The Real Mystery of 'The Sinner' Is Jessica Biel's Character's Complicated Past

jessica Biel in The Sinner
USA Networks

Calling The Sinner uncomfortable is an understatement. At times, USA's new limited series, starring Jessica Biel as a young mother who stabs a man to death in broad daylight, is downright disturbing.

Biel stars as Cora Tannetti, who is relaxing on the beach with her husband (Christopher Abbott) and toddler son one minute, then committing a unspeakable, unexplainable crime in the next. The scene, chillingly directed by Antonio Campos (who gave us the equally macabre Christine last year), appears however to be cathartic to the protagonist, like a devastating but necessary ending of a long nightmare. In the immediate aftermath, soaked in blood, she stands still and spellbound -- until her husband wrestles her to the ground. That's just the first episode.

Jessica Biel's The Sinner
USA Networks

There are few characters like Cora on television. The show's introduction paints her as a rather plain, quiet woman. She may or may not be harboring a crippling secret, but she's been doing her due diligence as a thirty-something-year-old wife and mother, working full time and taking care of her family. There are signs early on in the series, increasingly so in the second and third episodes which I have previewed, that reveal a troubled childhood, rife with her mother's psychological and religious manipulation, which likely contributed to the torture she embodies into adulthood. As more of her story unfolds, told through her own words to detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), we're lured into an ever-changing account of events that make us as empathetic for her as we are terrified.

But still, we're not quite certain of the truth.

Jessica Biel The Sinner
USA Networks

Does Cora know the victim? Was the murder justified? Is Cora a victim of her own experiences, or a master manipulator herself? The Sinner grapples with each of these questions, drawing the audience into a narrative that makes us question our own moral code.  

While Cora is in prison, we see her visibly shaken, eyes darting left and right, as if she's desperately trying to regain some sense of control. At one point, she says to Ambrose "I think there's something wrong with me." The moment of introspection seems less of an admission of pity than an invitation for us to listen to her story. The show gives us the chance through flashbacks to understand why she did what she did, why it was justified. And ultimately why we need to be on her side.

That's what makes the show so gripping. You find yourself seduced by a woman whose rage may be long overdue. Whatever twist is in store for The Sinner, Cora is a murderer. We witness the crime ourselves. But, like many great female antiheroes before her, circumstance urges us to identify with her, and perhaps validate her most heinous acts. She's at first unsuspecting, meek and somewhat powerless , but then again she's fully capable of killing someone, a man whose reputation remains to be fully explored in the premiere (though subsequent episodes dig deeper) but is introduced as a happy-go-lucky, nice guy with a cute girlfriend.  So you want to understand Cora, for her to somehow overcome this. But we also still have so many unanswered questions.

The Sinner
USA Networks

The theme of religion is key to the show's past, present, and likely, future. There's Cora's upbringing, first presented in the flashbacks of her mother telling her to immediately get down on her knees and beg God for forgiveness for acts she deemed unholy. Faith then plays a role in how she recoils from murder, clearly traumatized by a fervent doctrine that taught repercussions for every sin. The next time we see Cora after the beach is at the jail, confessing and ready to accept her punishment because she knows it's the only way she can live with what she did. It's the right thing to do. But at what cost? As she tells more of her story, we're left asking ourselves what punishment she deserves, if any, and whether she could really be held accountable. What are the consequences for a woman whose male victim may not be as innocent as so many believed?

The Sinner incites conversations about what it means for a woman to commit an act considered so irredeemable. Cora's past, something's she's clearly worked hard to hide, comes bubbling to the surface though is told in measured amounts of information that give us, and Ambrose, just enough to chew on but not enough to vindicate her. An intriguing summer drama that already has us glued to the tube in a season of equally fantastic and unconventional women-led hits (including Insecure, Orphan Black, and Claws), The Sinner highlights a flawed protagonist without asking us to condemn or relieve her. She is in total control of doing so on her own.

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Candice Frederick is an award-winning journalist and editor (Essence Magazine), founder of Reel Talk Online, podcaster, and freelance TV and film critic. She also serves as a pop culture panelist on the ABC News Digital show, "Real Live." You can find her on Twitter or Facebook.