Director Jean-Marc Vallée can helm a banger of a series, he can build communities and relationships and places fraught with tension and competition and trauma, but his prioritization of shock over context is now a pattern and a detriment. He’ll haunt you with a final image, but he fails to take the needed step of explaining it. It was a misstep with the season finale of Big Little Lies last year, and it was a misstep again with Sunday’s series finale of Sharp Objects.
With each series, Vallée has surrounded himself with women and has built projects around telling their stories. Reese Witherspoon brought him into Big Little Lies after they worked together on her adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, and Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern were constantly effusive in their praise for him during countless awards ceremonies. For Sharp Objects, Vallée worked with author Gillian Flynn, adapting her own novel to series, and showrunner Marti Noxon, who took over Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Joss Whedon after he left for Angel and has since worked on unREAL and Dietland (along with writing the underrated Colin Farrell/Anton Yelchin vampire remake Fright Night, which I liked very much, please don’t @ me). Noxon spoke before the series premiered about “toe-to-toe screaming matches” with Vallée about sticking to the script, and Pajiba alum Joanna Robinson revealed in a Vanity Fair piece Sunday night that Noxon and Flynn had come up with the final lines of the series finale, “Don’t tell Mama,” and worked with Vallée on the abrupt ending.
Weeks ago, when I wrote about Sharp Objects after seeing the first seven episodes of the show but not the finale, I started my review with those three words, which come up over and over again throughout the series.
Amma (Eliza Scanlen) being conspiratorial, attempting to build camaraderie with her older sister Camille (Amy Adams), trying to band together against their mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) — each time, she demands, “Don’t tell Mama.” She wants to hide her behavior from Adora, to keep up this veneer of a doting, devoted, fragile daughter who needs protecting, she doesn’t want Mama to know that the daughter she has been coveting dares to be someone she can’t control outside of her reach. Don’t forget what she says to Camille about power dynamics between people; from Flynn’s novel:
“Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them,” Amma said, pulling another Blow Pop from her pocket. Cherry. “Know what I mean? If someone wants to do fucked-up things to you, and you let them, you’re making them more fucked up. Then you have the control. As long as you don’t go crazy.”
It becomes increasingly clear throughout the first seven episodes of Sharp Objects that Amma enjoys being sick, or at least enjoys the closeness it affords her to her mother. She curls up into Adora’s lap, she tells Camille it’s easier to let Adora do what she wants, she revels in being doted on, on the possibility that she could be loved just as much as poor dead Marian.
Her father Alan (Henry Czerny) is of no particular use; he turns a blind eye to both Amma’s eerie intimacy with Adora and her acting out, and ultimately tries to divert police away when he knows Adora is “tending to” Camille. He is a vision of bemused complicity, especially at that dinner table when Amma speaks of her obsession with Persephone, queen of the dead, and the town’s Woman in White, a nighttime story used to scare children. (I prefer the novel’s explanation that Amma was inspired by Artemis, the blood huntress, but also liked how the show fashioned her into a vengeful Ophelia, so this is a break-even point.)
Amma is a child with the anger of an adult, with the rage of years behind her, who knows her body has been used and her emotions have been manipulated and her safety is constantly in jeopardy. “Don’t tell Mama,” Amma says, both a question and a command, and the series ending with the reveal that she is a killer by intention, not by disease, pivots the focus of Sharp Objects clearly to her. The mystery has been solved, Amma is the girl with the teeth, Amma is leaving her fate up to Camille’s hands. Amma is the monster in the woods, Amma is the demon lurking behind you, Amma is the woman come from the underworld to exact revenge. Amma, Amma, Amma.
And yet, how does the series impart this information? In snippets during the credits, without a voice to Amma’s motivations or her desires, without an explanation. As a reader of Flynn’s original text, this is an infuriating ending, one that not only fails to re-center the series onto Camille—you know, the person whose trauma and heartbreak and depression we’ve been living in for seven preceding hours—but that builds up Amma to outsize proportions. Was this a show interested in showing why women hurt, or only how women hurt? The former would have been a service to its characters and the latter would not, and in choosing the second route, Sharp Objects ignores its own protagonist for flash instead of substance.
