The first season of USA’s The Sinner was a big surprise — who knew that Jessica Biel had that kind of raw and powerful dramatic performance in her? The second season (premiering Aug. 1st) will either be much less or even more of a surprise, depending on whether you’ve heard of the anthology drama’s new leading lady, Carrie Coon.
For three seasons on HBO’s The Leftovers, Coon was the best actor on television, going to astonishingly deep and painful places as a woman who had lost her entire family and hated herself for continuing on without them. And she was the highlight of Fargo Season Three as a sensible cop in an increasingly senseless world. But almost nobody watched The Leftovers and even Fargo was only a boutique hit for FX, which means that if Sinner viewers recognize Coon at all, it may be from small roles in big movies like Gone Girl and The Post.
The first season had Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) trying to figure out why Biel’s young mother Cora Tannetti randomly stabbed a man to death. Coon’s character, Vera, isn’t the killer in this new storyline; rather, she’s the leader of an isolated small-town cult that produces both our new adult victims and the young boy, Julian (Elisha Henig), who’s poisoned them. Neither Harry nor Heather (Natalie Paul from The Deuce), a rookie detective from his hometown who asks him to consult on the case, can figure out the reasons why.
It’s a smart way to mix and match elements of the original so the sequel doesn’t just feel like a rehash of what worked the first time. Instead of another mom, our puzzling killer is a kid. And this time, the flashbacks to a gradually-explained childhood trauma go to Harry himself, who’s not wild about being back in this place — even if he’s old friends with Heather’s father, Jack (Coon’s husband, the playwright Tracey Letts).
Though there are oblique references to Harry’s failed marriage and the Tannetti case, Season Two is completely newcomer-friendly. I was able to follow everything despite having lost interest in the original story midway through — not even Biel’s performance was enough to overcome the the first season’s relentlessly dour quality.
And while this new batch of episodes isn’t exactly a laugh riot, it’s weirder than its predecessor, and not just because Henig has an unnerving, wide-eyed stillness that serves the early episodes well. Strange things are afoot at Vera’s compound, involving some kind of unconventional therapy sessions she used to conduct with the boy, a mystery object inside a barn and perhaps Heather’s long-missing high school girlfriend. It may run out of steam, too, but it feels like a story better-designed to play out over a full season; there are so many more moments that will inspire profanity-laced questions about what could be happening here.
It’s in those more bizarre parts of the story that Coon gets to tap into some of those primal emotional moments that became her Leftovers stock in trade. The early emphasis is on Julian, and when we see Vera, she’s an imposing and self-righteous figure — but she’s also someone who plays things close enough to the vest that it doesn’t quite feel like a showcase role. As we start to see both Julian and the compound through her eyes, the match of actress and role begins to feel more seamless. In particular, there’s a moment in the third episode inside the barn where Coon is so physically alive, it’s mesmerizing.
At one point, Vera warns the detectives that Julian “is so far beyond anything you can understand. You have no idea.” With a few more moments like that barn scene, The Sinner viewers may come to feel the same way about Carrie Coon.