Wednesday, August 1, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Sinner' - Ambrose Returns to His Hometown to Investigate a Young Boy Killing His Parents in 'Part I'

USA's The Sinner - Episode 2.01 "Part I"

A troubled detective returns to his hometown to investigate why a young boy would kill his parents.

Once again, The Sinner presents an interesting case where the audience is completely aware of who was responsible for a vicious crime but the motivation is such a profound mystery. It is a solid idea to build an anthology series around too. Last season was so focused on the mystery swirling around Cora and how her repression of her own memories left her traumatized to the point she was willing to kill someone. It was a very careful and delicate journey into the mind of someone who just wanted to understand what happened. Of course, Bill Pullman's Detective Harry Ambrose was along every step of the way too. And now, the show appears to be building a franchise around his character with him going from case to case where he's examining the personal and complicated motivations for some truly heinous crimes. So, the show presents a case where a young boy kills his parents. It seems pretty obvious what happened. The car broke down while the family was going on a trip to Niagara Falls. They spent a night in a hotel room while waiting for a mechanic. Julian went to get some tea for his parents from the hotel breakfast bar. He instead gave them poison and they were quickly killed in their hotel room. It's such a gripping and uncomfortable opening sequence for the season as well. There is fear permeating throughout every single action because the audience has been trained to suspect that something horrible is about to happen. Placing the mystery of the season on a child after Jessica Biel was so compelling in the first season could be a significant problem. But the show is also putting in the work to examine more of the supporting ensemble this time around even though Ambrose is the only character who returns from the first season. Even then, it's abundantly clear that this is a show fundamentally about repression and trauma. That affects everyone's memories because we are actively choosing to remember things even though we may act differently based on our bodies having a different set of memories from our minds.

Of course, "Part I" has to establish why Ambrose is brought onto this case in the first place. It doesn't happen in Dorchester like the first season's case did. If it did, then that would be way too convenient and possibly be indicative of some additional disturbing qualities to that environment. Instead, the show is highlighting that the season is going to be a personal journey for Ambrose as well. Now, his personal life wasn't the most compelling element of the first season. He was trying to reconcile with his wife after a separation but became too obsessed with Cora's case to give her the attention she needed. Here, the show reveals that he is still working out of the same precinct with the same partner. He's lamenting not getting to see his grandson. But it seems like things have gone back to normal for him on the job. He is a detective in this community and obsessed with foliage in a way that no one really understands at all. That is a quirky detail of his that once again proves to be a key plot point. Ambrose is the one who makes the observation that Julian took a plant near the hotel's main lobby and used it to kill his parents. It's knowledge that Ambrose has because he sees the wounds on Julian's hands as well as the accessibility of the plant. That allows him to come with a firm understanding of what happened in this case right away. He and his new partner don't have to wait around for a toxicology report to come back to confirm the findings. They knew it had to have been a poison of some kind. Ambrose's expertise is just easily put on display to prove the value of having him make the trek back to his hometown.

Ambrose is only brought onto this case because the detective who catches it is still in a trial run as an investigator and also happens to be the daughter of an old friend of Ambrose's. Now, Heather seems like a very capable detective. She understands that she needs to handle this case sensitively because of the severity of the crime and the minor involved. She doesn't want to mess it up because she sees a strong future for herself in the department. She doesn't want to be demoted back to life as a uniformed officer. She is building a future for herself by focusing on her career and caring for her father. Of course, Jack seems much more carefree and wants his daughter to enjoy the world more. He is appreciative of all that she does for him even though she is very worried about his health too. They have such a close relationship. Heather feels confident in reaching out to Ambrose even though it has been a long time since they've spoken. It takes a moment for Ambrose to even recognize who Heather is on the phone. But she presents him with this case and he returns to the hometown he abandoned years ago. The story seems to be highlighting the differences that come from one man being able to escape and forget his past while the other built a happy life within it. Ambrose doesn't remember all of the shenanigans he and Jack got into when they were teenagers. Nor have they been all that close as adults. They are still friendly enough with each other. But things are still awkward when it comes to paying for food. Ambrose still wants to extend that courtesy even though Jack wants to be more than welcoming and accommodating to his friend. But again, there's the ongoing mystery of something happening in Ambrose's own past that explains why he left this town and hasn't been back for fifteen years. That too could be a compelling plot thread to this season. It's already starting to unravel with all of the images of a fire bursting through Ambrose's memories.

