“Don’t tell Mama.”
Those three words come up over and over again in Sharp Objects, HBO’s latest limited series from author Gillian Flynn, showrunner Marti Noxon, and director Jean-Marc Vallée. Sometimes they’re phrased as a commanding statement, sometimes as a beseeching question, but always as a secret between Camille Preaker (an incomparably good Amy Adams) and her younger sisters — first Marian (Lulu Wilson) and later Amma (Eliza Scanlen) — kept hidden from their mother, pig-farm heiress and matriarch Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson, even more terrifying than she was as Tammy 1). Adora controls and covets. It’s unclear whether she knows how to love.
Sharp Objects takes place in Wind Gap, Missouri, a town populated by the extremes of “trash” and “old money,” Camille tells her editor at the St. Louis newspaper where she works, and she’s “trash from old money,” a rare bird indeed. In other ways, too, Camille seems strange, dressed always in all-black, long sleeves and long pants and ankle boots, even in the Southern heat. Her phone is smashed; her wooden desk has deep gauges in it; she gives a mean hard gaze. But her editor has faith that she’ll get the handle on a story coming out of Wind Gap: the murder of one young teen girl and the disappearance of another, the kinds of crimes that rock and rile a small town with nothing better to do than suspect their own.
So Camille returns to Wind Gap, a place she hasn’t been to in years, to confront the gossip that has swirled in her absence (“You were it,” gushes a high school cheerleader who heard wild stories of Camille’s own youth from an older sister) and the family she’s avoided since the first opportunity arose to do so. “Don’t embarrass me again,” Adora says almost immediately after their reunion, and that line alone is a glimpse into the kind of mother she must have been: aloof, distant, more interested in the power affiliated with running Preaker Farms — the town’s primary employer, the reason Wind Gap smells like blood and pig shit — than in the responsibilities of raising two daughters.
Because there have always been two daughters, with different fathers. First it was Camille (whose father Adora refuses to discuss) and her little half-sister Marian, a relationship we see in brief glimpses and flashbacks, lasting often seconds but sometimes minutes, in Vallée’s customary style. (Think of the memories in Big Little Lies, of the violence experienced by Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, the rape suffered by Shailene Woodley’s Jane, or the affair pursued by Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline — those experiences weren’t always discussed, but we saw their lingering effects on the women, and how they banded together to form a community united against the violence of men.) Camille was a teenager and Marian was a child, and she died. Years later, when Camille grew up into the uncontrollable high schooler whose antics are still murmured about in Wind Gap, came half-sister Amma, born to Adora and her ineffectual husband Alan (Henry Czerny), the kind of guy who asks “Who?” when Adora shares that Camille has come home. The actions of the men in Big Little Lies reverberated outward, affecting the women around them and simultaneously turning them against and toward each other. The men in Sharp Objects don’t seem to matter at all.
There is the town sheriff who so often visits Adora that every member of the household knows his regular drink, who resolutely tells Camille that no woman could do these crimes and that it must have been a trucker — or a Mexican — from out of town. There is Kansas City detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina), who refuses to buy the sheriff’s story but still thinks it was a local who was responsible — and again, a man. And there are the fathers and brothers left behind of the missing girls: the former who shares with Camille that he’s happy his daughter wasn’t raped, but only killed, and the latter whose inconsolable grief is so strange to the town that they paint him guilty at once.
Sharp Objects builds a world that is humid and simmering and tense, where everyone thinks they deserve to know what their neighbor is saying, thinking, doing, where most everyone is poor except for the people who are so rich and so bored that they revert to Confederate sympathies to make life interesting. There are teen girls on roller skates exploring every inch of town, drinking and smoking and courting popularity with their bodies as currency — and Amma is their queen, a girl who pretends to be a doll for Adora and who pretends to be another person for Camille, a miniature version of her, but harder and colder. “Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them,” she says to her older sister, but Camille is someone who has caused so much pain for herself that her teen sister’s bold declarations of power seem desperately naive. There are mini alcohol bottles clinking against each other in Camille’s reporter’s bag; a needle pushed into her car seat that once made its way under her nail; a body scarred by a lifetime of pain and guilt. Camille has spent years destroying herself. Amma is just playing at it.
I’ve read Flynn’s novel and seen the first seven episodes of the eight in this mini-series, and I can tell you that Sharp Objects is both more brutal than I expected and yet somehow also more enthralling, a story told in great chunks of grimness with little bursts of hope throughout, so unusual when they appear that you’ll almost miss them. There are horrendous images here, portrayals of self-harm, violence, suicide, and sexual abuse that are bloody and vulgar and shocking and garish, but the series leans into the idea, much like Big Little Lies did, that woman are not to be underestimated, that the opinions of men do not define them, that their purposes and their motivations can intertwine with sexual desire but also be outside of them. Adora, Camille, and Amma are not the same women, but they’re each fiercely independent, each somewhat carnivorous in their dealings with men, each deeply angry, each predominantly alone. Adora’s master bedroom is not to be shared with her husband. Camille has a reputation (“Watch your liquor, watch your men” some high school classmates snark when they see her in town), but she bristles at the idea that she’s any less of a woman for not having children. And Amma is a girl mimicking maturity, still interested in the rituals of childhood — letting Adora brush her hair, working together on a dollhouse fashioned as a duplicate of the family mansion — but also eager to know Camille, to test her boundaries, to understand femininity on a sisterly level instead of just a hierarchical, matriarchal one.
“Be dangerous, like Mama said,” Amma urges Camille; “Guess you can’t trust Adora’s girls, can you?” a townsperson snarks; “Around here, ‘Bless your heart’ means ‘Fuck you,’” Camille says. Everything is raw and everything is festering; like Adora remarks of Camille, things are “ripe.” But ripeness leads to rot, and how one devolves into the other is what Sharp Objects is obsessed with exploring. It’s an undertaking that is mostly harrowing but sometimes quite beautiful, and it’s a must-watch this summer.