On a panel in June of this year, Gillian Flynn explained that her debut novel, Sharp Objects, was originally inspired by what she saw as a lack of literary attention to the “dark side of female psychology.” At that time, in 2006, “chick lit” was in vogue, she said, and “it was a lot of stories about women who shopped and their big crisis was ‘Can I find the right shoe?’” Like any generalization about literary trends, this claim is debatable—Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead came out in 2004, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty in 2005, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006; and as for dark female characters, the first novel in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy came out in 2005—but in any case, Flynn wanted to write about disturbed women, and so she did.
Sharp Objects, which was recently adapted into an HBO series, centers around a mediocre St. Louis journalist, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), whose editor assigns her to write about the recent murder of a young girl, while another has gone missing, in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. He knows that she drinks too much and recently spent time in a rehab facility for cutting herself, and thinks that working on the story will be therapeutic. From the moment Camille arrives in the too-small town, the roots of her dysfunction are apparent. Her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), is a patrician housewife from “old money” who owns the town’s hog farm, its sole source of revenue. Her blond hair is permanently coiffed, and she wears kitten heels even while puttering in the kitchen. She is dispassionately polite to Camille—“your old room is the best for visitors,” she says, implying that Camille is more guest than daughter—but tries at every turn to stop her from writing her article: “Go report somewhere else, and let these people be,” she scolds.
The bedroom of Camille’s sister, Marian, who died of an illness many years before, is frozen in time, with all the accessories of sickness and childhood still neatly arranged. Camille’s teenaged half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), seems to have a split personality: at home, she wears infantilizing dresses and bows in her hair and says words like “civvies”; outside, she hangs out with drug dealers, and attends high school parties. Even her physical presence seems to transform with her personality: by the pool, she’s a leggy Lolita; out at night, she’s a big-breasted teenager; in the house, she’s prepubescent, crying when her mama tells her not to crowd her dollhouse—an exact replica of the Wind Gap home—with too many pillows.
As the show begins, only one of the murders is confirmed: Ann Nash, strangled with a clothesline and dumped into a river. Natalie Keene is still just missing, until she’s discovered, at the end of the first episode, slouched in a windowsill. Both bodies are found with all their teeth pulled out. The prime suspect in the case is John Keene, Natalie’s brother, primarily because he is, as one character says, an “odd damn duck,” and suspiciously (i.e., femininely) disconsolate at his sister’s funeral.
After the principal drama is introduced, there are few big revelations and little action until the last two congested episodes, of eight in total. Flynn’s book was originally optioned for a movie, and the story’s brevity might have been more suited for a compact two-hour thriller. Instead, the series has perhaps too much time to devote to long scenes of Camille driving contemplatively in her car, listening to music with the window down, sipping vodka from an Evian bottle. And the reveal, which comes all too quickly at the very last moment, is unfortunately unsurprising, if only because after seven episodes, you’ve probably entertained the possibility of every character on the show being the killer. But the roominess is welcome, too, because it allows for the development of more than suspense.
Camille’s relationship with her mother, in particular, benefits from downtime. The spite and resentment that simmers between them coexists with something else—not love, exactly, but an aspirational sort of affection. After an event at their house, Camille sincerely thanks Adora for not telling Richard, an out-of-town detective with whom Camille has been flirting, about the scars that cover her body. In an unusually confessional moment, Camille reassures her mother that she’ll never let Richard see the scars, because she’ll never get close with him, or anyone. The intimacy feels ambitious, unrealistic, reaching toward something their relationship might be but isn’t, and Adora looks hurt, in a generous, parental way. She’s sorry, but not, she makes clear, for anything she did: “That’s what I wanted to apologize for. You can’t get close. That’s your father.” Then she adds, mournfully, “And it’s why I think I never loved you.”
The relationship between the half-sisters, too, is rounded out over the course of the series. Amma, like her mother, is cruel to Camille—she follows her, taunts her, puts a lollipop in her hair—but she’s also intoxicating and persuasive. When Amma drags Camille to a party and feeds her ecstasy (from one mouth to another), Camille resists but then relaxes into the pleasure of being favored by this popular young woman who reminds her of the sister she lost. With any other actors in these roles, the show might easily have felt tedious and prolonged, but Patricia Clarkson and Eliza Scanlen are highly charismatic and skillful, and the characters they play provide necessary counterpoints to Camille, whose depressive affect can beleaguer the viewer.
