If you still think of Jessica Biel as Mary Camden, headstrong eldest daughter on The WB’s long-running family drama 7th Heaven, her return to television in USA Network’s The Sinner (Wednesdays beginning Aug. 2 at 10pm ET/PT) is about to blow your mind. Biel executive produces and stars in the eight-episode event series based on Petra Hammesfahr’s page-turner, playing Cora Tannetti, a small-town mom whose life revolves around her job and her family.
Until a day at the beach goes very, very wrong.
Was Cora thinking suicide when she nearly swam too far out to return? While her husband, Mason (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), tries to make sense of it, Cora watches as a bikini-clad girl climbs into her boyfriend’s lap … and something snaps. Cora plunges the knife she’d been using to slice up a pear into the young man’s neck, in a frenzy and in full view of her family and the other folks on the beach. No question she’s now a killer. The mystery is why. A mystery Cora, who endures fleeting recollections of a childhood gone terribly wrong, can’t (or doesn’t want to) figure out, either.
At the pilot episode’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere, Biel explained her attraction to the twisty tale, telling fans and reporters that “the tracking of what she knows, what she remembers, what she thinks she remembers, what is a lie, what was told to her and when she is lying — it’s very complicated. … I just wanted to play that girl.”
Wading through the complexities of Cora’s personality and predicament becomes the job — and then the obsession — of the town’s world-weary Detective Harry Ambrose, played by Bill Pullman. Ambrose harbors a few secrets of his own and sees something in the dazed young woman that convinces him to resist the town’s and his colleagues’ demand to wrap the case up quickly, and to figure out what makes Cora tick. And what made her kill.
“It’s a natural, human instinct to live in denial a little bit, and the body reacting to traumatic things is, ‘Oh, if I could just go to sleep, maybe it’d help,’” says Pullman. “Harry finds himself surrounded by people who are going to sleep about Cora. They find it embarrassing and they don’t want to deal with it — whereas he grows even more intensely identified with peeling back the onion of what may have motivated her to commit a violent and stunning murder.”
Eventually an uneasy bond forms, teaching both more about themselves than they might care to know. “What starts as a lot of resistance to Harry Ambrose eventually builds into an awareness that maybe there is something that ties us together that she commits to,” Pullman says. “She’s not able to trust me until we go through a certain amount of time where she realizes why I’m helping her.”
Still, Pullman says, a happy ending may not be in the offing for either wounded soul.
“As much as Ambrose is really contained, there is that sense of what a snap would be like — that it is always present and, in certain scenes, really right out the front door waiting. Eventually there is going to be something of a snap in the cards.”