Because to be sure, Camille’s story is a devastating one, and yet throughout the series choices are made that strip her of the interiority and agency Flynn’s original novel provided. On the one hand, the series actually shows Camille doing her job—conducting interviews, writing stories, not letting John Keene’s (Taylor John Smith) girlfriend Ashley (Madison Davenport) bullshit her way through an interview about John’s dead sister Natalie. But on the other hand, there are discoveries and conclusions Camille makes in the novel that don’t come together for her here; it’s Richard (Chris Messina) who we see investigating Marian’s death, who puts together that her medical history was suspicious, and who spitefully shares that information with Camille after discovering her in bed with John. In the novel, however, Camille figures it out on her own:
My eyes were suddenly stinging and wet, and she took my hand. “I’m sorry, Camille.” “God, I’m so angry.” Tears spilled down my cheeks and I rubbed them away with the back of my hand until Beverly gave me a tissue pack. “That it ever happened. That it took this long for me to figure it out.” “Well, sweetheart, she’s your mother. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you to come to grips with it. At least it looks like justice will be served now. How long has the detective been on the case?” “Detective?” “Willis, right? Good-looking kid, sharp. He Xeroxed every single page in Marian’s files, quizzed me until my fillings hurt. Didn’t tell me there was another little girl involved. He told me you were okay, though. I think he has a crush on you—he got all squirmy and bashful when he mentioned you.”
With that knowledge in hand, Camille pulls a move straight out of The Vanishing, returning home and essentially offering herself up for Adora so that she can finally understand what Marian endured. Moments after Amma mentions her jealousy of Persephone, Camille machinates her own bargain, herself for her sister; think of Demeter venturing into the underworld to retrieve her daughter, and you get an idea of what Camille was trying to do. Again, from Flynn’s novel:
“I wanted to love you, Camille. But you were so hard. Marian, she was so easy.” “Enough, Momma,” I said. “No. Not enough. Let me take care of you, Camille. Just once, need me.” Let it end. Let it all end. “Let’s do it then,” I said. I swallowed the drink in a belt, peeled her hands from my head, and willed my voice to be steady.
Is Camille this intentional in the series? She becomes sick in “Milk” and is tended to by Adora, but I don’t think the show makes clear if this was on purpose, if she knew what she was doing when she sat down for that final family dinner, if she could have guessed that Richard and her editor and father figure Curry (the lovely Miguel Sandoval) would come for her. That was a plan that Camille in the book set up to trap Adora, to obtain vengeance for Marian after her death at Adora’s hand by Munchausen by proxy, and to save Amma; the show maintains the whodunit mystery rather than imbue Camille with that much power.
Which leads us, again, to that abrupt ending. After a half-hour or so of seeing Camille and Amma settling into a happy life in St. Louis, of working on homework and visiting Adora and dinner with Curry and his wife, comes Camille’s discovery of that dollhouse ivory floor, of dozens of teeth lacquered into the miniature, of the remnants of Amma’s victims inside Camille’s tidy attempt at a home.
We don’t see Camille’s response to Amma’s “Don’t tell Mama” because the in-credits scenes show Amma committing the crimes; we don’t know if Camille turns her sister in; we don’t know if Camille, who we see in “Milk” abstaining from alcohol and no longer self-harming, turns again to those behaviors. Up until this point, the show has hammered home her trauma and her self-hatred, but given this attempt at closure, at some sort of step forward, the show refuses—again a disappointment because in Flynn’s source text, we see Camille finally move toward people who love her. Amma is arrested, and after Camille attempts to turn a knife on her face, she’s stopped by Curry and his wife, who take her in. That portion of Camille’s essay that Curry read out loud in “Milk” is pulled from the actual final page of the novel, and in that context—Camille knowing what her mother did, what her sister did, and attempting to make sense of being the surviving Preaker in between two violent Crellins—has greater impact:
All sharp objects have been locked up, but I haven’t tried too hard to get at them. I am learning to be cared for. I am learning to be parented. I’ve returned to my childhood, the scene of the crime. Eileen and Curry wake me in the mornings and put me to bed with kisses (or in Curry’s case, a gentle chuck under the chin). I drink nothing stronger than the grape soda Curry favors. Eileen runs my bath and sometimes brushes my hair. It doesn’t give me chills, and we consider this a good sign. It is almost May 12, one year exactly from my return to Wind Gap. The date also happens to be Mother’s Day this year. Clever. Sometimes I think about that night caring for Amma, and how good I was at soothing her and calming her. I have dreams of washing Amma and drying her brow. I wake with my stomach turning and a sweaty upper lip. Was I good at caring for Amma because of kindness? Or did I like caring for Amma because I have Adora’s sickness? I waver between the two, especially at night, when my skin begins to pulse. Lately, I’ve been leaning toward kindness.
