The Sinner, USA’s mystery anthology series, is back for a third season of “whydunit.” This time around, Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) is trying to get to the bottom of another fatal case in his upstate New York town of Dorchester, but the details of the case are vexing in a different way. In Seasons 1 and 2, Ambrose was trying to figure out why Cora Tannetti and Julian Walker committed murder. This time, he’s trying to figure out if Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer) committed a murder at all.
In the season premiere, we met Jamie, a popular high school teacher with a beautiful wife named Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley) who is due to give birth to their first child in a matter of weeks. On the surface, Jamie has the perfect suburban life in Dorchester, but all is not well with him. Jamie shared some secrets, both long ago and very recent, with a friend name college named Nick Haas (Chris Messina), who showed up at his house one night and caused him great distress. Nick wanted something from Jamie, something he felt Jamie owed him, and Jamie didn’t want to give it to him. Later, Nick would admit to Leela that he and Nick had been extremely close for about a year, but Jamie had to cut him off, because he was a “troubled guy.”
After a very tense dinner with Leela, Jamie and Nick went out for a late-night drive, during which Nick fatally crashed his rental car into a tree on a private road belonging to a mysterious artist named Sonya (Jessica Hecht). Jamie, in the passenger seat, was basically unscathed.
Ambrose met with Jamie the next day in a routine investigation, and found Jamie suspicious. Jamie’s story about what they were doing on Sonya’s road didn’t add up, and he was acting strangely, talking about how when Nick looked at him before he died, it was like he saw him for the first time. So Ambrose dug a little deeper into the wreck, and figured out that Nick didn’t die immediately on impact and Jamie didn’t call 911 right away, Jamie adjusted the radio after the crash, and Nick’s BlackBerry had been turned off and wiped clean of fingerprints. Jamie was clearly hiding something.
The final moments of the episode showed what happened in the crash. Nick and Jamie were driving toward Sonya’s house to do…something, and Jamie didn’t want to go. Nick was driving too fast, and Jamie pulled the emergency brake, causing the car to flip and crash. Nick went through the windshield and ripped his abdomen open, and he begged Jamie to call 911, but Jamie took his phone and shut it off. Nick watched him do this, and then quietly, cryptically, said “OK.”
Jamie didn’t intentionally kill Nick, but his actions amount to murder. The reason why Jamie let Nick die is the biggest question posed after The Sinner‘s premiere, but it’s far from the only one. In fact, there are nothing but questions, and so TV Guide got on the phone with executive producer and showrunner Derek Simonds to try to shed some light on some of them.
A theme in the first two seasons of The Sinner was how trauma can sort of warp people’s perceptions and compel otherwise good people to do bad things. Without getting too spoilery, will that be true this season as well?
Derek Simonds: Very much so, although I think this season we’re disrupting sort of the pattern set by the first two seasons in that the trauma is a little harder to locate with Jamie. I think it becomes clear what our theme and our message is of what that trauma is as we go on… I think in this case, this season, the trauma is something that we all collectively share.
The first episode is structured a little bit differently than the other two seasons, because here the crime comes at the end of the episode instead of the beginning. How was that decision made to sort of change up how the story gets told?
Simonds: It happened organically, just with the nature of the crime itself. I mean, first of all, as the show continues, and they’re more seasons, I don’t want the show to fall into a formula, or deliver the same experience. I want the show to keep trying to break new ground. And it felt like presenting the crime in the first act of pilot like we did in the first two seasons really felt like we were sticking to a pattern there. So I did have the intellectual sort of leaning towards what can we do to disrupt this in some way? And then the other thing that dictated the new structure, was that in Seasons 1 and 2 there was a very violent act that was kind of shocking and in your face and provided this jolt to the story. The particular nature of this crime is that we’re not sure if it’s the crime at all, in the first place, and it is just Ambrose’s suspicion, and that there are certain facts and testimonies from Jamie that don’t quite add up, that leads him to become increasingly suspicious. And then, of course, as he continues, we realize that correct by the end of the episode, but I think just that question of ‘Is there a crime at all or not?’ felt like an interesting way through the pilot where we’re with Ambrose’s suspicion and also his doubt that there might not be anything there. And then we get that answer definitively by the end of the first episode.
When Nick realizes that Jamie isn’t going to call 911, he seems resigned to it, almost relieved.
Simonds: Hopefully that comes through loud and clear. And it’s another question that the audience will ponder that will definitely be answered in future episodes. I think it’s a term that I get excited about, because it opens the door to a very complicated relationship, clearly. More complicated than we’ve seen up to that point in the pilot, you know, that someone would actually agree to their own murder. What kind of person does this and what kind of relationship has a pact that makes this possible? So, I think leaning into that at the end is exciting for me because it sort of launches us down the rabbit hole of Jamie and Nick’s very specific, twisted relationship.
What can you tease about Sonya and Jamie? Because they exchanged that look, and that was a look of people who know each other.
Simonds: I can’t really tease much without getting spoilery, but to say, why were Nick and Jamie racing to her house, of all people? And what is this look that’s a look of fear, that Sonya has regarding Jamie? What is she hiding? I mean, these are all questions that we intend to ask.
Can I ask why you didn’t use the take in the trailer where where Chris Messina does that super weird head movement?
Simonds: Yeah, I know. It’s a great moment, and I know a lot of people love it in the trailer and Chris missed it as well when he saw the pilot. I always choose the takes that feel most true to the character. If anyone looks back on that scene when Nick shows up at the door when they understand the full story, which is revealed throughout the season, they’ll realize that Nick is coming to Jamie’s house feeling very betrayed and hurt. He’s not a character who’s relishing putting Jamie in pain, he’s actually someone who’s been burned. And so I chose the take that felt more faithful to that versus the sort of Machiavellian, mustache-twirling villain who has the devilish smile, you know, which is an easy trap to fall into with the character of Nick, and Chris Messina and I spoke a lot about that, and he played with a lot of versions on set. But in our discussions we definitely agreed that the Nick and Jamie friendship, it’s so much about this deep bond between them. It’s not just about power and one man f—ing up another man’s life just because he’s evil. It’s a real friendship and has its own kind of love story without it being a romantic, erotic one. So we really talked a lot about honoring that, and staying really true to that, even when there were more Machiavellian opportunities in performance. The more heartbroken and true Nick was, the more compelling that relationship became.
The Sinner airs Thursdays at 9/8c on USA.