While watching The Sinner season 2’s most important episode yet, Wednesday’s “Part VI,” a nagging sensation might start rise up in a viewer’s mind. The darkness of Mosswood Grove begins to seem uncomfortably familiar as the violent underbelly of the community comes into focus through the flashback memories of Vera Walker (Carrie Coon). All of a sudden, we realize this so-called “self-help” compound is actually helping men wrestle with their demons by letting them abuse the vulnerable women around them.
Does this seem familiar simply due to the daily tragedies of real life — and the many stories that arose from the #MeToo movement? — or is there something more specific all of this manipulation resembles? Although the former possibility certainly plays into The Sinner’s sense of deja vu, Mosswood's violent secret is also disturbingly similar to the reports around NXIVM, the alleged sex cult that ensnared former Smallville actress Allison Mack.
The more you think about the similarities between NXIVM and Mosswood, two groups that use trauma-focused therapy to “integrate” their followers into better people, the more you find.
During “Part VI,” we learn how women are first recruited into Mosswood. In a years-old police statement, Carmen Bell (Jamie Neumann), who is now in a mental care facility, explains Vera approached her at the mall where she worked. “I was going through a bad time, and she just talked to me,” Carmen said. “She told me about Mosswood. She said it was like a family, that it would solve things.” It’s suggested Marin (Hannah Gross), also only decided to join Mosswood for good after meeting Vera (just look at her refusal to speak to anyone but the groomer upon her permanent return). Soon enough, they were both entangled in Mosswood's darkest abuses.
This pattern of older, veteran women in the group grooming younger, less experienced women can also be seen in DOS — aka “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” which translates from Latin to “lord over the obedient female companions” or “master over slave women” — the alleged “women’s empowerment group” that made many question whether NXIVM is a sex cult. As Allison Mack confirmed of the group in the New York Times Magazine, so-called “Masters” would recruit newer NXIVM women to become their “Slaves,” who would in turn become Masters by finding their own Slaves. Masters would help their Slaves cut calories and perform acts of “self-denial,” while Slaves would perform “acts of care” for masters. Control over orgasms is also a tenet of the Master-Slave relationship.
All women in DOS were given a brand near their pelvic bone, which bore the initials of NXIVM’s founder, Keith Raniere, and possibly Mack herself. One allegation claims Mack urged one of her Slaves to go on a walk with Raniere, where the unnamed woman was blindfolded, tied to a table, and sexually assaulted by a person she hadn’t met before. While Raniere only admitted to sleeping with two DOS members, court records claim 20 women were part of his sex slave rotation.
In The Sinner’s Mosswood Grove, the women are similarly vulnerable. First of all, it’s unclear how many women are sleeping with leader and founder Lionel Jeffries (Brennan Brown), and whether they were coerced into doing so. But Marin, a defenseless 18-year-old Mosswood newbie, definitely had a sexual relationship with him, which resulted in the birth of Julian (Elisha Henig). It’s suggested Vera, who brought Marin into the community, may have also had some type of romantic connection with the group leader, who is called “The Beacon” in the same way Raniere was dubbed “The Vanguard” by his followers.
Past these murky sexual questions, The Sinner echoes DOS’ tendency to burn its members. Although no one in Mosswood has Lionel’s initials singed into their skin, many women who were once a part of the cult have an identical series of burns on their feet. Carmen shows the abrasions, as does a stripper who detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) tracks down. All signs point to the serial burner being Glen Fisher (Marc Menchaca), a man who frequented Mosswood and used the group’s teachings to exercise his trauma by inflicting that same violence on the women of the group. This was a practice Lionel both allowed and encouraged.
The fact that Lionel focused on allowing other men to abuse his women followers is where Mosswood and NXIVM may diverge. Although it’s possible men in NXIVM hurt the women around them, most of the current criminal allegations are specifically levied against Raniere and Mack. Yet, on The Sinner, we find out Glen and many other men are using Mosswood's membership for their own violent designs. Carmen says as much in her statement to police, and, towards the end of the episode, we see Glen pull up with an SUV's worth of men looking for an abusive session. In between these two revelations, “Part VI” shows Marin running out of a barn filled with mostly men. Before she bolts, we hear the sounds of a beating, men yelling, and the new mom screaming.
All of the women in the area seem to be paired with men, suggesting they’re there to act as vessels for their partner’s rage.
As the puzzle of The Sinner comes together, it only feels more terrifying — and real.
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