I have a couple of friends who are screenwriters who often express frustration and annoyance with movies and television shows that are propelled solely by “hiding the ball,” so to speak. They believe it’s a cheat. Viewers are so focused on finding the ball that they forgive — or don’t even notice — all the show’s weaknesses.
I concede that I am particularly susceptible to this trick — I will get so caught up in finding the ball that I ignore everything else, and if the ball is poorly hidden, I will judge a show accordingly. In that regard, I give USA Network’s The Sinner a mixed assessment, because while the ball was hidden well, it was almost as if it were hidden out of bounds. It was like an Easter Egg hunt where the kids spend an hour searching for eggs with the understanding that they’re all in the front yard only to discover that the last egg was hidden on the sewer grate out in the street.
In this case, that last egg is Dr. Patrick Belmont, the father of the initial murder victim, Frankie. Dr. Belmont was never a suspect nor a frequent presence on The Sinner (he appeared briefly twice before, in episodes II and III). The resolution isn’t exactly out of left field, but it is well behind the third base line. It’s hard to even call this a successful misdirection because we were never really given a reason to direct our attention toward Dr. Belmont in the first place.
To make the connection between Cora’s murder of Frankie in 2017 and the disappearance of Phoebe in 2012, Detective Ambrose makes a few leaps of his own. While Cora was able to piece together her memories of the 2012 night in question before J.D. knocked her out with an ashtray, she could not recall the subsequent two months. Once the DNA evidence on the buried body returns revealing it was Cora’s sister — and not Maddie — Ambrose tracks Maddie down to another city where she had changed her name. She reveals that J.D. had gotten involved in another scheme selling Oxycontin after the night Phoebe was killed. Ambrose then tracks down a business associate of J.D.’s to confirm he was still involved in selling Oxy before his death, and eventually Ambrose concludes that J.D. must have been in cahoots with an Oxy-prescribing doctor.
In fact, J.D. was blackmailing Dr. Belmont. After Frankie accidentally killed Phoebe on that July night in 2012, he called his father. Dr. Belmont drove over to the Beverwyck, sent Frankie on his way, and to protect his son, buried Phoebe’s body. He couldn’t bring himself to kill Cora, however, so he held her captive for two months, got her addicted to heroin, and then dumped her out on the street after having essentially brainwashing her memories away. J.D. knew enough to use that as leverage to coerce Dr. Belmont into prescribing Oxy for J.D.’s clientele.
Once Ambrose realizes that Frankie’s father is the only doctor in the equation, he puts two and two together. It’s only a matter of springing Cora from prison long enough to visit the Belmont home, where she is able to piece together those other hidden memories. She also gets lucky — because it would have been otherwise impossible to prove — when Dr. Belmont confesses rather than live with his guilt any longer.
While the confession is not enough to overturn Cora’s guilty verdict — she did kill Frankie Belmont, after all — the judge does reconsider her sentence. Instead of 30 years in prison, Cora is transferred to a psychiatric rehabilitation center with the possibility of parole in two years. It’s as happy an ending as one might expect, and the writers even somehow clumsily tie Ambrose’s sexual masochism back into Cora’s own self-hatred.
All in all, it’s a satisfying conclusion for the characters on The Sinner, and ultimately a mostly logical one. My only frustration comes in knowing that there were never really any clues that would have led viewers to Dr. Belmont. The best mysteries are those in which there is a trail of bread crumbs leading to the culprit that we would notice on a second viewing. There were no such bread crumbs here, just a loaf of bread lying beneath the couch that would have otherwise remained buried and molding had Ambrose not made a few lucky guesses.
As for whether there will be a second season, The Sinner was the top-rated new cable show of 2017, and when ratings are this good, there always remains the possibility. USA Network has categorized the show as both a “limited series” and an “anthology series,” so it’s hard to say what form a second season would take. Will it be an all new cast of characters in a new setting, or will Detective Ambrose return to solve another case? Showrunner Derek Simons tells THR that he hasn’t yet made a decision, but that all options are on the table should the USA Network decide to renew the series.