Set in the rural Bootheel of Missouri Sharp Objects drifts through its story like the gooey cherry pie its characters eat sticks to the roof of their mouths.
Sharp Objects takes its sweet time. The miniseries, based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, premiered this summer on HBO. Hailed “the new Big Little Lies” by the network, critics, and fans alike, the show premiered with enormous expectations. Big Little Lies was a massive success, winning five Emmys in 2017, including best director for Jean-Marc Vallée, and Sharp Objects was his next directorial project.1 Aside from the similarities in the creative and production teams, the content of both stories also made comparisons between the two almost inevitable. Much like Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects is a small-town murder mystery based on a bestselling thriller novel that centers on damaged female characters. Also, both shows are fantastic.
But that might be where the similarities stop. I heard from a few friends that they dropped out of watching Sharp Objects after a few episodes because of its pace. They were expecting the meme-able, quippy quotes and fast-paced police interrogation scenes that Big Little Lies offered from the get-go. Unfortunately, Sharp Objects can’t offer you that; fortunately, it can offer you something better.
Much of the show’s pace comes from its location: The Southern Midwest. Set in the rural Bootheel of Missouri, tucked between Arkansas and Tennessee, Sharp Objects drifts through its story like the gooey cherry pie its characters eat sticks to the roof of their mouths. A loud, fast-paced thriller couldn’t exist here in Wind Gap, Missouri. And that’s what makes the end of the show even more thrilling.
The series follows Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), an alcoholic, self-harming reporter in St. Louis who is sent back to her childhood home to cover a recent crime spree in her town. One young teenage girl has been brutally murdered (beaten up, her teeth ripped out) and another has gone missing. Camille’s editor, Frank (Miguel Sandoval), sends her on this assignment because of her connection to the town, but as a friend as well as a boss he also hopes that she will repair her fractured relationship with her family.
Camille’s mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), personifies the Southern slow-burn of the series. She believes she is the pillar of southern charm and loving motherhood, and she walks through the world in a slow, gliding daze, as if she has nowhere she needs to be. Her way of speaking indicates that she wants to come across as hospitable and warm, but she ends up sounding cold and patronizing. It’s hard to tell if she is really just an out-of-touch housewife desperately trying to hold on to an antebellum ease or a sedated villain.
Her vision of being the perfect Southern mother is easily dismantled because she does not love her daughter Camille, which she matter-of-factly admits to Camille’s face late in the season. Adora is appalled when she finds out that the reason her daughter has come home is to report on the dead and missing girls. To her, Camille’s “prying” and “forcing of the grieving families to dig up the past” is the antithesis of Southern hospitality, and will only cause the town shameful bad publicity.2 Adora does, however, love her husband, Alan (Henry Czerny), and their fifteen-year-old daughter, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s half-sister. Amma, who spends hours every day tending to her dollhouse, appears to be the angelic, nightgown-clad daughter her mother has sculpted, but when Adora isn’t around, Camille sees that she is actually a rule-breaking, pill-popping, queen bee. She and her friends rollerblade through town late into the night, undaunted, even after the dead body of the second girl is found, making that the second murder of a girl exactly Amma’s age in their small town. Again, the victim’s teeth have been pulled out. Amma isn’t just a bitchy Regina George or partying Marissa Cooper, however. There is something darker about her. She repeatedly hints at this to Camille, bizarrely and suddenly telling her “I’m incorrigible too,”3 or “I’m not nice,”4 or “I get funny ideas sometimes”5 after gentler moments between the two characters that give Amma the sense that Camille is underestimating her darkness. She never says these lines in a cheeky way but rather with a haunting despair in her eyes. Amma is thrilled Camille is back home, as they’ve never had a relationship before, and Camille’s reputation as either the mentally-ill, unstable disappointment of Wind Gap, or the badass hero, excites Amma. She finally has someone to look up to, for better or for worse, and she becomes intrigued with Camille.
