outskirts of this experience ready to jump in and be with J.D. again. But it's ultimately just her being obsessive and clingy. He's able to send her away with relative ease. Her absence for all of these years could be explained away somehow. Right now, it's just important to realize that Phoebe is the one convincing Cora to take drugs with her, yelling at Cora about how she wants her sister to just die already and standing at the top of the steps leading her down into the basement that will forever change anything. Phoebe is the one in charge of this evening. She's the one pulling Cora into it. Cora still feels the urge to please her sister and give her a memorable experience in her life where she truly gets to live. But everything has a looming sense of dread to it as well.

All of this is coupled with the reveal that Frankie really was present at the club during this weekend. His parents had an alibi for him earlier in the season. But that turns out to be a lie as well. It's a lie they probably don't know about. He wasn't living with them. They believed he was still at school. But instead, he is here. He's here to play the music that will traumatize Cora. He's here to forever change her life. His role in all of this is simply seducing Phoebe. He's the boy she becomes attracted to. He's the boy she feels like opening up to. There are other guys at this party at the club. And yet, they are mostly irrelevant. It's just important that Frankie is present and that J.D. is pulling Cora away for his own reasons. The four of them are able to come together in that fateful basement - along with J.D.'s prospective business partner Todd. And there, the psychological damage only continues. Cora gives in to the pressure to continue having a good time despite her uncomfortable feelings. She wants to please her sister. The two of them are having sex alongside each other. Cora is with J.D. while Phoebe is with Frankie. But Cora is so out of it that she doesn't know that Phoebe's heart condition has knocked her out and Frankie has broken her chest trying to revive her. That's the central action that traumatizes Cora. All of this is built around Phoebe's death. She pulled her out to this evening of fun for her birthday. It ends in tragedy with Frankie unwittingly killing her. It will then lead to the guys buying the body in the woods and Cora being drugged and knocked out of it for the following two months. This gives Cora a reason to kill Frankie. It's an explanation that can be easily understood in the official investigation. The case for the body in the woods can be neatly wrapped up as well. All of this is life-changing information to have. But what will its impact be for the characters in the present day? Will this help Cora in a meaningful way? Or will she just be forever haunted by the role she played in her sister's death? That could be extremely crippling to her.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Part VII" was written by Liz W. Garcia and directed by Tucker Gates.
  • Ambrose and Mason have been significant characters throughout this season. Their perspective on things is very important to the main plot. And yet, their absences here aren't all that noticeable. In fact, the show is at its best here because of the extreme focus on Cora and the trauma she has endured over her lifetime. It's much more effective that way.
  • Of course, this episode is still essentially a two-hander that only works because of the phenomenal performances from Jessica Biel and Nadia Alexander. Without the two of them working together in such an intimate but destructive way, this ending wouldn't be as powerful as it is. It's important to get into the mindsets of these characters. The performances make that incredibly easy but also very traumatizing.
  • This is still a complicated episode between the sisters though. They are doing something wrong but are able to have some fun together. Phoebe is refusing to listen to Cora's rational sense to bring her back home. Cora is there for Phoebe after she has an accident on the ride to the club. But that just builds to the reveal that Cora was planning on moving in with J.D. and leaving the family home for good without Phoebe. That was destructive as well.
  • The big twist also feels unexpected because Cora's parents told Detective Ambrose that Phoebe died after Cora went missing. That made it feel like all of this time she died because she was abandoned by the one person she loved. But that turns out to be a lie as well. The parents have just accepted that Phoebe is dead even though she is still technically missing. They just don't share those details with the police.
  • This episode is very effective because it's all set in the past. It doesn't update the audience on what's going on in the present with Cora and Ambrose returning to this basement at the club. It provides so many answers. But it doesn't provide all of them. It's just set at the Fourth of July weekend. That's the most important part of this story. But there's still more to delve into regarding the two months that happened next where Cora was drugged and held against her will.