Season 3 of The Sinner was broadcast about a year ago on the USA Network, and dropped on Netflix just recently. If you haven’t watched this series before, and you are a fan of detective series in general, I highly recommend it.
Bill Pullman stars as Lieutenant Detective Harry Ambrose, a quirky detective if there ever was one. His performance reminds me of Peter Falk as Colombo. While Pullman’s approach to his character is quite different from Falk’s, the characters themselves are cut from the same cloth. Both are rumpled to the point of dishevelment, as if they sleep in their suits. Both exhibit eccentric behavior, the singular oddball of their respective departments. Both are extremely perceptive, picking up on emotional cues from their suspects, as well as physical clues at crime scenes, both of which help them identify the likely suspect. Both are determined to bring in their suspects, so that they don’t hurt themselves or others. Both are dedicated lawmen, putting their personal health and safety on the line while dealing with murderers. And, finally, both end up getting their man (or woman) in the end.
As played by Bill Pullman, Detective Ambrose is a collection of furtive glances and taciturn utterances. Since he barely speaks more than a few words or sentences at time, as if the act of talking is painful for him. Ambrose’s fidgety, edgy nature would immediately cause one to believe he is guilty of something. If he were the suspect, and not the detective, you would think he was the one who did it. Like Colombo, Ambrose hates sitting behind a desk. He’s much more comfortable inspecting a crime scene, or talking to a suspect. A desk jockey he is not, and never will be, sciatica be damned. Since Ambrose is not the one who commits the crimes in this series, you find yourself asking: what is up with Detective Ambrose? Why is he so uncomfortable in his own skin? Why does he act so guilty?
Over the course of three seasons, while Ambrose is solving an inscrutable case, we learn that while he is an excellent detective, he is also psychologically damaged. In season 1, we learned that his marriage ended when his wife learned of his affair with a dominatrix. In season 2, we learned that his mother suffered from extreme bipolar disorder, and mostly left him to take care of himself. As a teen, Ambrose set fire to his own house so that he could get his mother committed. In season 3, we learn that his father was largely absent in his life, and that Ambrose did not have any relationship with his father before he died. The Sinner posits that Ambrose is a good detective, or at least the appropriate detective for his cases, because he is just as psychologically damaged as the suspects.
Unlike Colombo, Ambrose knows who committed the crime early on. The Sinner has been called a whydunnit, since the question being asked each season is why would a seemingly normal person commit murder. Ambrose has an unspoken kinship with each suspect, since he knows trauma first hand and knows the devastating effect it can have on a person’s mental state. The only difference between Ambrose and his suspects is that he keeps himself together just enough to not act out on his feelings. In a way, his job is his therapy. His investigation into the motivations of his suspects forces him to deal with the trauma that made him the man he is. His psychological scars give him an empathy that his fellow detectives lack. His suspects come to learn this and trust him, even though his objective is to see them either behind bars or getting the help they need.
Season 1 had a showy turn by Jessica Biel as a young mom who committed murder on a sunny day at the beach with her family. Season 2 had an excellent turn by Carrie Coon as the leader of a cult, where a young boy kills two members who abducted him in an effort to free him from said cult. While watching the preceding two seasons would be helpful for understanding Ambrose as a character, it isn’t strictly necessary for watching season 3. (In fact, you even could watch the three seasons in random order, and enjoy them just the same.)
Season 3 has a dominating performance by Matt Bomer. Bomer plays Jamie Burns, a teacher at a prep school, happily married with a baby arriving in a few weeks. His wife loves him, he has a great job and his students adore him. Feeling ennui over his current life, he calls up Nick Haas (Chris Messina), a college friend he hasn’t spoken to in eighteen years. After meeting in the city for dinner and drinks, Nick winds up dying in a car crash on a private road. Jamie survives, but evidence from the scene of the crash points to Jamie effectively letting Nick die from his injuries. Based on crime scene evidence, Ambrose knows that Jamie did not call 911 immediately after the crash, but why?