Vallée captures the slow stickiness of life in Wind Gap with his focus on setting. You can feel the thickness of the air, as he shoots on location (in Georgia rather than Missouri) with only natural light.6 In most indoor scenes, the camera focuses on a whirring fan pushing the air around. The show puts you into a hazy, dehydrated trance, as if you are one of the sweating police officers or a day-drunk Camille, pounding vodka in an Evian water bottle as she drives. Vallée uses flash cuts to both Camille’s hallucinations and memories, which are often difficult to distinguish, creating a dizziness as the show melts from one world to another. In her flashbacks, we see Camille struggling with cutting (including one of the most brutally graphic scenes I’ve seen on TV, when we see her old teenage roommate at a mental hospital kill herself), and we see her interactions as a young girl with Adora, and what appears to be a sister around her age. We learn that Camille had another half-sister, Marian, who died at a young age from a mysterious illness, traumatizing the family. Adora is portrayed as being perhaps the most disturbed by her death.
Other than the brutal violence seen in flashbacks, much of Sharp Objects lacks heavy action and big plot reveals. The show instead focuses on Camille’s inner turmoil as she deals with being forced back into her scarring childhood home, using many close-up shots of her face. The scenes that propel the murder investigation further are plodding, as we see witnesses and the victims’ families lackadaisically speak with Camille. The story moves the way the characters’ Southern drawl doubles the number of syllables in Missouri.
That all changes in the penultimate episode, “Falling.” After sleuthing at the local hospital, Camille and Richard (Chris Messina)—the detective of the murder cases and love interest of Camille—learn that Adora has Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and poisoned Marian to death under the guise of giving her medicine.7 In an unexpected twist, she is confirmed as a psychotic killer, rather than just a complicated, cruel mother. The final episode of the series, “Milk,” opens with Camille running to the family’s home as quickly as possible, realizing that Adora has been poisoning Amma as well, as she recently started giving medicine to Amma to help with a hangover that soon turned into a violent fever. (We find out later that Adora has slowly been giving her the poisonous medicine for years, and Amma has developed a tolerance for it.)
In this episode, Camille arrives as Adora, Amma, and Alan are having dinner. We get another hint of the real reveal that is yet to come: Amma, clothed in a white dress and flower crown, tells Camille that she is dressed up as Persephone, the wife of the god of the underworld, Hades. Amma is now white as her dress, on the verge of death from the “medicine,” made of rat poison, that her mother has been spoon-feeding her.8
Camille is the only one of Adora’s children she was never able to poison because she refused to have Adora take care of her in anyway when she was sick. But as Amma goes upstairs at the end of dinner, Camille falls to the ground and cries “Mama!” Adora, elated that can finally feel needed and look after her “incorrigible” daughter, runs to her side and tenderly takes Camille upstairs to give her the medicine. Camille, now suddenly uncomfortably childlike, goes undercover as the perfect, docile daughter, and willingly swallows spoonful after spoonful.
With half an episode left of the series, we know that the climax has to be near, but still the evening only slowly creeps forward. The soaring strings of the jazz music Alan is playing on his stereo are heard faintly in the background throughout the night. Adora gives Camille a bath and feeds her more medicine as she continues to throw it back up, and the scene of the dark bathroom only lit by candles, overlaid with 1950s music, gives an eerie Hitchcock feel. But there are absolutely no screeching, murderous string sections, only calm ones. No, this death isn’t a sudden shower stabbing, it is a leisurely bath. A slow burn. Even in death there is no rush here, and the music echoes this.
After what feels like an eternity of watching Camille slowly disintegrate, Richard arrives at the home, and hearing this, Camille crawls out of the bathtub trying to cry for help, but she is too weak. A new song plays on the stereo, this time an equally lush piano ballad, as Camille lies on the hallway floor in her towel. The climax arrives, but it still isn’t loud or hurried. Red and blue lights of a cop car shine through the window onto Camille, indicating rescue has come, but as the piano plays, the lights are a theatrical glow rather than a “gotcha!” arrest scene. The music continues as Richard and Camille’s boss, Frank, come in with police officers to rescue her. They find pliers in a drawer that match the tool that would’ve been used to rip out the teeth of the two murdered girls, and with that, they put Adora in handcuffs. Amma comes down the stairs as she is being dragged off and desperately screams “Mama!”
