Has Harry Ambrose finally found some semblance of inner peace?
The series finale of USA Network’s The Sinner seemed to suggest that much: that the retired detective would be OK once he left Hanover Island. Though it seemed unlikely that he would reunite with ex-girlfriend Sonya — she didn’t answer his call earlier in the episode — the Percy Muldoon case had taught him that he needed to find a way to cope with his lingering guilt surrounding the Season 3 death of Jamie Burns, which had continued to eat at him throughout his time on the island.
Before we dive into our conversation with executive producer Derek Simonds, let’s recap the conclusion of the Muldoon family saga:
A series of flashbacks revealed that CJ’s older brother Bo was stealing from the Muldoons. Sean confronted him, which led to a violent altercation involving Bo, Sean and Colin. Unable to stop Bo from beating up Sean, Percy grabbed Colin’s gun and shot him dead.
In order to keep Bo’s parents from going to the police, the Muldoons agreed to give the Lams their largest fishing permit, as well as a land deed to Crescent Island, where they buried their firstborn. Mike and Stephanie then lied to CJ, telling him that his older brother had died in an equipment accident.
As for the Muldoons, forfeiting their biggest permit put them in reach of financial ruin. Sean and Colin entered a business deal with boatyard owner/human trafficker Don, and used their profits to keep the family business afloat.
In the end, Sean and Colin went to Chief Raskin to confess their crimes, while family matriarch Meg went to Em for spiritual cleansing.
Ambrose, meanwhile, spoke with Percy — again, a figment of his imagination — at the bluff. They talked through everything that had happened, during which it was revealed that ex-boyfriend Brandon was the hooded figure who confronted her the night she died, presumably about her attempt to bring the trafficking business to the attention of Chief Raskin before Josh intervened. As for the person she looked to before she jumped, it was a vision of Bo — a manifestation of her guilt that had been following her since she first tried to leave the island.
In the end, Ambrose concluded that Percy died by suicide because she wanted to “leave it all behind.” Everyone on the island made it impossible for her to escape her trauma, and she needed “some relief” — something neither drugs nor alcohol had afforded her in the two years since she killed Bo. Ambrose could relate to Percy’s guilt, but he was no longer capable of taking his own life, it seemed. Asked if he could “see another way” to deal with his guilt, he nodded yes, that he did.
Below, Simonds — who developed The Sinner as a limited series with Jessica Biel in 2017, before it was expanded into an ongoing series centered on Bill Pullman’s haunted alter ego — reflects on the life span of the show and the decision to wrap things up.
TVLINE | Did you know while writing these eight episodes that this would be the very last season of The Sinner?
I never know if the show is getting renewed until the season is shot and edited and broadcast, so I always prepare myself for it to be the end. I did that a bit with Season 3, but Season 4 was a welcome opportunity to fully complete Ambrose’s journey… and I always imagined that Season 4 would close his trajectory in a (hopefully) satisfying way. That was always the intention.
TVLINE | What sort of discussions did you have with Pullman about how Ambrose’s story would end?
We’ve definitely conferred a lot about what the next chapter for Ambrose is [before each season], and we talk a lot about what’s going on in our lives and in the culture. There are a lot of tidbits from Ambrose’s past that are inspired by Bill’s life that we’ve kind of run with, but I don’t want people to assume this show is a biography by any means. [Laughs]
In Season 4, I was very interested in crafting a season around the theme of guilt — what we do with it and how it festers if we don’t process it — specifically Ambrose’s guilt after the incident in Season 3 involving Jamie Burns’ death. The show in general is about trauma, and how if you don’t deal with it, it usually shows up in different ways in life, so he and I definitely talked a lot about that — the weight on Ambrose and what ultimately will shake him out of that burden and redeem him. That becomes the reason Ambrose is so invested in what happened to Percy. She’s someone who is undone by her own guilt, which is a mirror to the struggle that he is on. The two journeys are parallel, so he’s just following in her footsteps, a few beats behind.
TVLINE | With each season, we’ve seen how the previous case has influenced how Ambrose approaches the next one. But the lingering guilt surrounding Jamie’s death hit differently than, say, any residual feelings he had regarding what came of Cora or Julian. Was letting that guilt permeate every step that Ambrose took, and every decision that he made while investigating Percy’s death, vital to reaching some sort of conclusion?
Absolutely. I think many other detectives might have seen what happened to Percy and let it go at face value and say, “Oh, this was the tragic end of a depressed young woman,” which probably happens more often than we would like to admit. The overarching question of why Ambrose is following this to its bitter end, and in the process endangering his life and his relationship in order to solve this mystery, begs another layer, and that’s the guilt surrounding Jamie. Bill and I talked a lot about the root of the character — how Ambrose is constantly compensating for a guilt that’s dogging him about his mother, or about his childhood, or about his failures in intimate relationships, and with his daughter and grandson. We’ve piled up these elements for Ambrose, and he’s trying to right the world in some way through his work.
