[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for The Sinner Season 4 premiere.]
Did retired detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) see a young woman, Percy Muldoon (Alice Kremelberg), step off a cliff, or did she step to the side and take a path out of his eye line? That’s the question Harry faces in The Sinner Season 4 premiere as he tries and fails to rest on Hanover Island with Sonya (Jessica Hecht).
Even as more is revealed about the night he follows her to that cliff — including that she was with someone else on the beach earlier, someone who clearly had some sort of power over her — it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. But one thing is clear: Some shady people are involved.
Creator and showrunner Derek Simonds takes TV Insider inside the premiere, which he wrote and directed, and teases what’s ahead.
Harry is still clearly affected by the events of last season. How much does that continue to weigh on him in the same way as it does in the premiere? Is there any healing soon?
Derek Simonds: I always envisioned that this season was a season of healing for Harry, but I’ll put it this way: It doesn’t come easily. His guilt over what happened with Jamie Burns [Matt Bomer] in Season 3 is heavy and continues throughout Season 4 and it becomes a motivating factor for a lot of his choices in Season 4. But I hope that viewers will see that he might find some uneasy peace with it all by the end.
Is he going to continue to flash back to it or are we going to see less of that as he heals?
I didn’t want to place too much emphasis on Jamie Burns, so we don’t flash back to the crime more. He’s mentioned a couple of more times in the season, but this season is all about guilt, if that’s kind of the dominant emotion that’s affecting multiple characters this season, including Ambrose. And Ambrose’s guilt has always been deeper than just what happened with Jamie Burns, as we’ve seen from Seasons 1 and 2. So I didn’t want to over-identify the Jamie Burns incident as the defining thing of his life. It’s one of many.
But this idea of guilt propelling Ambrose forward is very much a dominant theme. Harry Ambrose is constantly trying to compensate for something that he feels he’s done wrong or try to compensate just for himself as a person and that drive to solve crimes and sort of right the world of wrong is a way of compensating for that guilt. It proves to be destructive to him and the people he’s in relationships with, and it’s one of the things he has to really grapple with this season.
It seems like he’s one “yes” away from taking over the case even though he’s retired. What are we going to see from him when it comes to investigating and working with the local law enforcement, like Joe Cobden’s Chief Lou Raskin?
Yeah, that’s a relationship we track throughout the season. He’s in this new position of not being able to call the shots because he’s not an actual working detective and he’s certainly not the lead detective on this case involving Percy Muldoon’s disappearance. He’s going to be wrestling with wanting things to go a different way or not always wanting to share information he’s found out with Lou Raskin.
Lou has been very welcoming because he’s kind of overwhelmed by the case and doesn’t have a big ego about being the top guy on it. He just wants things to go back to normal, so he’s willing to work with Ambrose, but that’s not enough for the two men to get along perfectly as the case takes some twists and turns. Ambrose never backs down from anything — if anything, he’s like a dog with a bone and he won’t stop when other people would prefer things to stop. So there’s a lot of conflict about how far to take things between him and Lou.
I liked the moment when Harry went to get the camera footage and then it’s like, are you a cop? And he had to bring in Lou.
[Laughs] Right. He’s definitely navigating that. He doesn’t have a badge to flash in order to ask questions and get questions answered, so he has to work harder to win people’s confidence. In some ways that also is an advantage because he’s not as noticeably a cop to some people. In this season, he gets more deeply personal with the Muldoon family and other characters than he might have with others in the past,
Percy’s grandmother, Meg (Frances Fisher), now wants Harry to be involved, but it feels like that could change depending on what the investigation uncovers.
The relationship between Harry Ambrose and Meg Muldoon is one of the central relationships of the season, and it’s a really rich one and it keeps changing. So you guessed right in that it keeps changing and as new things are uncovered both in the Muldoon family history and in the case itself, suddenly the agendas of Ambrose and Meg change. It creates a very interesting rapport between them that follows all the way to the very end of the season.
What does Harry being drawn into this case mean for his and Sonya’s relationship?
Harry and Sonya were both deeply involved with Jamie Burns from Season 3 and have both been reeling from the events of that season. But the difference is that Sonya has processed this and moved on and is ready to move on, whereas Ambrose is still haunted by his guilt over what he did to Jamie. So there’s a natural conflict that really gets sparked up this season where Ambrose can’t get out from under the wave of his guilt and Sonya is ready to move forward.
As this new case develops around Percy Muldoon, questions of how far Ambrose takes things and does he need to be at the center of every case he encounters, does he need to solve everything in the world to feel OK with himself, that becomes a bigger and bigger conflict between him and Sonya. She starts to realize that Harry has this obsessive-compulsive relationship with his work and compensating for his guilt and she starts to wonder if there’s actually room for a real relationship or if he’s capable of that. Ambrose is going to be faced with a lot of choices between his work and real intimacy with Sonya.
They have that conversation about how he looks energized and alive because he’s investigating.
Yeah. And we wanted to avoid Sonya being the partner who complains about their partner never being available, too caught up in work. In the beginning, Ambrose getting involved actually is waking him up from a lengthy depression that he’s been in, so she’s supportive in anything really that might get him out from underneath that. Unfortunately, given Ambrose’s character, the pendulum can swing pretty extremely in the other direction too.
The conversation Harry had with the real Percy and that one with his vision of her were both particularly intriguing. What did you want to do with that dynamic in the premiere? How much more should we expect to see that vision of Percy?
We’ll learn more of what the nature of that vision is and why she appears in subsequent episodes, but that will continue this season. In terms of that first scene with Percy, we really wanted to create a casual moment of two strangers meeting that still had a touch of a feeling of a meeting of like-minded souls, the way they talk about the sea and nature and the way they find each other hiding away from the crowd. They’re two kinds of soulful introverts who happen to stumble across each other.
We wanted there to be a kind of soulmate connection, even though it’s a very quick meeting, to understand why Harry is questioning what happened around Percy and how the fact of her disappearance doesn’t quite make sense or add up with the young woman that he met personally. Another interesting thing about this season is that Ambrose is the witness to Percy’s disappearance, so to speak, and he’s deeply personally involved because he’s the last one to have seen her.
What was your approach to directing the premiere, especially considering you were playing around so much with what Harry may or may not have seen with her disappearance?
The whole night of her disappearance, when he follows her to the bluff, we treated the footage a certain way and wanted it to have a slightly surreal quality where when it’s all over, it felt like, wait, was that whole thing a dream? Am I going crazy? It doesn’t quite have the typical lighting and feel of a night scene in a typical TV show.
I wanted the premiere, especially before more questions and more characters come into play, to stay really close with Harry and being in his mind so that it’s very subjective and we know exactly what he’s thinking about when he flashes to Jamie. We feel this growing doubt around what he has or hasn’t seen. Every new clue is not just a clue in the case, but it’s also a clue that throws all of his own previous assumptions into question. My approach was to really get inside Harry’s head and bring us into his mind at the top so that we invest in the case in the same way he does.
We see that when he says he’s going for a stroll, but then he walks fast down the street.
Yeah, exactly. He’s hiding the extent of his emotional distress from Sonya. We all have relationships where we communicate openly with partners or friends or loved ones, but the depth of what we’re really going through is hard to express. That’s what’s happening between Ambrose and Sonya.
The Sinner, Wednesdays, 10/9c, USA