The Sinner is Over
Assessing the Final Season and the Series As A Whole
Warning: Spoilers for the entire fourth season and the season finale of The Sinner BELOW:
On Wednesday the fourth — and as we now know, final — season of USA’s slow drip procedural The Sinner came to an end. The showrunners couldn’t have known at the time that the series was going to be cancelled and yet despite that fact, they managed to come up with an ending that most likely couldn’t have been better for the description had they had any warning. I’ll go into detail on Season 4 before I assess the series as a whole.
For the run of Season 4 Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman’s finest hour) was trying to unearth the reason why local teenager Percy Muldoon the heir to the family legacy committed suicide before his eyes. Ambrose has always been haunted by the deaths that are at the center of every season, and in this case it was literal with images of Percy appearing before him throughout the series. The writer’s made it very clear that Percy was a mental projection of his, something trying to help him work through the girl’s death and his own demons.
Throughout the season he kept trying to figure out what led to Percy’s death, a spiraling path that ultimately came back to the complicated relationship between the Muldoon family and the Lams, Hong Kong immigrants who had made their way on the island and were regarded as outsiders by the residents of the town and barely considered above regard when it came to the Muldoons. Much of the hostility came down to the relationship between Percy and CJ, the Lam’s son, but as we learned in the finale, the story was far darker than that.
In the penultimate episode, it seemed likely that Percy had died because she had learned of the human trafficking operation that Sean her father and Colin, her halfbrother had been running in order to make ends meet for the failing fishing operation. But as we learned in the last episode, the secret was much darker than that. The Lam’s oldest son — Po, who until this episode we had assumed had returned to Hong Kong — was actually dead, and buried on an island the Lam’s had owned. In the centerpiece of the finale Harry finally elicited a confession from Sean as to the truth about it — and how that led to everything.
Two years earlier, the Muldoon family had learned Po had been using their boat to make traps of his own — ‘stealing’ in their mind. Sean, Colin and Percy all went out on the sea with Po to confront him, and it quickly turned ugly. Po, understandably bitter at how the wages for the Muldoons were horrible and that any chance of advancement for him or his family was never going to happen, started a fight with Sean. When things seemed to going ugly, Percy took out a gun and accidentally shot and killed him. Percy was shattered by it for the rest of her life. The rest of the Muldoons, however, did what so many rich white people do — they asked the Lams to name a price. In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the series, the father convinced his wife to let them get a permit for their own fishing boat — something they’d never get on their own — because the Muldoons would never pay for their crimes in the system of justice, because the Lams would be destroyed in the community anyway as collateral damage, and heartbreakingly because it ‘was what Po would’ve wanted’.
There were consequences in a sense for the sons who had led the trafficking operation, but I think the most painful scene of all was the final flashback in which Meg (Frances Fisher, magnificent) remembered her final moments with Percy in which her granddaughter tried desperately to tell her how much her murder of Po had destroyed her and the family — a truth that retrospectively was crystal clear — and Meg dismissed it. The last exchange she had with the granddaughter she considered her heir was: “Don’t talk about Po with the police.” Given everything we saw to that point, it is likely that’s the final push that caused Percy to jump not long after.
In the last scene Harry had his final ‘conversation’ with Percy in which he made it clear that he finally understood why she did what she did and what she spent the last two years of her life trying to get away from. She had spent that time trying to ‘leave’ but finally realized she never could. There seems to be a sense that when Harry finally looked up and she was gone that he might find a way to finally move on.
Season 4 was extremely dark, like all of the seasons of The Sinner, but in an odd way it was also the most hopeful — and in retrospect, the best message the series could end on. For the first time it seemed like everybody left in the Muldoon and the Lam was finally going to find a way to move on from the losses of the season. Its unclear if Harry would be capable of it — the last shot of him is very ambiguous — but the fact that he was able to say that he’d ‘found another way’ might mean that he could move on from the horrors that have been following him throughout the series and beyond.
I will confess I’m disappointed that this is the final season for the show — not just for the reasons I listed in my article about basic cable and streaming a few weeks earlier, but because I found it one of the most original dramas I’d seen in years of Peak TV. We’ve had our fill of series with bleak leading men investigating dark crimes but no one could ever look at Bill Pullman and mistake him for any of the leads of True Detective or David Tennant in Broadchurch, in my opinion the closest equivalent of this show. It’s not just that the series began with the violent death already resolved; its that it was trying to find a reason why these kinds of horrible things happen. That’s far more interesting than the most inventive whodunit, which was already running on fumes before the whole mystery procedural took a beating from real life this past year.
And Bill Pullman was truly magnificent as Harry. The closest equivalent to him I’ve seen in all my years of watching TV was Lance Henriksen’s portrayal of Frank Black on the 1990s drama Millennium. The key difference was Frank was haunted by trying in the killers head; Harry was trying to get inside the victim’s. Pullman also chose to be far more empathetic than Frank, and indeed most policemen in any TV series were. Part of it was an act, but there was genuine compassion and we saw more often then not the cost of it. For that reason, it might make sense that The Sinner ended this season — it stretched credulity a bit that a retired detective was allowed so many liberties; it’s hard to believe it would’ve worked in future seasons.
To be clear I don’t think The Sinner deserves to be considered one of the great series of the past decade. It certainly doesn’t deserve to rank in the same kind of crime anthology as Fargo or the more advanced procedurals like Justified. But there was a certain originality to it that frankly, I just don’t remember seeing on any other procedural, and few series in the era of Peak TV in general. It’s not an easy series to watch by any means and I understand why it had a small audience and was never regarded with the same critical awe as flashier dramas. I don’t think anybody could’ve foreseen that as a possibility when Jessica Biel started the series way back in the spring of 2017 or from the German novel its based and to go that far from your origin story is something of a miracle itself.