However, the core focus for the season needs to be on the new case. In that regard, there are many mysteries that are starting to pile up. Again, it could be absolutely terrifying to think that a child is capable of having so much hatred and anger towards his parents that he is willing to kill them. The moment in that hotel room is very telling as well. This isn't something that happens very quickly and in a planned method. It's random that the family has to stop for the night. Julian isn't given the opportunity to strike until he sees the plants just outside of the main office. But again, that sight is enough to motivate him into action. But the night before is still full of clues with his mother needing to comfort him out of fear that he has once again been plagued by a terrifying nightmare. So much about Julian is a mystery. He is an unnerving presence. At first, he seems like a regular kid who doesn't think too highly of his parents. He has a bond with his mother but doesn't tolerate his father's humor or observations of the world. Moreover, the parents seem like they are being too overprotective of him. The mom wants him kept out of sight and in her safe care at all times. But it's still arousing to her when her husband is able to calm her down in saying that everything is alright. That's a moment that Julian interrupts as well. This appears to be nothing more than an average family where the parents are making some familiar choices that have the potential of traumatizing a child. But everything does take a twist as soon as the action points out the sips of the tea and the coughs that start to come up. It's not long before Julian's father collapses in the shower and dies instantly from hitting the tile floor. Then, his mother collapses as well but it's slower and more agonizing. She seizes before actually laying motionless as well. And yes, it is traumatizing to Julian. He sits alone in the subsequent foster home being unwilling to say anything about his life or what happened in the hotel room. But he also put rocks over his parents' eyes for a reason. That has to be an important symbol in this story.

Moreover, it seems likely that the people killed in this premiere aren't even Julian's parents. Things are being kept hidden. They were traveling with this story of going to Niagara Falls for a vacation. And yet, they were traveling in the wrong direction. They were two and half hours from wherever their destination was suppose to be. But it's unclear just how much everyone was participating in whatever this road trip was. Julian didn't have anything with him. That makes it seem likely that he may have been abducted by this couple who were looking to have their picture perfect family for the first time. But the mother doesn't have any identification on her either. That's strange especially when traveling. She makes a big deal about not having her wallet when it comes to pay for the hotel room. But that is chocked up as an honest mistake. When the police are examining the belongings of the vehicle, things come into more focus. Something is off with this family. That was already clear throughout the questioning of Julian. Heather was doing her best to get him to answer her questions. But he was still responding in vague statements before an almost complete shift in his personality. That was startling and unexpected. It shocks Heather. It's not something that she has ever seen before. As such, it's meaningful to explore a potential psychosis and underlying issue that plagues Julian's young mind. That seems to be what the show is inferring here especially when it brings Carrie Coon's mystery woman into the picture. At first, she is presented as someone trying to coach Julian through his reality. But things appear to be more sinister than that because she's talking about a shadow self within him that he has to allow to take over his body from time to time. That's mysterious and cryptic. But then, this woman shows up at the precinct claiming to be Julian's mother. So, the investigation is bound to get more complicated for Ambrose and Heather as they try to navigate what actually happened to Julian and just how guilty he is in this case.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Part I" was written by Derek Simonds and directed by Antonio Campos.
  • It's so fascinating to see Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts appearing on the same show. They are married in real life. But it also seems incredibly unlikely that their characters will ever appear in the same scenes together. Coon's mystery woman shows up as a connection to Julian while Letts' character is a way into Ambrose's past because he remembers their teenage years. They seem to be in separate stories. That's an intriguing decision made for a real-life couple.
  • Jack needs to tell Ambrose that Heather is gay. That feels like such a stunted, expositional moment. It almost plays as the show wanting to be more inclusive and diverse this season. Heather is already quite an active character. But knowing she is gay and actually seeing her have a gay moment are two completely different things. Visibility is just as important as the words spoken by the characters.
  • There is already a time table when it comes to this case as well. Ambrose is pretending to be there under the guise of coming home to see Jack. Heather invited him and wants his help. They are investigating together but her boss didn't sign off on that. But once they file charges against Julian, things will happen very quickly because he's a minor. Moreover, it's going to take a week before the toxicology report can come back to confirm Ambrose's findings.
  • Detective LeRoy wasn't a major part of the first season. But he appears here as well in order to walk into the precinct with Ambrose as he gets surprised with a birthday cake. He mostly pops up to show that there is continuity amongst the seasons even though Ambrose moves away from the precinct shortly thereafter. There isn't even an update on what he's up to. But again, he wasn't really interesting or necessary last season.
  • Ambrose really should be the only character from the first season who continues to appear in this new story as well. Sure, it's still forced and convenient for him to once again be investigating a case like this where the detectives have to delve into the mind of a deeply traumatized individual. But it's a strong focal point. I just hope that he doesn't have a moment of crisis where he has to retreat to some past relationship that appeared in the first season.