Nietzsche meets Netflix: the killer philosophy behind The Sinner

Matt Bomer in the third run of Netflix's The Sinner - Netflix/USA Network
Matt Bomer in the third run of Netflix's The Sinner - Netflix/USA Network

Warning: contains spoilers for season 3 of The Sinner

A man on a train throws death glares at the chap across the aisle, who is playing something loud and silly on his phone. It’s just a fleeting shot in the first episode of series three of Netflix’s The Sinner, but one that communicates multitudes.

For schoolteacher Jamie (Matt Bomer), an outwardly perfect life is bubbling out of control. He’s boiling with resentment: towards his career, looming parenthood and the idiots with whom he’s forced to share his commute. Soon this will all crystallise into dark, dangerous urges.

Quicker than you can say “Fight Club rewatch, anyone?” Jamie is up to his bloodied-knuckles in conspiracy, murder and out-of-body visitations. The last of these features a toxic friend from university who has clearly watched the punch-drunk David Fincher film several hundred more times than recommended. And who continues to haunt and taunt Jamie even after his apparent death.

It all sounds like a rather unlikely premise for a cop show: more Twin Peaks-meets-Jordan Peterson than Law and Order. But then that’s the charm of The Sinner, which has across three seasons quietly carved out its own space as a police procedural with a difference.

The series, a major hit for Netflix, is a murder mystery, but one where the identity of the killer is established from the outset. For instance, it takes of all of five seconds to work out that Jamie will soon to be up to no good, and will quickly have blood on his hands – as he does by the end of the first instalment. Forget the “whodunnit” – and say “hello” instead to the “whydunnit”.

The Sinner, which has Hollywood superstar Jessica Biel as co-producer, didn’t invent the “whydunnit”. All the way back to Peter Falk’s Columbo in the 1970s, a sub-strata of crime capers have tried to stand out from the mob by revealing the villain of the piece upfront.

Much the same philosophy informed the serial-killer romp Dexter (2006–2013), in which Michael C Hall portrayed an avenging psychopath trying to bring good to the world by taking down a rogues’ gallery of even more dangerous lunatics. Again, the question wasn’t who was leaving the trail of bodies, but what their motive was in the first place.

The Sinner refines the formula further. It’s pulpy and often silly, with Bill Pullman chewing the scenery, furniture and potted plants as veteran cop Harry Ambrose.

He’s a stereotype on two legs. The cynical cop with a disastrous personal life (Harry is divorced, estranged from his parents and becoming a stranger to his daughter). As per TV cop regulations, he also has a clairvoyant streak that kicks in whenever he visits a crime scene.

Ambrose is a perfectly serviceable protagonist. However, the reason The Sinner works is that it invests as much in its villains as in its hero. Bomer’s Jamie, for instance, is an unsettling representation of toxic masculinity run amok. Outwardly he is living a perfect life, with a good job, a nice house in the suburbs and a doting (and very hip) wife shortly to give birth.

Yet he has never been more miserable. Deep down – no, not all that far down actually – he feels that by signing up to normality he has surrendered something precious. By being just like anyone else, somehow he has lost at the game of life.

Bill Pullman plays grizzled police officer Harry Ambrose - USA Network
Bill Pullman plays grizzled police officer Harry Ambrose - USA Network

This is as gripping a portrayal as you will see, on the small screen, of the aforementioned toxic masculinity. It is depicted here as the conviction, particular to a certain stripe of male, that they were meant for greater things and are all at sea in a world of idiots (such as: that chap playing with his phone on the train). That a hokey Netflix show should be bringing us this perspective is extraordinary.

The Sinner had by season three already established itself as a crime series with a difference. The show had started off as a largely faithful adaptation of Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 thriller, with the setting changed from Germany to upstate New York, and Jessica Biel lending her Hollywood power as guest-star and co-producer (in which latter capacity she remains involved).

Biel played Cora Tannetti, an average woman who, seemingly unprompted, stabs a man on a beach with her family watching agape. As with Jamie the toxic teacher, there was little doubt as to her culpability: we literally see her commit the crime.

But then The Sinner deliciously allowed its own plot to unravel. Pullman’s Ambrose delves into Cora’s backstory and discovers that she’s suffering repressed memories – much of her past has been stolen from her by evil men.

