SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the second season finale of “The Sinner” on USA.
The second season of “The Sinner” revealed the motives behind young murderer Julian’s (Elisha Henig) crime well ahead of its second season finale, so what became most important about wrapping up the anthology story was unraveling the truth of the secrets behind the inciting incident of his double homicide.
“We have to move into the full feelings around our traumas if we ever want to move past them. Compartmentalizing them is what creates havoc and imbalance,” showrunner Derek Simonds tells Variety.
Julian’s story didn’t center simply on trauma he experienced but instead focused on those in his immediate orbit — from his birth mother Marin (Hannah Gross), who was raped by her friend’s father (Tracy Letts), which caused her to get pregnant with Julian in the first place; to his adoptive mother Vera (Carrie Coon), who lived under the patriarchal rule of a communal living compound for years before finally taking a stand and flipping it around to become the leader herself; to Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), drawn to Julian’s case because of how he saw the younger version of himself mirrored in part of Julian’s story.
While Julian killed two members of the Mosswood community in which he was raised out of “fear and protection,” says Simonds, the direct reason behind his crime was less important than unpacking the psychology of the parenting and the “system around the child.”
“When Mosswood came into focus, and then in particular, Vera came into focus, there were just so many mysteries and questions around, what is the nature of this community? What do they believe in? What values would they have raised Julian with that are deemed aberrant by society but are not necessarily aberrant, they’re just different?” says Simonds. “Ultimately what we wanted to do was elicit people’s suspicions and then upend them in interesting ways and show that there is a lot of gray area [in] these communities.”
Here, Simonds talks with Variety about the importance of Vera’s parenting to Julian’s story, Ambrose’s progress or lack thereof, and the amount of closure with which he wanted to leave the audience.
There was a connection between Ambrose and Julian, where Ambrose saw himself in the boy, and Julian felt like he could trust Ambrose. How instrumental was that bond in getting Julian to a place where he could stand up to Vera and make the decision to not continue running with her?
Whether or not Julian committed these murders and incited this whole story, there was going to be a reckoning between Julian and Vera at some point as he aged. He couldn’t stay at Mosswood forever — he would start questioning things, he would start becoming a young man, and Vera wasn’t prepared for that. She was so committed to living in this bubble. So it was an interesting conflict of, is she creating this beautiful Eden for her son? Yes. And is she imprisoning her son in this limited world? Yes. And how do you reconcile that?
Vera was certainly a suspicious character in the beginning for all of her secret-keeping, but she had good intentions.
From the very beginning when I pitched the role to Carrie Coon and we were having discussions before she actually committed, I definitely highlighted the idea that Vera is a very committed, loving mother who has these dark secrets in her past, and when we reveal those secrets we realize she was quite heroic in transforming this toxic, patriarchal commune-verging-on-cult into a matriarchy that actually corrected the exploitations that occurred in the past. We wanted to explore what it [is like] being a woman today, grappling with the legacy of patriarchy and trying to turn over a new leaf with a matriarchy, and how it’s very difficult when you have that legacy to contend with.
Vera ended up putting Julian, putting motherhood ahead of Mosswood and her larger sense of responsibility. But when he didn’t go with her, she destroyed her home, rather than return to try to rebuild. Do you see this as a tragic end or a chance for a fresh start?
I think the tragedy of Vera is she has a certain pride as a parent in believing she can fashion a new human being with the values that she espouses. And I love the story because to me it’s very much an investigation of parenting in general. There is an egotism in a lot of parenting — especially the helicopter parenting — where parents are really trying to shape their children and often trying to correct the trauma they’ve experienced by fixing it in the lives and development of the children. So I see Vera having suffered under this patriarchy for such a long time that she is committed to creating this new man. She believes that these new values are something good in the world and Julian is a symbol of that. But there is too much control over that, and she’s destined to fail, and she’s destined to have to let him go.
Ambrose also ended up connecting with Vera, even if unintentionally, through the work they did at Mosswood. How much has he changed for the better through this experience?
Every case that Ambrose encounters is forcing him on a step in his own inner development. It’s very much the revelation of the work he did with Vera in that cabin scene, it’s very marked by the fact that at the height of exposure he stopped the tape. He would rather keep this in the confines of recordings than really grapple with it. So to me at the end of that scene when we find him in the hotel room, I don’t think he’s quite ready to absorb it all and integrate it and talk about it and move forward with it. It’s kind of been put back into the back compartment of his psyche. So, it’s going to be a continuing struggle. … There’s this really self-destructive element — his desire for oblivion. There’s more of a desire to not feel anything anymore than there is to move into all of the feelings that he has. And I think that’s a problem and kind of the thesis of the show.
And learning his long-time friend raped a young girl and he had no idea has to weigh on him, too.
I think Jack Novack is another reflection of what we were just talking about — he’s a man who won’t talk about his past with his daughter, he won’t digest the grief he felt about the loss of his wife with his daughter [and] she’s longing for it and suffering because he’s not able to do that and tied to him in an unhealthy way because of it. And so here is a character who on the surface is a small town guy who knows everyone in town and runs this popular establishment and is well-liked, and he, too, has these unresolved feelings that, in this one perfect storm of a moment, come out with Marin in a very tragic way. I, and the writers — we definitely approached that as a rape. We were really careful in the writers’ room to highlight that, throughout the season, we might be really suspicious of Mosswood and all of these terrible secrets — and yet that kind of shadow behavior can also happen within your own family [or] right next door to you. We’re all capable of these things, given the right circumstances.
The revelation that Jack, who was not only Ambrose’s friend but also Heather’s (Natalie Paul) dad could be capable of such a heinous act unleashes new traumas for characters, but it comes right at the end of the season. How do you feel about the level of resolution with which you’re leaving the audience?
Ambrose seems to have found a peace watching Julian with Heather in Niagara Falls. Do you consider his story done, to instead follow someone else into a third season?
No, season by season Ambrose is always the linking character, and with that in mind I’ve been mindful not to solve Ambrose’s character. As our flawed, troubled protagonist, we wanted to see him continue to unpack himself in the course of solving these cases. For me, it’s all cumulative. … Ambrose’s world is not a world we’re reinventing every season so there might be a mention of Julian Walker or of Vera Walker in season 3. And I already have in mind that the events of season 2 have pushed Ambrose psychologically into a new place. … So for me it’s all cumulative, whether or not we see the characters again. I’m definitely thinking of these seasons as a larger arc for Ambrose.