Warning: Recap contains spoilers
USA Network's new crime thriller, The Sinner, tackles the "why" of a grisly murder rather than the "who." That's because the suspect in question, Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel in her first major foray in television since 7th Heaven), murdered in cold blood and in plain sight. The eight-episode adaptation of Petra Hammesfahr’s 2007 bestseller premiered Aug. 2; catch our recap of the first episode below.
Cora is caught red-handed and ready to plead guilty
The first episode of USA and creator Derek Simond’s new thriller, The Sinner, ends with its troubled protagonist, Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel), in court.
“Will you be entering a plea?” the presiding judge asks.
“Yes,” Cora responds.
“And what is that plea?”
Then the screen cuts to black. Based on the events unfolded in this episode’s 45 minutes prior, though, it’s already been determined that she’s guilty -- caught literally covered in blood. (Red- handed, in fact.)
Cora is apparently unhappy with her “normal” life and troubled past
As wife to Mason Tannetti (Christopher Abbott) and mother to their son, Cora seems to live a simple, structured -- what she later calls “normal” -- life. But is she happy? It doesn’t appear so. Smiling infrequently and showcasing a generally depressive demeanor, she appears stuck in a situation that she doesn’t want a part in, but we don’t know why.
Cora also seems haunted by her past. From the confines of her jail cell, she relives moments from her childhood, namely her ultra-religious mother blaming her for her baby sister’s medical troubles and premature birth. Her mother instills the notion that the only way her baby will live now is if Cora does everything God asks of her. On the brink of a breakdown and unable to sleep in her cell, that sentiment seems to have held true; Cora drops to her knees and begins praying. She later reveals that both her parents have since died; whether or not the baby sister is still alive is unclear.
“I stabbed him with a knife I was using to peel fruit for my son.”
So what was Cora caught red-handed doing? A normal day on the beach unravels into chaos when she, after first attempting to drown herself in the middle of the lake but then swimming back to shore, stabs a stranger named Frankie Belmont repeatedly in the throat and neck and face, killing him in front of a devastated crowd and her own distraught husband, Mason.
“I stabbed him with a knife I was using to peel fruit for my son,” Cora confesses later to police. Why? “Because they were playing that music and they kept turning it up.”
She’s speaking with detectives Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) and Dan Leroy (Dohn Norwood). The former is particularly enthralled by the case, which marks his town’s first homicide in years.
The question is: What was Cora’s motive?
While the case seems to have solved itself with a confession from the start, Harry begins digging deeper, trying to find the intent. In cases like this, it’s often a secret lover and a crime of passion, but Cora insists she’d never met Frankie before. In speaking with Mason, who up until this point has yet to visit Cora in prison out of hurt and confusion, the detective learns that after his wife stabbed Frankie dead, he heard her tell Frankie’s girlfriend (who had moments before been straddling and kissing him), “You’re okay. You’re safe. He’s gone now.”
Before stabbing him, Cora had also yelled, “Stop it! Get off her!” She seems to have been under some delusion that Frankie was hurting his girlfriend. Was this a case of old traumas rearing their head and Cora succumbing to temporary insanity? Only time will tell. Regardless, in this episode, she seems utterly resigned to guilt and spending the rest of her life behind bars, even telling Mason that she’ll be okay if he decides to file for divorce and move on.
Harry has dark secrets of his own.
Theirs is not the only tenuous relationship brought to the screen here, either. Harry is shown throughout the episode fiddling with bruised nails, presumably from slamming them in door or rough ‘n’ tough police work. It’s revealed, though, that it’s actually from a woman Harry visits for sex and domination; she talks down to him, orders him to his knees, and steps on his fingers with her heel. This unnamed mistress has put his marriage on the rocks, but she has a power over him that keeps him coming back for more. It will be interesting to see how this woman plays into the story from here on out, but it seems that Harry has some darkness in him too.
Despite Cora’s claims, she and Frankie may not have been strangers, after all.
Before the courtroom scene at the episode’s close, there’s one more revelation: Cora may have known Frankie after all. Harry meets with one of Frankie’s friends who was also at the beach and asks him why he didn’t do anything to stop Cora. What it boiled down to, in his mind, was that Frankie was a strong guy who could take care of himself, but once he realized that he was in real trouble and not able to push Cora off him, it was too late. He also recalls a moment of recognition in Frankie’s eyes once he saw Cora standing over him with the knife. Frankie seemed in that moment to give up -- to drop his arm and let Cora kill him.
With this new revelation, Harry rushes to the courthouse; we’ll have to tune in episode two to see if he gets there in time!