'The Sinner' Boss Talks Potential Season 2 and the Challenge of Continuing a Limited Series

The Sinner Still Jessica Biel - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of USA Network

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's season finale of The Sinner.]

Following in the tradition of recent successful limited series like Big Little Lies and The Night Of, USA Network's dark Jessica Biel drama The Sinner left viewers wanting more.

Centered on a seemingly everyday woman who inexplicably murders a man in broad daylight, the TV adaptation ended with Cora (Biel) being transferred to a secure psychiatric facility after the true extent of her psychological trauma was revealed. Her case will be reviewed every two years with the possibility of release if she is found to no longer be a danger to herself or others.

While the finale seemed to close the book on Cora, at least for the next two years, the finale comes as questions about a potential second season grow louder given the show's commercial success.

The Sinner ranks as the top new cable series premiere of the year in total viewers and the adults 18-49 demo. Buoyed by strong delayed viewing numbers, the drama had been consistently averaging more than 3.65 million viewers heading into Wednesday's finale.

"Everyone's interested in the idea of a season two," showrunner Derek Simonds tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We just haven’t conferred or decided what it will be and if it will actually happen."

Despite that disclaimer, Simonds talked to THR about the potential directions for season two, why "it's just the beginning" for Ambrose's (Bill Pullman) story and the biggest challenge of continuing anthology series.

Why do you think the show has connected with viewers in such a way?

That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? You just never know. I think we set out to tell a suspenseful story with a lot of forward momentum in terms of the questions it asks, and that was a big focus in the writers room. We really were trying to get people to get invested in the characters and ask the questions we wanted them to ask and then I like to think that the story's focus on Cora's mind and the corners of Cora's psyche and the things that we repress and forget and reimagine and remember, all of those things, I think people respond to. They feel that depth in themselves and I think a story that is about those layers itself is really fascinating and we don't really talk about it that much in pop culture or cultural discussion in general.

And then also I think just the story of this trauma in her past, this mystery of what the trauma is, I think we're are a little traumatized a little politically, (laughs), so that's maybe something that people get to work out in watching someone work themselves out.

Knowing where the book ends and knowing where you wanted the first season to end, what was the biggest challenge of plotting this season finale?

Tying up a lot of loose ends and answering a lot of questions in a short amount of time was definitely a challenge. And in the way that we constructed it, really, episodes seven and eight kind of do that together in that episode seven revealed the full story of the past and what happened on July 3 and episode eight completes the rest of the question: the man in the mask and what happened in this two-month period in Cora's life, so we tried to spread it out. But I think the most important focus beyond just connecting the dots and having a reveal was just landing the emotional moments. What got me interested in this project from the beginning was the potential I saw in the Cora-Ambrose relationship. I always think of their relationship as the spine of the story and their kind of uncommon connection as really, for me, the point of the story, which is that only through intimacy and connection with someone else that you can actually process trauma and move past it. And that's what these two characters are doing in their own ways through their connection. So, for me, episode eight is really about empathizing the humanistic part of the story beyond it just being entertainment and really landing the emotional moments and the relationships that have evolved over the course of the series.  

Talk about that final look when Harry gets in his car and looks at his fingernails. What's going through his mind? What were you trying to say with that last scene?

It's a deliberate echo of the first time we see Ambrose in the pilot. It's actually the exact same shot in terms of the angle of him from behind in the car and it's when he's watching Sharon with binoculars. She's serving customers in the restaurant across the street and it's the first time we see the fingernails with the bruises on them and this is kind of the motif of Ambrose's own trauma, which we see him allude to in that scene in the car in episode eight with Cora. We know that he suffered something in his past that is, while we don't know the specifics, we know that there's something about this that made him recognize Cora's own trauma and it's what's bound them together. It's what made him pursue this mystery of Cora's past. In ending with Ambrose and this sort of glance again at his fingernails, it's bringing up the question again of Ambrose's past and his trauma and that this show is about how we deal with trauma and how shame keeps us from processing it and represses the parts of ourselves that we actually need to let out. By episode eight, Cora's story is completed, but Ambrose's is just beginning. She discovers the full truth of her past and what's happened to her, and forgives Patrick Belmont in her own way and moves on. And Ambrose is similarly traumatized, his marriage has fallen apart, his life is kind of shattered — he's just cracking the door open to his own past and to his own wounds. We leave the series with that sort of handoff. His experience with Cora has now made him look at those fingernails dead-on.