As the season unfolds, we learn that Jamie and Nick were extremely interested in existentialist philosophy in college. Nietzsche was their inspiration, and they took his teachings to the extreme. If life is pointless, then it doesn’t matter what risk you take, since you could die at any moment. Jamie and Nick turn into adrenaline junkies, risking their lives so that they feel alive. At one point they bury each other alive. After a year of living on the edge, Jamie abruptly leaves college and never speaks to Nick again. Why Jamie decided, after eighteen years, to bring Nick back into his life again is not made clear. I mentioned ennui previously, but I would guess Jamie realized that once his child was born, his life would no longer be his. He wanted excitement and danger back in his life before becoming a father, and didn’t realize that his mind would completely revert back to where he was as a college undergrad. Again, I’m speculating here, and I wish the season had made the reasons behind Jamie’s sudden change in personality more clear.
Another aspect that was a bit frustrating was that in the intervening years, Nick had killed other people for no reason. Nietzsche’s philosophy is given as a basis for Nick’s amorality: if there is no God, no heaven or hell, then there is no reason to feel guilt from harming others. A philosophy professor from Jamie and Nick’s undergraduate year explains to Ambrose that Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch was for man, in the absence of God, to develop his own philosophy. Nick descended into nihilism and committed murder as part of his elevation above societal mores. Nick explains to Jamie that he won’t really feel free until he kills another person. When he lets Nick die, Jamie finds himself still under Nick’s influence. In his pursuit of Nick’s higher plane of existence, Jamie loses his marriage and career. Jamie tries to bring Ambrose around to his way of thinking, but Ambrose is a lawman at heart. He can’t let a murderer like Jamie go free, even if he gains insight into his tangled psyche. Damaged as he is, Ambrose lives his life by a code: protecting others and bringing criminals to justice. Ambrose would sacrifice his life for that code, a way of living that Jamie believes is pointless.
Nick convinced Jamie that since we will all die one day, at any time, and will lose whatever we gained in life, life is meaningless. For Nick, life is a solitary existence, so do whatever you want because when you die, that’s it. While I understand the point Nick is making, it leaves out several important aspects of life as human beings: other people and love.
Jamie has a loving and supportive wife, a child on the way and is revered by his students. I would think that these factors would override Nick’s “do whatever you want” philosophy, but as I mentioned before, Nick’s adrenaline-fueled existence proves to be too intoxicating for Jamie. I didn’t find Jamie’s sudden regression very convincing, but Bomer’s performance makes Jamie a compelling character to watch. Jamie’s definitely a sensitive soul, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and cares deeply for others. Like Ambrose, he has some sort of deep-rooted trauma over the death of his mother when he was a child, and his father was not being supportive in her absence. Common familial dysfunction forms the initial bond between Nick and Jamie, and Jamie attempts to recruit Ambrose on the same basis, but ultimately fails. As pointless as Ambrose’s life may appear to Jamie, Ambrose has a code to live by, which is a stronger belief system than chaos and random chance.
Bomer plays Jamie as a live wire, someone who could either burst into tears or crush your head with a rock at a moment’s notice. Jamie’s descent from emotional fragility to amoral killer is effectively portrayed by Bomer. I remembered the excellent work he did in The Normal Heart a few years back. He has a knack for portraying emotionally frayed characters, and dangerous ones as well. In The Sinner, he’s playing both the victim and the killer, a difficult act to pull off.
Pullman’s acting has always been hard to categorize. He’s a leading man struggling to be a character actor. With his gruff voice and squinty eyes, he’s an excellent fit for offbeat material. He made a splash in the late Eighties with Spaceballs (1987) and The Serpent in the Rainbow (1988), then seemed to gravitate towards smaller, character-driven roles. He played the president in Independence Day (1997) and a killer in Lost Highway (1997) who “escapes” by becoming another person. Pullman seems drawn to roles that involve physical and/or emotional pain: Dark Waters (2019), The Last Seduction (1994), The Grudge (2004), While you were Sleeping (1995). His turn in Zero Effect (1998) is probably closest to Detective Ambrose, and I definitely recommend seeking it out. At one point, Ambrose experiences hallucinations while buried alive. His visions force him to think about his non-existent relationship with his father, his troubled relationship with his mother, and his new relationship with Sonya (Jessica Hecht). Perhaps Ambrose will eventually come to terms with his troubled past. And maybe Pullman, through his challenging acting choices, will come to terms with whatever demons he’s trying to deal with, or excise. Any way you slice it, The Sinner is very intriguing to watch.