This week’s episode of THE SINNER continued to get real weird. After revealing at the end of last week’s episode that Cora was definitely abducted — or at least held hostage in some sense — for the two months she doesn’t remember by some weird wallpaper ski mask cult (extrapolating, a bit…), we dive further into trying to figure out what happened to Cora. Cora investigates her own memories through a psychologist, who works with her through guided relaxation to recover repressed memories. Harry continues to follow leads he gets from the breadcrumbs Cora drags up from her past. And Cora’s husband, Mason, continues to investigate in his own kamikaze way. By the end of the episode, we’ve gotten somewhere — but the “answer” we get just opens up a whole can of worms and more questions.
Cora’s guided meditation brings her back to the last night she remembers before everything goes dark. We see the flashbacks of her at the bar that Harry investigated previously, with the semi-mysterious and totally shady J.D. But the new addition to the flashbacks is Maddie, J.D.’s girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend, as Cora says at some point, although it’s a bit unclear), and Cora then remembers dancing with Maddie, who was definitely incapacitated by drinking or drugs or both, and scared to leave with J.D. and Cora. Unable to fully delve into her memories due to a trauma she hasn’t yet pinpointed, Cora gets distracted by a memory of a school bus driving past her as a child, but doesn’t know how it connects.
In the flashback sequences we’ve been getting about Cora’s childhood, separate from recovering her memories, we see Cora’s sick sister pressuring her to be more adventurous, in a specifically sexual fashion, since Phoebe herself can’t leave the house and have these experiences due to her illness. It’s a weird twist, for Phoebe to be pressuring Cora into having sex with the neighbor boy so she can live vicariously through her — and potentially watch from her window — because at first it seemed like, although there was some sort of sexual trauma in her youth, it was coming from her father. Now it seems as though it’s coming from Phoebe; although it’s hard to call it abuse per se, because Phoebe is younger and sick and mostly immobile and for all intents and purposes a peer, there are some strange power dynamics between Phoebe and Cora.
Now that they’re a bit older in the flashbacks, they’re very close, and spend a lot of time together quietly rebelling against their strict, religious upbringing. That said, it’s hard not to think about the fact that Cora grew up feeling in many ways like Phoebe was her responsibility. Her mother made it very clear that any time Phoebe got sicker, it was the fault of Cora’s sin. So while it mostly, sort of seems like normal teenage exploration of burgeoning sexuality, there’s also a skewed power dynamic here because Cora must feel on some level that her actions directly, physically impact her sister. And if her sister wants to vicariously have this experience that Cora is nebulously comfortable with, it’s easy to see how she would have difficulty saying no.
In the real world, and present day, Harry talks to people involved with J.D., namely a woman who at one point became involved with Maddie around the time Cora befriended them. Maddie and J.D. told her that they were polyamorous, but J.D. ended up robbing her. When she told Maddie, Maddie freaked out, and made the woman think that J.D. was a sinister figure in Maddie’s life. Maddie, for her part, is nowhere to be found in the present day.
Harry puts pressure on Cora in her next session to get specifics of that night. Although Cora’s flashbacks are chaotic and dark and creepy (and really well shot), it’s hard to get specifics. Something bad clearly happened that night. Cora remembers going downstairs at the house J.D. and Maddie brought her to, and the basement we never quite see is definitely papered with the wallpaper Cora frequently flashes back to throughout the first few episodes. (She describes it as being like the patterns on a dollar bill, which isn’t inaccurate visually, but makes me a little worried we’re going to end up in crazy cult territory, but who knows.) And then she gets stuck on the memory of that school bus again.
Curious and dogged, Harry goes on a walk with his wife, whom he’s still trying to mend things with, in the woods that he believes Cora was in in one of her memories. When walking through the woods, he finds a derelict school bus there, which is obviously why Cora kept thinking about a school bus. Next to the school bus is a patch of relatively recently upturned dirt, covered with fresh growth — so Harry gets a team in there immediately, and surprise surprise, they uncover a body which, it seems, is Maddie’s.
It’s hard to say where The Sinner is going, which is possibly a good thing. But every week things seem to get further away from a simple psychological drama, and closer to something much weirder. It could be a good weird — it could be a totally unexpected solution, something creepy and cool and new and worth exploring. Or we’re going to end up in some sort of basement Illuminati cult with ritual sex murders. Y’know. The usual suspects.
Season 1, Episode 4 (S01E04)
The Sinner airs Wednesdays at 10PM on USA
Alyssa Thorne | Contributor