Give what you just said, that "it's just the beginning" for Ambrose, what conversations have there about a potential second season?

There's certainly been a lot of conversations. We can't confirm anything right now, but we're definitely considering ways of … this will always be an anthology series of sorts in which every season will be its own free-standing mystery that is completed by the end of that season. We've always had this structure in mind, we don't quite know what form it would take in terms of who would move on to another season or not. And, like I said at the start, we can't confirm that a season two is actually happening yet.

Right, but how optimistic are you at the moment for more episodes?

The show's been very successful for USA and critically as well, so everyone is really, really happy with the performance. We think it's a possibility, but I can't really say anything more than that just because I just don't know the answer.

When the show was first announced, USA called it an "anthology" and in more recent releases the network has changed that label to a "limited series." Do you know what was behind that change?

Honestly, I think the words "anthology" and "limited" mean different things to different people. I think the consistent thing always was that we knew Cora's story would be wrapped up by the end of season one.

Our concept was always that viewers would find out the solution, the answer to the mystery and then in terms of the forms, whether it's a True Detective-style anthology where it's really an entirely new show that just has the same title and the same sort of brand and style? Or is it an American Horror Story-type anthology where the cast continues but in different roles? Or is it something where the characters actually, some of them continue on to a new case? All of those are questions to be answered.

Do you have a personal preference as to what you'd like to explore?

Honestly, we just finished episode eight last Friday. (Laughs.) It was literally that tight. The last 15 months of my life from getting the pilot ordered to getting the series ordered and doing it has all been about season one, so I really haven’t even had a breath. I see potential in all of the directions with pluses and minuses. But right now, we need a little bit of an incubation period.

What do you see as the biggest challenge of bringing a quote-unquote limited series back for a second season?

The challenge with these anthology series is that you're really creating a new show every season and with that, when you look at the normal incubation period for new shows in the cable arena, it often takes years to get a show up and going on the air. And in that period of time, you've had a lot of time to consider the characters, the course of the story, the style, the tone, so there's a lot of time to deliberate and try to get things right. In this case, we'd be adhering to a pretty conventional TV schedule of another season sooner rather than later, yet with all of the work of creating a new cast and a new story with a beginning, a middle and an end. That's another big challenge with the limited series, which I love because I come from a filmmaking background so I'm used to telling stories with beginnings, middles and ends. But, especially with a mystery like The Sinner, you really have to know where you're going before you start and there are a lot of TV shows that start production at the beginning of the season and they don't know; they have a vague idea where episode 10 is going to end up, but they're going to feel it out as they go along. The schedules are built with that in mind. Whereas The Sinner is a puzzle box and everything that happens in episodes seven and eight has its source in earlier episodes, and as a writer I feel really strongly not leading viewers down useless dead ends and dangling red herrings — that everything is part of the story organically. You have to figure all of that out in advance before you start shooting episode one, and it takes a lot of time from a writing perspective to be able to conceive and see the whole season at one time. I think that's a particular challenge with the limited/anthology model but it's also creatively really exciting because you get to reinvent things every season.

How involved has The Sinner author Petra Hammesfahr been involved in these conversations about a potential second season and potentially revisiting some of the characters from season one?

We have not really consulted with her at all in the development of this for television. She's been a more passive bystander who has agreed to let us do what we want with it. It would be interesting to see what she thinks; I have yet to talk to her directly.

She's written other books, so is that something you've looked at all for a possible second season?

Yeah, we're looking at that. She's a very prolific writer in Europe and highly regarded and she writes suspense and psychological stories in a lot of different worlds. She has a diverse collection of books. So that is one thought that we've had. It really just comes down to finding that material that really resonates for us and that feels like it will really translate to a visual television medium. We had a lot of divergences from the book even in this first season just because we had a sense of what would play dramatically and what wouldn't be as effective. A lot of it is finding those stories and those moments that we feel can really play visually.