Just like The Sinner’s riveting first season, Season 2 on USA Network opens with a grisly murder. Only this time, it’s not Jessica Biel’s Cora Tannetti we’re watching, but a 13-year-old boy named Julian Walker (played by Elisha Henig). We know from the onset of this episode (written by Derek Simonds and directed by Antonio Campos) that Julian kills his parents after their car breaks down on the way to Niagara Falls and they’re forced to spend the night in the Rockford Lodge Motel in upstate New York -- but we don’t yet know why. And after this hour of television, it’s clear there are still insurmountable mysteries to be spun. Catch our recap of the premiere episode below and start to piece together this season’s puzzle along with us.
Julian kills his parents.
The season begins with Julian and his two parents -- the man is later identified as Adam Lowry from Pennsylvania, while the woman doesn’t have an I.D. on her person or in the car -- driving through the wooded thruways of upstate New York, supposedly to go visit Niagara Falls from Pennsylvania. When their car breaks down, they’re forced to stay overnight in the nearby Rockford Lodge Motel. It’s over this night that we first get the impression that Julian is a troubled child. His mother seems overly protective and concerned for his well-being, and when she wakes up in the middle of the night to find him sitting at her bedside watching them sleep, she asks him if he’s been having more nightmares. He also has repeated visions of a hooded silhouette of a figure walking towards him through a dimly lit doorway, and we’re given the impression that’s not from his nightmares, but some sort of dark past he’s yet to unveil.
After his mother brings him back to bed, they both sleep through the night, and she awakes to find Julian gone to the morning breakfast buffet to get her and Adam tea. It’s in these few minutes of solitude from Julian that Adam and she steal a moment for sex, making love loud and unabashedly against their motel room’s door. (Until Julian comes knocking with the tea, that is.) It’s an odd move that has us questioning the parenting skills or values of this couple, but we don’t have much time to worry about that because soon enough, they’re both dead on the floor -- Adam collapses in the bathroom mid-shower while Julian’s mother vomits and seizes in the middle of the motel floor. The cause is presumably poison in the tea; Julian just stands there and watches wide-eyed. The final frames before the police get involved show him washing and preparing the bodies of his parents; they’re found by the local police covered with white sheets up to the neck with little round stones placed over their eyes. It’s an eerie, ritualistic sight.
Local police call on the help of Detective Harry Ambrose.
It’s after Julian’s double homicide that we meet the town of Keller’s new detective, Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) -- daughter to Jack Novack (Tracy Letts), a childhood friend of Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman). She’s a workaholic who’s as dedicated as she is passionate and immediately dives headfirst into the murder case at the Rockford Lodge. When she finds Julian hiding in the woods behind the motel barefoot and covered in his own urine, she knows that this is a unique case; toxicology reports are not yet available, but a 13-year-old boy has officially become the main suspect.
It’s then that she thinks to call up her father’s old friend Harry, who recently made headlines for his masterful work on the Cora Tannetti case. She asks him to come up to Keller to give the case a look and see if a second pair of seasoned eyes can help her crack the case, and he begrudgingly agrees. We learn that Harry hasn’t been to his childhood hometown in the 15 years since Heather’s mother and Jack’s wife passed away, and that the town itself carries a deep history of spiritualists and extreme evangelists. “There’s something in the soil here. It just won’t stay quiet,” Harry tells Heather while driving around town.
Harry seems to be hiding some dark histories himself, too. He is haunted by a vision of his mother sitting on her bedside with his back facing towards him while the curtains are on fire and a pot of water is left to boil on the stove. Did his mother die in that fire? That’s just one of the several mysteries of these characters’ pasts that we’ll get to uncovering by season’s end. It seems, too, that there may be some tense history between Jack and Harry; Jack is very friendly and outgoing, but seems a little put off by Harry’s chilliness and discomfort at being back in Keller. It’s possible that he resents Harry for losing touch. He still offers several attempts at a heart-to-heart with his old friend, though, and later reveals that Heather came out to him as a lesbian several years prior. He’s a kind man, and couldn’t be more supportive or proud.
Left in foster care, Julian gets a visit from Harry and Heather—and eventually confesses.
One of Harry’s first stops for the case is, unsurprisingly, to visit Julian in his foster home. While he’s remained mostly mute since Heather found him in the woods, his lawyer has managed to learn his name and, upon introducing them, Heather is able to coax out a bit more. Julian stops short of confessing to the murders here, but he does confirm that it was only him and the two victims in the motel room with them that morning. He says that “they had to go back to the beginning.” But when pressed further, he begins having a panic attack, breathing heavily and screaming until his lawyer escorts Harry and Heather out of the room.
The ever-perceptive Harry notices before he leaves, though, a red rash along the side of Julian’s wrist. Following his hunch about the rash, he pays a visit to the motel’s breakfast nook to investigate the back door where Julian entered to make those two teas. Just outside is as he’d expected: jimsonweed -- a flower that will make you breakout into a rash if you’re to touch it, and one that will kill you if you ingest it. Harry and Heather know that their window of opportunity to gain Julian’s trust is closing, so they rush another meeting with him. “I gave it to them,” he admits. And when they ask the young boy if he knew what putting the flower in the tea would do, he responds that he did. But when asked why he’d want to do that to his parents, all he gets out is, “My mother…” before he begins crying. “Why can’t I just go home?”
Still, the confession is there, so that’s technically all they need to wrap the case -- but Heather and Harry know that something greater is at play here. Where’s the boy’s motive? Before the news of the murder and conviction break and before Keller turns into a madhouse, Harry buys some more time with the local police by insisting that the report shouldn’t be made public until the toxicology report returns in a few days’ time. What he plans on doing to get to the truth in that time is anyone’s guess. But that brings us to the episode’s twist ending…
Julian’s victims may not have been his parents. Meet Vera.
Julian’s visions of Vera -- what we assume are memories -- begin when he’s first shown in his new foster home. While the other children are playing and being boisterous, Julian sulks in the corner and seems to be entranced, stuck on a memory. A thumping metronomic knock beats through his head as he remembers back to a day when he was with Vera (Carrie Coon) in her study. He’s shown sitting in the middle of the floor drawing rapidly as she asks him questions about his day. “What happened when you were outside?” she asks soothingly. He tells her how a boy took his stick while he was hitting the fence, and because the boy was taller than he was, he was unable to get it back. He says that he became angry and violent -- what he calls “Shadow Julian.” But Vera responds, “Shadow Julian is Julian. He’s you. So when he comes knocking, what are you supposed to do?” “I let him in,” Julian obediently replies. It’s an odd sight that this woman would be insisting the young boy in her company embrace his darkness, but it at first appears as if she may be his therapist and that this is a practice in communicating with one another.
Unfortunately, a therapist Vera is not. Later in the episode as Heather and Harry ponder over their findings, they and the rest of the Keller police force examine the car that Julian first came to Keller in before it broke down on the side of the road. The first strange thing Heather notices is the direction of the tires; she believes that if they were going north toward Niagara Falls, the car would be facing the other direction. Instead they were headed south. Additionally, there’s no bags for Julian in the back of the car; no children’s clothes, just a few duffle bags with adult necessities. One can’t help but wonder what kind of parents go on a trip and don’t pack a bag for their kid. But as these revelations are coming clear (and their answers left for next week), we meet Vera in present day as she’s driving up to the Keller precinct and demands to know where the young boy from the motel murder is being held. What gives her that authority, you may ask? “I’m his mother,” she tells the police. And the screen goes black.