With that, the murder-mystery has been solved and the happy epilogue of the series begins. Amma goes back to live in St. Louis with Camille and makes a friend whom they invite over to Frank’s house for a lovely dinner. But wait, Sharp Objects isn’t this kind of show. Suddenly Camille isn’t drinking anymore and Amma is happy? It’s too good to be true. After a long, lingering ten minutes of this new, post-traumatic but “happy” life, Camille begins looking closer at Amma’s dollhouse that she has brought to their apartment in St. Louis. In an astonishing sequence in the last thirty seconds of the series, Camille sees that the floor of one of the rooms in the dollhouse is made out of human teeth. She picks one of them up as Amma steps in the front door and sees what Camille has realized. With a stunningly odd half-smile she breathily utters, “Don’t tell Mama.” Blackout. Credits. 9
When I first watched this episode, with my jaw to the floor, right hand on my pearls, and left hand reaching for a shot of Evian, I sat through ten seconds of the credits, in denial that the show abandoned me after those final seconds. I closed my browser.
What I learned from reading reviews the next day is that I missed something crucial. Fifteen seconds into the credits, a short, rapid sequence depicting Amma’s murders flashes across the screen as Led Zeppelin’s guitar wailing “In the Evening” plays. She and a group of girls bashing in the heads of the girls from Wind Gap who died, as well as Amma triumphantly and viciously baring her teeth after doing the same to her new friend from St. Louis.
The show lulls us into a false sense of closure with the long sequence of Amma and Camille acting as happy, loving sisters, so the reveal is a moment of pure shock. And because the show slowly builds for so long, it is completely jarring that the answer to the mystery introduced in its first moments is turned on its head in its final second. Shouldn’t there be a longer explanation? More flashbacks? A deep analysis into how Amma became a killer? Scenes of the aftermath of Camille’s revelation? Sorry, but no. Sharp Objects simmered and simmered in the Missouri heat for so long, just to torturously blindside us in a few short seconds with no satisfying closure. And torture is exactly what a series as brutal as this one was bound to do. Here, Sharp Objects reinforces how distinct it is from Big Little Lies. While the latter follows its reveal of the murderer with debrief scenes at the police station and a comradely beach gathering of the main characters, the reveal and sudden end of Sharp Objects is a violent slap across the viewer’s face. This slap is not dissimilar to the violence acted out by the Preaker family. Sharp Objects depicts a legacy of violence: Adora’s to her children, Camille’s to herself, and Amma’s to her peers. The series even continues explaining the family line of violence by revealing in episode six that Adora’s mother was emotionally and physically abusive to her.10 The trauma these women carry with them is hereditary, and they cope by mimicking the pain their mothers inflicted upon them. By the end of Sharp Objects, it becomes clear that the mystery of the series isn’t who killed the young girls in Wind Gap, but rather who made these women this way? Where does trauma come from? The abruptness of the reveal that Amma has followed in her mother’s footsteps is almost a scolding: we should’ve known all along that she would.
- “Emmys 2017 Winners List,” The New York Times, September 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/17/arts/television/emmy-winners-list.html.”
- Sharp Objects, Episode 1, “Vanish,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Marti Noxon, aired July 8, 2018, HBO.
- Sharp Objects, Episode 1, “Vanish.”
- Sharp Objects, Episode 3, “Fix,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Alex Metcalf, aired July 22, 2018, HBO.
- Sharp Objects, Episode 6, “Cherry,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Dawn Kamoche and Ariella Blejer, aired August 12, 2018, HBO.
- Max Winter, “‘Sharp Objects’: DP Yves Bélanger on Letting Available Light and the Subject Shape Your Cinematography,” No Film School, 6 July 2018, www.nofilmschool.com/2018/07/sharp-objects-dp-yves-balancer-letting-subject-shape-cinematography.
- Sharp Objects, Episode 7, “Falling,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Gillian Flynn and Scott Brown, aired August 19, 2018, HBO.
- Sharp Objects, Episode 8, “Milk,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn, aired August 26, 2018, HBO.
- Sharp Objects, Episode 8, “Milk.”
- Sharp Objects, Episode 6, “Cherry.”