“I didn’t know if it was going to be successful,” said Biel of the challenge of playing the TV equivalent of an unreliable narrator.

“Not even the actual show but in terms of my ability to portray this person and do it properly because she’s so unreliable and she’s so complex. But that’s the kind of role that I want to play… I read the book and said, ‘I don’t care what I have to do. I have to play this part. We have to figure this out.””

Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti - USA Network
Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti - USA Network

One of the devices she wanted to explore involved pointing the mirror back at the audience. Jamie and Cora are ordinary people with a lot going on beneath the surface. They could be any of us.

“What the “Sinner” means is sort of… [that] everyone in their own way has elements of the sinner,” elaborated Biel.

“That kind of mythological thing, ‘the sinner’, and what it means… We want it to extend through the television and into your home. We want you to feel compassion, we want you to feel disgust, we want you to feel connected. We want to revolt you. We want to take you through a gamut of human experience.”

Series one was a bruising upending of the tables. Yet unlike certain crime shows with far too many moving parts – cough, Line of Duty, cough – the viewer is never overwhelmed or encouraged to feel guilty for failing to pay sufficient attention. Similarly, series two, about a young teenager (Elisha Henig) who poisons his parents as the family flees a utopian cult, is a riveting exploration of groupthink and how idealism can rot from the inside out.

Series three tinkers with the formula, insofar as teacher Jamie is clearly a villain rather than a victim (which is what Biel’s character and killer teen Julian ultimately are). He’s also a weak man who allows himself to be manipulated by sociopathic college buddy Nick Haas (Chris Messina).

Nick is one of those dangerous inadequates who discovered the misanthropic ramblings of Frederich Nietzsche in his twenties and never got over it. As one of his former lecturers explains to Detective Ambrose, Nick believes god is dead and that it’s up to the “superior” man – Nietzsche’s Übermensch –  to remake the world in his image.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1906, detail) by Edvard Munch - Getty
Friedrich Nietzsche (1906, detail) by Edvard Munch - Getty

“Many disaffected young men take to Nietzsche, it’s usually just a phase,” Nick and Jamie’s former philosophy professor tells Ambrose. “The Übermensch creates his own morality. Nietzsche contends that our modern ways have led us to lose our faith. God is dead. It’s up to the Übermensch to forge new values to live by.

“It’s a challenge, one that requires will. And discipline… [You] conquer fear. Live at a higher level than common man. Discover the truth of existence.”

For Nick and Jamie, going down the Nietzschean rabbit hole leads to such pathetic display of machismo as eye-balling strangers on the train, picking fights in posh restaurants and driving at speed through red lights. All to prove they are somehow more engaged with the universe than the rest of us sheep.

Nick is clearly deranged and growing even more so, as he unveils to Jamie his plan to kidnap a female artist (Jessica Hecht) who lives close to his pal in the upstate New York suburbs.

Jamie, however, can really only blame himself. It was he, after all, who sought out Nick after years apart. He has been plunged into a spiritual crisis as he realises that perhaps he’s not ready to have a child and settle down – a fight -or-flight reaction with which some men may empathise.

“There’s quite a bit more use of guns on other shows,” is how Pullman, speaking to GQ recently, characterised The Sinner. “Even when guns come out on The Sinner, there’s not a lot of gunplay – shooting at people and ducking and running around, shooting back, you know. It’s more about watching all the nuances of human behaviour and how it can present in ways where you can’t draw conclusions at first glance.”

The charm of the series – which will return for a fourth season –  is that it that refuses to draw a clear line between good and evil. Few of us will throw daggers at someone on a train because they’re playing with their phone. And most men can deal with the burden of parenthood without trying to recreate Fight Club with an old college buddy. Yet The Sinner refuses to judge these characters or their actions and instead lets them speak for themselves.

“There’s a great humanism underneath it all,” Pullman explained to GQ. “There’s a sense that lives are important, that bad behaviour – sudden behaviour – comes from a recognition that we are all sharing certain things, both good and bad, and what it is to be human.

“Then you have this kind of greater sense of empathy for all of us. That’s maybe a slight difference. It’s a nuanced thing. Shades of grey, which is sometimes not everybody’s choice. They want black and white in 55 minutes, and then over.”