The Camille in Flynn’s novel is afforded a chance to grow and to move forward, whereas in the series, we only see her gaze backward. Think of how in the other portion of her essay that Curry reads out loud in “Milk,” most of it is about Adora, not Camille: “The prosecution says my mother is a warrior martyr. If she was guilty, they argued, it was only of a very female sort of rage. Overcare. Killing with kindness.” Vallée’s directing style is built on this idea of time as a fluid, circular thing, of being trapped in rhythms and memories, and it works beautifully in building an image of who Camille was—a girl who hurt herself to prove she was still alive. But when it’s time to show who Camille will be, Sharp Objects stumbles, instead shifting focus from Camille, the victim who turned into a hero, to Amma, the victim who turned into a monster. Why wasn’t Camille’s story enough?
Which brings us to Big Little Lies, in which Vallée and writer David E. Kelley, who penned all seven episodes of the Liane Moriarty adaptation, also made a choice that denied a pivotal character of their own motivations: when Bonnie Carlson (Zoe Kravitz) pushes the abusive rapist Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård) down a set of stairs to his death.
Until this point, so much of Bonnie’s characterization has been in relation to Witherspoon’s tightly wound Madeline: she patiently listens to her husband Nathan’s (James Tupper) complaints about his ex-wife, she warily tolerates Madeline’s husband Ed (Adam Scott) showing up at her yoga class; and in her few interactions with Madeline, she tries to strike the right balance between self-sufficient and empathetic, only really losing her shit when Madeline throws up all over a fancy dinner Bonnie has prepared.
Which is why her sudden burst of violence toward Perry is so shocking, and ultimately—much like the Adora reveal—unsatisfyingly abrupt. She realizes something is wrong at the school fundraiser, she sees all the women trying to fight off Perry, and she appears out of nowhere to send him flying into the night, an avenging Audrey Hepburn in sequins and diamonds.
She is a glamorous, dangerous image, encapsulating what women are expected to be and what they’re capable of, and yet she isn’t given a voice. The show doesn’t go into why Bonnie did what she did; all we see later on is her on the beach with the other women and their children. What the show leaves out, much like Camille’s proper ending is left out of Sharp Objects, is how Moriarty allows Bonnie to explain her own actions. From the novel:
“I was going to lie. I’ve had a lot of practice, you see. I’m a good liar. When I was growing up I lied all the time. To the police. To social workers. I had to keep big secrets. … I went to pick up my little girl from my mother’s place, and when I walked in the front door, I remembered the last time I saw my father hit my mother. I was twenty. A grown-up. I’d gone home for a visit, and it started. Mum did something. I don’t remember what. She didn’t put enough tomato sauce on his place. She laughed the wrong way.” Bonnie looked directly at Celeste. “You know.” “I know,” said Celeste hoarsely.
What Bonnie says to Perry as she pushes him in the novel is important, too (“Your children see. We see”), an indication of women bearing witness and of stepping forward. But in the show? No explanation given, the women say it was an accident, and no further depths sketched for Bonnie. She gets a happy ending on the beach, but she doesn’t get interiority.
Vallée is undoubtedly a creator of fantastic moments, but in both Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies, his preference for shocking reveals shoves away what we should be seeing from these female characters. These stories are built on women’s pain, but first with Bonnie in Big Little Lies and now too with Camille in Sharp Objects, these adaptations fail to give us the full depiction of their strength.
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