Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Sharp Objects? Read our spoiler-free first review here.
Sharp Objects gets better and better with its third episode, which surrounds Amy Adams’ Camille with equally complex female characters. Adams has delivered a powerhouse performance in the first two episodes of HBO’s drama, with an intensity that slowly sucks everything else around her into a growing mass of melancholic darkness. That becomes even more pronounced as the show opens up the world of Wind Gap bit by bit, introducing us to the people in Camille’s orbit who have been impacted by her spiral, or, more often than not, pushed her into it.
Adora is the culprit who immediately springs to mind, as we’ve seen her brand of poisonous parenting up close – a bundle of fake smiles, pernicious insults and insidious blame.
“You never mean to do anything,” she scowls bitterly at her daughter, as she prunes her roses in the garden. When she pricks herself on a thorn, she pins that on Camille too. “Look what you’ve done,” she scolds.
Adora is more disapproving than most locals of Camille’s investigative reporting of the deaths that are plaguing the town – she doesn’t just frown at the idea, but actively interferes with it, storming in on an interview between Camille and Bob, the father of the first murder victim. She notes his DUIs and an assault on his police record, only for Adora to interrupt and apologise on her daughter’s behalf, even though the interview was going amicably and respectfully until then. Tellingly, though, she doesn’t arrive before Camille asks whether Bob thinks a man was the murderer.
“I’d put money on it,” he reasons. “Women around here, they don’t kill with their hands. They talk.”
That’s the hotbed of distrust and unhappiness that Camille’s sadness has partly seeded from, and it’s still going strong today, as the cast (particularly the acid-sharp Patricia Clarkson) relish the power their harmful words can have.
The roses in Adora’s garden, as far as she’s concerned, were damaged by Camille, but we know differently: the episode opens with Amma drunkenly driving a golf cart into her mother’s front yard, something that Camille covers for, and helps her sister up to bed. No wonder, you might think, that Amma seems to regard Camille with some affection.
“Why are you being sweet to me?” she slurs. “Why shouldn’t I be?” asks Camille. “Because I’m not nice,” comes the reply. And it’s the start of an exchange that turns sour as the evening draws on – you sense Camille’s not being kind because they’re friends, or even because they’re sisters, but because she knows first-hand what having Adora’s anger directed at you can be like. Sure enough, it’s not long until Adora continues to pour her bile into Amma’s ears.
“You need to understand that your sister doesn’t see herself in a good light,” she cautions of them spending time together. “It is something that has caused her difficulty. You need to be careful with Camille. She is not someone to be admired. You are not safe around her.”
Raised in that house, which is far from healthy or happy, Amma results in a complicated young woman every bit as intriguing and tragic as Camille. Eliza Scanlen delivers a superb turn as the innocent teen, who is a festering combination of attention-seeking, bitterness, cruelty and drunken confidence. She’s at the age where she is both a child to be protected and an adult to be wary of; she almost flirts with Camille, as she taunts her, both in private and in public. “You love dead girls,” she mocks, then goes one step further when she comes across Camille and Detective Rich drinking in a car park. “Are you dating?” she teases, with no trace of affection in her voice.
Amma gets right to the heart of Sharp Objects’ ongoing theme of kept-up appearances and hidden pain. But she also hits upon a nerve that’s truer than we might suspect. Where a typical TV detective might well have an obsession with their corpse-based work, Amma’s accusation that Camille loves dead girls is much closer to home; this episodes reveals the real trauma that’s been haunting her since her homecoming, one that dates back to her time in a psychiatric facility.
There, Camille met Alice (Sydney Sweeney), a reclusive roommate who, over time, bonded with her. Their relationship is a strange parallel, in many ways, to her relationship with Amma, but their initial spikiness gave way to a recognised similarity: both of them cut themselves, Alice above the knee so she can wear skirts, and Camille… well, she doesn’t wear skirts.
“You survive,” she tells Alice, when they talk about getting through life with her family. That simple aim is the modus operandi of Wind Gap, as everyone buys into the idea of appearing normal and happy to simply get through each day. So when faced with two bodies, not one, local Sheriff Vickery remains convinced that the culprit is an outsider, probably Mexican immigrant. Rich, on the other hand, as a genuine outsider can more keenly perceive the hurt in the town and the kind of hidden passions and conflicts that run deep enough to fuel homicide between members of a close-knit community. “Someone had a particular problem with those particular girls,” he remarks, darkly.
We saw in Episode 2 how behaving outside of the accepted norm only makes you a villain in the eyes of the locals: John Keane, whom Camille interviews, remains just as sad as he was at the funeral, and that inability to hide his grief only brings suspicion from others. More unusual, though, is his girlfriend, Ashley, who sets up the Q&A with Camille, mostly to try and establish his innocence – and their exchange, of course, only opens up more pain all round.
Keane, also an outsider – he moved to Wind Gap from the city a ew years ago – joins Rich in suspecting the real culprit to be closer to home.
“If we’d never come here, Natalie would still be alive,” he cries. “It’s this town. Someone here killed my little sister.”
Camille’s own survival, meanwhile, has become inward-facing. Her connection to her mother has broken down. Her bond with her sister is damaged. And her mind hopping back and forth between now and her time in the psychiatric facility has infected the narrative; the flashbacks become more and more pronounced with each episode, the editing increasingly becoming a vital part of what makes Sharp Objects so affecting. Weather, sound and colours trigger memories at any point; even the act of Camille throwing up in the toilet is a memory that triggers a connection.
The trauma driving those flashbacks turns out to be the death of Alice. Camille was the one who found her body post-suicide, a discovery that prompted her to immediately grab a nail from the nearby toilet and start self-harming – an act of self-destruction that is cut against the present day Camille speeding down a nighttime highway, seemingly hoping for something to come out of the dark and hit her.
Sweeney’s performance as Alice is heart-wrenchingly sincere, with her and Adams’ chemistry instantly convincing. It’s that wholly believable friendship that is the real trauma weighing down Camille – and Adams’ appearance in those flashbacks being so close to how she looks in the present day suggests that this was only in recent years that she suffered that loss. Indeed, the iPod with its 70s music that has been playing in Camille’s car, we learn, used to belong to Alice; the bereavement has even influenced the show’s soundtrack.
The result is a thickening mystery plot that remains compelling and compellingly well drawn, but Sharp Objects strength is that it’s less about the killing of two young girls, and more about how one young girl has been a suffering victim on the inside for decades. Now, as then, her family only seem to be helping her spiral even further in on herself.
“Don’t be afraid to get a little personal,” her editor advises, as he urges her to keep writing and reporting on her hometown. Three episodes in and Sharp Objects promises to do just that.