Did The Sinner Really Needs Its Dark Finale Twist?

Photo: Peter Kramer/USA Network.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead For The Sinner season 2 finale.
After eight twisty episodes, USA’s The Sinner season 2 has come to an end. Wednesday night’s “Part VIII” finale wrapped up the mystery of Julian Walker (Elisha Henig), a young teen boy who murdered the two people trying to save him, Bess McTeer (Ellen Adair) and Adam Lowry (Adam David Thompson). We eventually learn Julian's victims were actually trying to help him escape a cult in favor of his unknown birth mom, Marin Calhoun (Hannah Gross). Julian had no idea when he poisoned them.
The Sinner 2.0 ends on a mostly optimistic note, with Julian heading to a mental care facility for four years to atone for his crimes. Heroes detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) and Heather Novack even take the chapped-lipped kid to Niagara Falls, the exact place he thought he was heading with Bess and Adam at the start of the season.
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But “Part VIII,” isn’t all happy endings all around. As we find out in the finale, Marin’s life was even worse than we knew. And season 2 went to great pains to make Julian’s mom’s life seem awful. The finale reveals Marin was also raped 13 years ago, which resulted in Julian’s birth (“The Beacon,” as previously suggested, isn’t Julian’s father). Marin’s attacker is the same man who would end up killing her in the present timeline during “Part VII;” he’s also her best friend’s Heather’s dad, Jack Novack (Tracy Letts).
The entire tragedy is almost too much to bear.
Viewers start realizing something is amiss when Heather finds a key for the Five Nations Motel in her father’s pants. Heather’s body was found at the motel the night prior. Then Ambrose learns a shell company has been paying Vera Walker (Carrie Coon), “adoptive” mother of Julian and leader of the Mosswood Grove “community” at the center of the season’s mystery, $1,000 monthly for over 10 years. Julian is also a little over 10 years old. Confronted with all of this incriminating evidence, Jack breaks.
In flashback, we learn there is a missing piece to the night Marin joined Mosswood 13 years ago. This season we saw Marin reject Heather’s advances and attempt to walk home via the highway that drunken evening. We also saw Jack try to convince Heather to get into the Novacks' car, but previous flashbacks suggested that she refused and instead walked straight to Mosswood. But, “Part VIII” reveals, Heather and her booze-addled sexual desperation weren't exactly at fault — Marin did eventually get in the car and go home with the Novacks.
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The problem is, the Novack home is where the real atrocities began. Once Heather was asleep, Jack inexplicably began kissing Marin. He eventually pushed the teenager onto the couch and forced himself on her, all while Marin whispered, “I think I should go.” Jack ignored young Marin and continued. She went limp. It’s horrible. Marin leaves when Jack finishes, and it’s suggested this is when she fled Keller, the home base of The Sinner season 2, for the perceived, false safety of Mosswood. For some reason, we realize, both members of the Novack family were sexually fixated on Heather, leading to the implosion of her life.
Jack’s decade-old assault of Marin leads to a final injustice. “Part VII” ended with the scene of Marin’s death — she was fatally shot and left bleeding out in front of her motel room. Julian, who Marin abducted from his state-mandated foster home ahead of his trial, is gone. In “Part VIII,” Jack confirms he was the one on the scene, and that his scuffle with Marin resulted in her death.
Originally, Marin called Jack for help in her abduction scheme because she “knew” he would help her, he explains to Harry in the present. Marin knew this because Julian is Jack’s son and Heather’s half brother. But, instead of helping Marin, Jack told the young woman he wouldn’t let her go through with the plan. So she pulled a gun on him. Jack grabbed it, a struggle ensued, and the gun went off. “I didn’t kill her,” Jack swears. But he did take Julian, who was hiding under a motel room bed, to Vera – all because Vera knew about the original rape and was blackmailing him over it.
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The entire storyline is a dark and twisted web where everyone is a villain except for Marin. Poor, innocent Marin.
Although The Sinner season 1 was a down-the-rabbit hole investigation of a woman grappling with her own history of sexual violence — and the disturbing lengths perpetrators will go to hide their crimes — season 2 didn’t use rape as a mere narrative device. Even the guest appearances of Camen Bell (Jamie Neumann) showed the multidimensional fallout in the woman's world after she attempted to report a Mosswood-related rape. Carmen, who was forcibly placed in a mental hospital, was allowed to tell her full story.
It feels cheap to throw in Marin’s own sexual assault with less than 25 minutes left in the finale. In the same way viewers deserved to find out how Carmen and Cora Tannetti's (Jessica Biel) brushes with violence left fingerprints all over their lives, Marin was owed the same due diligence. Instead, we’re left wondering if many of the issues Marin experienced after her assault — like her lack of attachment to an infant Julian or her subsequent history of substance abuse — stemmed from the darkness of Mosswood, the darkness of Jack Novack, or both.
Rather than illuminating who Marin was as a character, the finale swerve comes off as a way to avoid making Vera the true villain of the story. By adding this violent backstory, there is no reason for an alternate or sensible conclusion, where Vera kills Marin and steals her son back in a moment of desperation. Instead, now, Jack stands as a perfect culprit (despite the fact even he can’t tell Heather why he committed all of these sins in his final appearance on The Sinner).
As was the case for most of her life, Marin Calhoun deserved better.
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