Trigger Warnings: Mentions of violence, Trauma
The Sinner is an american anthology crime drama series with three seasons—first two of which have been aired on Netflix. The first season ‘Cora’ (aired as 2nd season on Netflix) is based on Petra Hammesfahr’s suspense thriller novel with the same name. All three seasons have equally gripping independent stories with the common detective Henry Ambrose (Bill Pullman). The most intriguing one in my opinion is the Season 1 that revolves around Cora (Jessica Biel), a seemingly ‘okay’ married woman whose life is not as simple as we think.
The first impression of Cora in The Sinner is that of an average married young woman who is numbed by the monotonous married life and overbearing in-laws, nothing extraordinary as per average housewife-standards. One day, along with her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott) and son, she goes to the lakeside like every other holiday for a short picnic. A group of enthusiastic youngsters sitting across them enjoy loud music and a couple among them throw romantic gestures towards each other.
Looking at them, Cora suddenly snaps and aggressively attacks the couple, stabbing the man to death. This shatters everyone, and people start wondering how a happily married woman with a clean reputation can suddenly turn so violent and kill a person in front of her small child. Cora herself gets very confused and shocked to see what she’d done; what surprises everyone more is that she accepts her crime and pleads guilty with no qualms. Like the poster says, “Everyone knows she did it, no one knows why.”
I can’t reveal more of the plot because that would spoil the series and novel for the first timers. In the beginning itself, we get a good look into the initial investigative procedures of her case and her own stunned mental state. We also see how her husband and in-laws almost abandon her initially without even talking to her. Media reporters follow them daily and question them about her.
This made me think of Indians, who don’t say a word when everyday some or the other man turns out to be a rapist or murderer, but take every pains to highlight the news report when one woman commits a crime. The initial flow of investigation leads nowhere because there doesn’t seem to be any link with the killer and victim; everyone is almost content with Cora pleading guilty because it’s easy and would absolve them from the case. But then enters Detective Ambrose who interrogates the witnesses and Cora, and finds out some disparities in the case.
Ambrose takes great pains to solve the case, to find the actual reason behind Cora’s actions. Searching for her past, he makes her realize that something has to have happened in her past to enrage her so much. The clues he finds and follows are so tiny that under ordinary circumstances no one would even notice them, and in reality most don’t even bother to search for them. So, despite the subplot portraying his personal issues, we feel grateful to him. The final revelation is shocking, yet is eventual after seeing Cora’s life closely.
I should point out some of the notable aspects of Cora’s life shown in the story. The most important one is, Cora’s childhood and upbringing. Her mother is a conservative catholic Christian, who never misses an opportunity to blame Cora for the condition of her chronically ill younger sister Phoebe. She constantly implanted the ill-logic on Cora’s mind that God was punishing Phoebe for her sins so Cora has to pray and live a ‘sinless’ life. Absolutely anything could be termed as a sin by her mother’s logic. Burdening a child with a responsibility of something that’s not in their hands has dire consequences and makes the child extremely vulnerable. Cora and her sister loved each other, and both of them were fed up with their mother’s obsession with linking everything to God’s punishment. This makes the sisters slowly detach themselves from the religious conditioning and start ‘exploring sins’.
Cora’s mother is a victim of religious conditioning, but the same thing makes her the villain in Cora and Phoebe’s life. It sums up the impact of religion—made and scripted by men, for the benefit of men—on the life of women, which makes the older generation of women to control, humiliate and traumatize the younger generation of women to keep the patriarchal system intact.
Most of us don’t understand these dynamics or ignore them and give rise to stupid arguments like “Aurat hi aurat ki dushman hoti hai (a woman is a woman’s enemy)” while the real enemy is the non-consensual social conditioning of women into believing that everything is about competing against each other to please/worship a man (here in this case, Jesus Christ). We also can’t give a clean chit to Cora and Phoebe’s father, because he doesn’t take any stand against this torture of his daughters, he complains only when it’s affecting him.
The Sinner shows how childhood trauma can affect a person’s judgement and make them susceptible to the world that is full of people who take advantage of their vulnerability and exploit them. Similar things happen to Cora, she gets trapped in something serious, which is very very remotely related to the person she killed. As the investigation goes further, the story of her life unravels, she gets more clarity on what she’d gone through, and her self esteem shoots up – the woman who was once ready to plead guilty, is now ready to stand up for herself and call out everyone that was responsible for her state. It also points out the fact that when it comes to men – especially from higher hierarchies (here, class) in society – women from lower hierarchies are considered as expendables.
Notable is the change in Cora’s husband, whose perception of her was temporarily blurred by what she’d done; but he gradually understands and supports her despite his parent’s disapproval. Also, in her journey, she gets support from her aunt – who is like those free women your parents warn you against – and an unknown man who admits her in a detox center.
All in all, it is a good story to read/watch in order to understand the complexity when someone from a vulnerable section (here, based on gender) commits a crime.
Featured Image Source: The Indian Express