Warning: This article contains major spoilers for “Sharp Objects.”
Finishing up its first—and reportedly only—eight-episode run on Aug. 26, HBO’s “Sharp Objects” wrapped up a sweltering tale of confronting trauma and horror and of weaponized pain. If you missed this show as it aired, it’s absolutely worth watching.
“Sharp Objects” is based off the book of the same name by author Gillian Flynn, who also penned the subversive thriller “Gone Girl.” “Sharp Objects” (the book) was her first novel and bears the hallmarks still apparent in her later writing: a damaged female protagonist (if you can call her that), a moody Midwest American environment, and a couple of gut-punching twists. “Sharp Objects” follows haunted journalist Camille Preaker (a pointedly excellent Amy Adams) back to her childhood home of Wind Gap, Mo., and specifically back to her family’s Southern Gothic house of horrors, ruled by her overbearing yet withholding mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson, resplendent). Camille’s sister Marian died as a result of illness, and Adora focused her grief onto Camille’s younger sister, a teenager named Amma (Eliza Scanlen). Camille, on the other hand, turned her grief inward, carving words into her skin. Her homecoming could very well send her over the edge.
Camille returns to Wind Gap to write about the investigation into the death and disappearance of two teenage girls. The sleepy town is rocked by the violence as the gruff local sheriff (Matt Craven) and unpopular detective from Kansas City Richard (Chris Messina) close in on a few (male) suspects for the crimes (Taylor John Smith as the brother of one victim and Will Chase as the father of the other). Town gossip Jackie O’Neill (the always fantastic Elizabeth Perkins of “Weeds” fame) rounds out the cast in this part-mystery, part-character study.
Each episode of “Sharp Objects” is almost bruising in its intensity. While the heaviness of the setting and story matter makes the series hard to binge (every episode seems to require a lot of deep breathing after watching, to calm the soul), the performances of such rich material, presented so stylishly makes this show worth the emotional effort.
The series is a marvel of editing. (Series director Jean-Marc Vallée of “Big Little Lies” brings a stylistic flourish.) The past and present blend together in a way that feels almost dreamlike. (The fact that the younger version of Camille, played by Sophia Lillis, looks so similar to Amy Adams that I legitimately could not tell the difference at times helps.) Images flash, seeming like free-form associations. Most notably, words are hidden everywhere onscreen, reflecting Camille’s scars. The thematically-relevant words add another layer to Camille’s psyche. (Kathryn VanArendonk fastidiously chronicled them at Vulture here.) It’s an unsubtle (like when “wrong” flashes on the radio as Camille drinks herself into a stupor), but effective way of communicating the thoughts and feelings of our characters and reinforcing the themes of the episode. (“Lipstick” appears as Camille hangs out with her old girl friends from high school.) It’s unnerving in a very fitting way.
Beyond the editing, the performances are career highs. That Amy Adams has not won an Oscar yet (despite five nominations in eight years) is a crime. However, her turn as Camille Preaker all but guarantees her an Emmy for her gutting performance. Likability in terms of female characters in media is a spiky concept; too often women in television or movies are denied the complexity of male characters. If they do achieve the moral ambiguity and rich interiority that makes such characters as Walter White and Don Draper so compelling, they are summarily dismissed as “bitches.” So, while it’s not a necessity that Camille is likable—and she’s not—it’s a testament to Adams’ skill that she’s sympathetic and compelling. She brings a specific energy to every scene, and it varies based on who she’s interacting with: flirty with Richard, wry yet somewhat maternal with kid sister Amma, and flintily adversarial with Adora. It’s her scenes with Clarkson’s Adora that really crackle; the two actresses together share a wealth of information with the slightest look.
If Clarkson’s turn as Adora Crellin doesn’t snag her another Emmy, it’ll be a tragedy. It’s clear that Clarkson relishes every line Adora chews and spits out. She embodies her with a particular physicality, distinctive down to how she walks and the way she moves her hands. It’s a wonder there’s any scenery left after Patricia Clarkson chewed it so thoroughly, imperious and so secure in her role as a mother who lost a child. It’s this role that allows Adora, and “Sharp Objects,” to subvert the trend of the Dead Girl.
In Alice Bolin’s collection of essays in “Dead Girls: Surviving an American Obsession” (reviewed here by Arts & Culture Editor Tara Joy), she tackles the trend of the Dead Girl, the ever-present cipher of a woman whose death, most notably at the hands of men, becomes a jumping off point for male character journeys. “Trust no dad,” Bolin says of any Dead Girl show, and it’s here that “Sharp Objects” flips the script.
There are dead girls on “Sharp Objects”; the entire plot is jump-started by the murder of a teenage girl, and before long another body is found. But the show explores female rage in a way that feels different from watching another show where a man kills a girl. When Adora is eventually arrested for murdering her own daughter (by slowly poisoning her as a result of her Munchausen’s by proxy), it’s because she cared too much; it’s as if she performed her role as a mother too well. The characters in “Sharp Objects” put a premium on motherhood in a way that ostracizes childless Camille and canonizes Adora. In Wind Gap, we say trust no mom.
“Sharp Objects” foregrounds its treatment of women, specifically its depiction of female pain and rage, showing how it may be turned inward (as by Camille), or transformed into performative maternity (as Adora does). In “Sharp Objects” the line between victim and perpetrator is blurry—especially in the case of Amma, who also suffered Adora’s poison ministrations but inflicted more than her fair share of pain in Wind Gap. After watching so many women suffer at the hands of men, “Sharp Objects” offers a subversive opportunity to watch the destructive effects of female rage left unattended.
Meg Cummings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.