Another consequence of the story’s baggy occupation of eight episodes is that it leaves ample time to develop the character of Wind Gap itself, even surpassing the detail provided in the book. While Flynn writes only briefly about the town’s history, one entire episode of the show is devoted to an event on Adora’s lawn called Calhoun Day, which celebrates the bravery of a girl who refused to reveal to Union soldiers the location of her Confederate husband, even when they repeatedly raped her. The show is more explicit, too, about the town’s persistent legacy of racism: in preparation for the antebellum-themed party, Adora orders around her black maid; and the only sympathetic woman among Camille’s old friends, whom they bullied in high school—and whom Flynn merely describes as an “eager and awkward…girl of mid-tier popularity”—is played in the show by a black woman (Hilary Ward), which casts the mean girls’ antics in a different light. The choice of the producers to amplify Wind Gap’s background, and the not-so-quiet racism it gave birth to, does not ultimately affect the story’s conclusion (which is loyal to the book) but it productively enriches Flynn’s narrative, by placing her characters in a social context wider than just their constrictive families.
In 2018, Gillian Flynn’s mission to create disturbed or disturbing female characters is certainly less innovative than it felt to the author twelve years ago. Particularly in television drama, it’s easier to find dysfunctional women than well-adjusted ones (even Betty Draper in Mad Men shoots a gun), and the plotlines of a variety of recent shows center on female trauma and violence. Alison (Ruth Wilson) in The Affair cuts stripes into her inner thigh for years after her young son dies, the pain prompting her to stray from her husband; Cora (Jessica Biel) in The Sinner slaughters a man in broad daylight without apparent motive, and the entire series is about uncovering the traumatic experience that motivated the crime; Jessica Jones, in her titular role, binge-drinks away a history of sexual abuse.
The collective CV of Sharp Objects’ creative team alone could serve as a syllabus detailing this recent movement: its director, Jean-Marc Vallée, is responsible for last year’s Big Little Lies, a glossy series with two protagonists who have suffered sexual assaults and who go on to wreak violent revenge on their abuser; executive producer Jason Blum made Get Out, with perhaps the most memorable female villain in recent film history—Allison Williams eating dry Froot Loops as she coolly researches her next victim; and showrunner Marti Noxon is the producer of UnREAL, about the two conniving female co-conspirators behind a Bachelor-style TV show, one of whom has a drinking problem and suffers from mental health issues.
Flynn herself, since 2006, has further contributed to the trend of portraying female ugliness. Her 2009 novel Dark Places, adapted as an ill-received film three years ago, is about a woman whose mother and two sisters were murdered when she was a child; her brother was wrongfully imprisoned for a crime that their mother was responsible for organizing. In Gone Girl, published in 2012 and released on screen in 2014 to much fanfare, a missing woman suspected of being murdered has, in fact, framed her husband, as punishment for his indifference and infidelity, and for the ways in which he forced her to maintain a feminine ideal.
At the conclusion of Sharp Objects, it turns out that the show’s fixation on disturbed women is instantiated by more characters than just its protagonist. In the penultimate episode, Camille finds medical reports on Marian that lead her to realize that Adora suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy; she made her daughter sick in order to be able to care for her. The final episode bears out this revelation in tremendously macabre fashion: Camille allows her mother to poison and take care of her, just as she did to Marian and continues to do to Amma. The two remaining daughters stagger about the gothic mansion in their cotton nightgowns, vomiting up the antifreeze and rat poison that their mother spoon-feeds them while cooing reassuringly. Rather than go and retrieve the detective, as Camille instructs her to, Amma—who is dressed up as Persephone, queen of the underworld, with a floral crown on her sweaty head of ratty hair—plays with her dollhouse and tells Camille apologetically that she has to be a “good girl.”
