“Stop trying to control everything and just let go!” Who said it – Tyler Durden or Jamie Burns? Fight Club aficionados might scoff at such an easy question, but if you’ve only seen the latest season of The Sinner, you may be stumped. Such are the similarities between Brad Pitt’s iconic antihero and the Netflix drama’s newest character – both unstable men struggling with inner demons – that you’ll be checking IMDb for a sneaky David Fincher writing credit. Now, let us elaborate…
Released in 1999, twist-filled thriller Fight Club focused on an unnamed narrator (played by Edward Norton) suffering from insomnia, whose life is turned upside down when he meets a stranger named Tyler Durden (Pitt). What comes next is a steady stream of chaos that ensues while the two frustrated guys search for meaning in their lives. Eventually, it’s revealed that Pitt’s character is merely a figment of the Narrator’s twisted imagination.
In The Sinner, Jamie (Matt Bomer) survives a car crash in which the driver, his school friend Nick (Chris Messina), dies. Comparably to the Narrator and Tyler, Jamie and Nick’s relationship (fleshed out through flashbacks) is dangerously intense. Their bond is built on a mutual need to feel something more important than anyone else could understand – and after the crash, Jamie communicates with Nick via hallucinations.
The two duos cover similar ground philosophically too. The Sinner explores Jamie’s tortured relationship with his friend via their discussion of nihilism at school. They carve the word “ubermensch” on Jamie’s dorm bed – which is famous thinker Friedrich Nietzsche’s definition of the “beyond-man”, so powerful that he trumps the power of God.
Meanwhile, Fight Club sees men trying to gain that same power through physical violence. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” Tyler asks, and every next mad decision points back to the idea of knowing yourself, of proving yourself stronger than other men by fighting. They say that the ‘ubermensch’ lives at a higher level than the common man – which is all Tyler, the Narrator, Nick and Jamie could ever want. Both Fight Club and The Sinner deal with restless young men hurting themselves and everyone else because they think pain is all that matters – Nick makes Jamie stab his hand, Tyler forces a chemical burn on the Narrator’s knuckles.
Another similarity comes from the endless think-pieces on the homoerotic tension of Fight Club (men scrapping just to prove how manly they are; Tyler and the Narrator being soulmates), and they are equally applicable to The Sinner season three. Strangers tell Jamie his philosophical ramblings are gay and people wonder if Jamie and Nick were lovers – which Jamie denies. It also matters that the performances – Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Matt Bomer and Chris Messina in The Sinner – are excellent, at once violent and deeply emotional. Believable acting makes talking to someone who’s not there seem perfectly normal.
Beyond the characters, Fight Club and The Sinner also explore what happens when impressionable young people are talked into radical schools of thought – Jamie is a teacher influencing his female students, while Tyler brainwashes every man who chooses to join the ‘Fight Club’. Specifically, people are taught to disregard material things. Remember when Tyler explained why capitalism is bad and all possessions are evil? “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need,” he said. “No purpose or place.” Nick and Jamie know this too, criticising “addicts hooked on booze or money or cellphones or things, anything to not face what’s there, which is death.”
Finally, the question of these white men and their privilege is touched upon in both series. As Jamie becomes increasingly unstable, and his wife explains what her father faced when emigrating from Jamaica, he just snaps: “I don’t get to have a moment because I’m white?”
Fight Club didn’t explicitly critique its characters’ privilege, but years of hindsight make the actions of their terrorist group Project Mayhem (burning down society to rebuild a new world) make sense. When your existence – your gender, the colour of your skin, your sexuality – isn’t challenged, dissatisfaction with a boring reality makes you snap. When there’s no threat to their existence, the men in Fight Club and The Sinner decide to become the threat themselves.
There is a key Fight Club quote that sums up season three of The Sinner. On the prospect of oblivion, Tyler says, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” As Jamie moves closer to the terrifying abyss, he explains: “You have to accept the fear, embrace it. That’s when something new opens up.” What opens up here is a convincing retelling of the same story – and as long as the warnings against bored young men seeking violence as purpose aren’t taken seriously enough, it will always be worth telling again.
‘The Sinner’ season three is streaming on Netflix now