By the end of Season 4, Ambrose has solved the mystery, but this idea of justice, or this idea of everything being set right, is much more elusive. It’s kind of an ambivalent victory. The Muldoons are grappling with what they have done, but Ambrose hasn’t stopped the larger crime that is happening involving trafficking, he hasn’t saved Percy, and he has destroyed a family in the process. There’s this ambivalent question of “What is justice? Is it possible? And if it isn’t, what is left to live for?” And that’s where the theme of nature, and the character of Em comes in, but that’s a whole other thing.
TVLINE | Did you ever considering finding a way to harken back to, or perhaps reference, Cora and Julian in the finale? Maybe a moment where Ambrose reflects on all four cases that we’ve followed over the life span of the show?
That’s such a good question. I don’t think I would have done that, only because I feel like seeing those characters and seeing those faces would have pulled our attention away from the present story involving Percy. I wouldn’t want to detract from that. So I don’t know if I would have made quite a summation like that at the end. Hopefully those characters live on in the audience’s mind.
TVLINE | During Ambrose’s final conversation with Percy, she asks him if he’s found “another way” to deal with his guilt, and he nods. To confirm: Ambrose is saying that he’s no longer considering taking his own life, correct?
Yes. That moment, to me, is the whole point of the season. It’s great that you focused on that line, because we established at the beginning of Season 4 that Ambrose is kind of sleep-walking through his life, through a fog of guilt, and it’s slowly destroying him. And he does have some suicidal ideation. It’s why he fixates on Percy’s suicide and why it resonates with him so deeply. By the end of this season, Ambrose sees through Percy, and through this story, the cost of self blame, and the cost of holding yourself responsible. It’s a neurotic cycle, and it’s its own form of narcissism, in some way — to constantly feed, and be fed by, your own guilt.
The idea of this season was to push Ambrose so deeply into [self blame], and the consequences of it, that he comes out the other end. He hasn’t even saved the day or gotten the superhero’s welcome, so by the end there is this question which is, “Do you see another way?” You see him nod and it’s kind of this release, this exhale that comes out of him and it’s like, “OK, we can leave this series knowing Ambrose is not going to go down this self-destructive path anymore.”
TVLINE | How do you want audiences to interpret that final moment, where Ambrose is kneeling down by the bluff? Has he found inner peace?
I’d like to think so. I also know, just from my own experiences, that you don’t turn towards inner peace in a specific moment. This image, for me, is implying that Ambrose is sitting with all of the good and all of the bad that he has been involved with. He is sitting in this place of nature and looking out at the water, and there is this feeling that above and beyond everything else we do in life, that there is a relationship with nature and the history of what the hell we’re all doing here. He’s sort of relaxing into that openness. Instead of clenching onto mystery and justice, and self-destructiveness and self blame, he’s beginning to let that all go and relax into just… being. And there’s something about him kneeling, too, that I find really moving. He’s in a position that is often associated with worship, with reverence, with awe. So to me it has a religious overtone without being overtly so.
TVLINE | Would you say that he’s reached a point where he can let some things go? Maybe even retire for real this time?
Yeah. I mean, I never want to define for viewers beyond what we see in the show, but I see this as a happy, hopeful ending for Ambrose. Hopefully he will go back to Sonya and make another appeal to her, having achieved that perspective. Perhaps he’ll retire, or perhaps not, but he’ll approach his work in a different way that doesn’t involve proving himself against this impossibly high bar.
TVLINE | Do you expect audiences will receive that last scene as a definitive end to the series? Or will it be interpreted as an open-ended finale?
I have learned never to predict what audiences will take away from the material. [Laughs] We all have such powerful associations and biases and experiences, and I’ve learned over the course of these four seasons that people respond and interpret things differently. I can’t hope for people to have a different feeling. Like I said before, I do feel like this is an upswing for Ambrose. There’s hope at the end of it.
TVLINE | This is the end for now, obviously, but as an anthology, it would be rather easy to pick back up a few years from now and revisit Ambrose — maybe on a different case, or in a slightly different capacity. Could you see yourself revisiting The Sinner at some point in the future, or does it feel like you’ve told all the stories you wanted to tell, and this is it?
I could definitely see revisiting the show. I think that would be a fun experience, after some time, to revisit the character. I will say this: Right now, I don’t know what else to say with Ambrose. I feel like if there were more seasons consecutively following this one, we’d be in danger of repeating ourselves with diminishing returns. But I love the idea of working with Bill again, and revisiting this world that I’ve lived in for the past five years and have really cherished, so I’m always open to that.
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