When the police finally show up at the house, they discover the pliers used to remove the recent victims’ teeth, and take Adora into custody for the murder of Marian as well as Natalie and Ann. (In all of Flynn’s major works, a crime for which a man has been blamed turns out to be the work of a woman, and Sharp Objects is no exception.) This plot twist is foreshadowed in the penultimate episode, when Chief Vickery—who limited his investigation early on to male suspects—warns two girls to be careful rollerblading because if “some drunk comes flying down this road, he’ll hit ya before he sees ya.” One of them retorts: “Or she. Don’t be sexist, Chief.” But, like any good one, this twist is re-twisted. Amma, with her mother imprisoned, moves in with Camille in St. Louis, and the last few minutes of the show are a montage of their life together—sisterly, surprisingly happy—until, in the very last minutes, Camille discovers both that Amma’s best friend, Mae, is missing and that the ivory floor in Amma’s dollhouse is constructed from human teeth. Just then, Amma walks in and says, “Don’t tell mama,” and the credits roll.
Only the most confident viewers will walk away from this abrupt finale feeling they understand what it means. But for those who don’t, and who stick around until the middle of the credits, a rapid montage of abbreviated clips show conclusively that it was actually Amma who brutally murdered Ann and Natalie, and now Mae, teeth bared and hair flung back. At the end of the credits is a brief series of interviews with director Vallée, writer Flynn, and actor Scanlen in which they cursorily explain why Amma killed the girls—in Vallée’s view, she was violently jealous of the attention Adora paid to Ann and Natalie and Camille paid to Mae; Scanlen describes Amma’s violence as the natural consequence of her literally toxic relationship with her mother. It’s unclear whether the producers see these interviews as part of the show, or as supplementary material, but their inclusion suggests that they thought the information conveyed there is important enough to include—though one wonders why they didn’t include it in the actual show.
The motives that Vallée and Scanlen identify come from the book’s epilogue, in which Amma is given the chance to explain herself when Camille comes to visit in prison. Camille begins to cut again, but is taken in by her editor and his wife, who tuck her in every night before bed, genuinely taking care of her in the ways that Adora feigned. The complete omission in the television series of this, or any, denouement contributes to the show’s already uneven pacing. After many episodes that take place over the course of a single, uneventful day (or afternoon), during which we are privy to the yawning time of a Southern summer, the final episode jams so much in—Adora poisons Camille; Camille is rescued; Adora is arrested; Camille and Amma move to St. Louis; Adora is convicted in court; Amma becomes best friends with Mae; Amma kills Mae; Camille discovers that Amma was the murderer—that it spills over into the credits, and still manages to leave many questions unanswered.
This problem of pacing is not only jarring, but feels like a betrayal. Because of the sparseness of clues and developments, by the end of the fourth or fifth episode I had started to sense that the series was in fact less interested in resolving the mystery and more interested in solving Camille: determining why she is the way she is, and offering, perhaps, some possibility for her redemption. One episode is almost entirely dedicated to a depiction of her friendship with a young woman in rehab; there are frequent flashbacks to her childhood with Marian; and much is made of her sexual history—she was assaulted by football players in high school, and masturbates while recalling images of women in bondage. Camille is treated, quite literally, as a text to decipher: her body is covered with words that she has cut into herself, and each episode in the series is named after a scar on her body (“Milk,” “Cherry”).
At the conclusion of the show, though, we are left with none of the psychological resolution that the book provides, and no sense of how Camille will process Amma’s guilt: Will it encourage more self-harm? Will it help Camille face the root of her problems? Will she feel responsible for failing to see the danger Amma presented to Mae?
There is much to recommend Sharp Objects: its visual language is rich and fugal (blades, pigs, fans recur) and rewards close watching. But the dissatisfaction of the show’s conclusion speaks to a larger confusion in the aim of the series, as articulated by Flynn herself, who did a great deal of publicity for the show. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly, she explained that, to her, “Sharp Objects was a character study hidden inside of a mystery”; but for Rolling Stone, she described the show as “largely a feminist fairy tale”—a genre not particularly well-known for its searing psychological portraits. Whereas the show seems, at its midpoint, to use the two girls’ murders to access Camille’s complex and damaged psyche, by the end it seems that our protagonist’s trauma was being used all along simply to lead us to her wicked ice mother and vicious little half-sister. Her scars, then, are less like a window into Camille, and more like a clue toward solving the murders—if Camille responded to her mother’s abuse by cutting herself, mightn’t Amma have needed an outlet, too?