Freud famously remarked that a person’s true identity is revealed when they’re pushed to their “visceral limit.” The murder that opens USA Network’s The Sinner plays out like a shocking confirmation of this assertion.
At the beach with her husband and son, Cora Tannetti glowers at a couple whose make-out session is progressing well beyond the bounds of public decency. “They’re just having fun,” her husband assures her. Cora whittles away at the pear in her hands, a rigid expression on her face. When the girl untangles from her boyfriend long enough to play a synth-pop song at full blast, something inside Cora snaps. She drops the pear, rises, and advances toward the couple, brandishing the knife.
Behind each malicious act is a whole constellation of “liturgies,” deeply ingrained (and often unexamined) habits that form and de-form our hearts, and “aim” them in a certain direction.What happens next is so sudden, so primitive, and so appalling that it’s difficult to imagine any of the show’s remaining episodes matching its intensity. The Sinner appears to begin with its climax.
Since the show bills itself as a “why-dunnit,” the rest of the series centers on the enigma of Cora. Though the pacing falters a bit at times, this conceit works, thanks in large part to a truly mesmerizing performance from Jessica Biel whose dynamic range anchors the story. As an actor, Biel is capable of embodying both fearsome volatility and fragile vulnerability, often within the span of a single scene. Just watching her body language is a lesson in visual storytelling.
Understandably, local law enforcement is baffled by the homicidal behavior of this seemingly well-adjusted wife and mother. To make matters worse, not only does Cora have no explanation for her lethal outburst, she’s unwilling to accept any outside counsel or legal advice, insisting on a guilty plea with no contest.
Rather than her court-appointed lawyer interceding for her, it’s a detective named Harry Ambrose. Portrayed with heartbreaking conviction by Bill Pullman, Harry is a deeply damaged man whose self-loathing is matched by a perverse appetite for pain and humiliation at the hands of a local prostitute. He’s easily one of the saddest television characters I’ve encountered in a long time, and his wounded persona evokes both pity and disgust in the viewer. Like Biel, Pullman’s is an intensely physical performance, and his wizened demeanor reveals more than does most of his dialog. In fact, it is Harry’s own deep-seated trauma that grants him insight into the hidden motivations behind Cora’s crime.
Derek Simonds, the show’s creator, has said, he was concerned with ways we process trauma, especially the role of intimate connections in healing trauma, which is necessary to prevent it from surfacing in other ways. And so, “[through] the relationship of [detective Harry] Ambrose and Cora, I had this design of two people who are suffering from their own traumas finding this unlikely intimacy with each other and the opportunity to heal.”
Augustine of Hippo argued that we are nothing more than the sum of our loves. Despite the theological and philosophical pedigree of the source, this idea will come as news to many who have been taught that ideas are the primary currency of human action. According to Augustine, though, we lead with our hearts, not our heads; the intellect is subordinate to the will. Despite its unwieldiness, Augustine’s comprehensive description of properly ordered loves is helpful here: “He is also a person who has ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less (or love too little what should be loved more), or love two things equally if one of them should be loved either less or more than the other, or love things either more or less if they should be loved equally.”
The philosopher James K. A. Smith has revived this line of thinking, most notably in his Cultural Liturgies project. Desiring the Kingdom—the first installment in the series—renders Augustine’s seminal idea in modern parlance: “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.” By “liturgical practices” Smith is indicating our deeply ingrained habits that constitute the outward expressions of our various loves. These outward expressions, he argues, are in fact nothing less than modes of worship. From sports arenas to concert venues to shopping malls, we encounter “pedagogies of desire” that tutor our hearts about what they should love. If you want to understand what it is you’re truly worshiping, pay close attention to what you’re actually doing with your time, money, and energy. Ask yourself, “What do I love?”
Whether intentional or unintentional, The Sinner explores this crucial idea through the lens of trauma. In many ways, trauma functions as the inverse of Augustine’s thinking on love. Whereas love forms us (and sometimes transforms us), trauma de-forms us, shattering our stability through its inner upheaval. Love primes an affirmation; trauma triggers a deformation. The results don’t always end in bloodshed, but they always end in some kind of destruction, and this destruction is never restricted to one victim. We are inherently relational creatures, and when we suffer, we suffer communally. Trauma is everyone’s problem.
In the case of Cora Tannetti, denying this fact is impossible. Her actions have expunged one human life, and undone countless others. But Harry Ambrose understands that such drastic behavior is never an isolated incident. If something as seemingly innocuous as a trip to a bar on a Saturday night constitutes a “pedagogy of desire,” priming our actions and responses, then abuse is a kind of demonic desire tutorial, warping and mal-forming our actions and responses, so that affirmation is supplanted by attack, devotion by destruction.
Behind Cora’s deeply repressed personality, for instance, is a malign spiritual formation at the hands of an abusive mother. Harry doesn’t know the specifics immediately, but he knows from personal experience that self-sabotage requires an accomplice and years of practice—that it requires a “pedagogy of desire.”
The flashbacks to Cora’s childhood are highly revealing. Cora’s younger sister is gravely ill, and her mother believes that the only way to preserve her life is through a rigorous spiritual campaign that may or may not appease the capricious God who has inflicted the malady in the first place. Young Cora is singled out for particular abuse, both physical and emotional. At one point, she’s told to bury a chocolate bar in the backyard because such indulgences might prompt God to smite her sister. When she grows into a physically beautiful adolescent, this abuse takes the form of disdain and neglect.
To say more about Cora’s past, however, would be to give too much away. Suffice it to say, Harry’s intuition that something cataclysmic underlies her actions on the beach is vindicated in the show’s final denouement. Interestingly, though his own wounds aid his investigation in the case, his past remains largely unexplored, a field ripe for mining in Season 2.
Right now, the unfolding saga of sexual abuse in Hollywood is a daily lesson in the communal effects of abuse and its ensuing legacy of trauma. Many of us are scrolling through Twitter just to see which name shows up next. What receives less attention is the fact that not one of these violations is an isolated incident.
Behind each malicious act is a whole constellation of “liturgies,” deeply ingrained (and often unexamined) habits that form and de-form our hearts, and “aim” them in a certain direction. The Sinner reminds us of Dallas Willard’s fearful claim that each of us—even tyrants—gets a spiritual education. The only question is whether this education, this “pedagogy of desire” is good or evil. Just to be clear, this argument doesn’t preclude moral culpability; we must bear the responsibility for our actions. What it does mean is that the profound question, “Where did that come from?” always has a complex answer. We can thank Cora and Harry for reminding us of this fact.