Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Sharp Objects? Read our spoiler-free first review here.
Closer is an episode of Sharp Objects that more than lives up to its title, taking us uncomfortably, tragically up close to the pain and suffering that has been lurking beneath the surface of Camille’s relationship with her mother. It’s an hour of television that again shrugs off the urgent need to solve the mysterious deaths at the series’ core, and, in doing so, puts this on track to be one of the best shows of the year – not because of its gripping, twisting narrative, but because of its sheer honesty in the face of engulfing darkness.
Jean Marc Vallée’s direction remains impeccable, but where he has previously excelled at crafting scenes that bleed into each other with the fluidity of memory, Closer finds equal power in a static image: that of Amy Adams’ Camille standing in a dressing room in front of her disapproving mother. Going shopping with one’s parents can be an affectionate chance to bond over the perennial struggle to find the right shaped clothing, a way to bridge an unspoken gap (see Lady Bird). For Adora (Patricia Clarkson), it’s not a joint expedition, but an instructed mission, a way for her to once again exact control over Camille’s appearance, forever clinging to the pernicious need to have everything look just so on the surface.
And what better excuse than Calhoun Day? The annual event sees Adora throw open the doors of her house to welcome everyone in – as long as they only see what she wants them to. And what she does want us to see is rather horrifying: Calhoun Day is essentially a celebration of a young woman (Millie Calhoun) who was strapped to a tree during the Civil War and assaulted by enemy soldiers to delay them in tracking down her husband – a cruel, barbaric act of abuse that, generations later, has been dressed up as some kind of noble heroism by this backwards, Confederate flag-flying town. What’s more, they get local kids to act out the whole thing on the lawn, with bad dialogue and music, neither of which can distract from the worse things on display.
Amma, inevitably, is the one to act out this atrocious play, and, despite her attempts last episode to change the narrative, she plays it straight and to the script here – much to the pleasure of her hawk-eyed mother, whom Clarkson portrays with more bile than ever. And that harmful tradition permeates the air the community breathes in – no wonder that Calhoun Day is primarily seen by Camille and Richard, the two outsiders from this grim charade, as an excuse to get drunk. Camille, in one of many scathingly witty lines, refers to the lionised Millie as her “Great Great Grand-victim”. The rest of the town, meanwhile, places gossiping bets on the identity of the culprit behind the latest, modern-day victim, whose murder is only a few days old.
The shopping trip happens to stop Camille wearing all black to the party – literally marking her out as the embarrassing black sheep of the family – and it’s sparked by a heated exchange between Amma, Camille and Adora, in which she accidentally pricks herself. “You’ve made me bleed,” the mother sighs, with that same perverse habit of blaming her daughters for things she’s done herself – a cycle of denial and guilt that only gets more poisonous with time. Once Camille steps into the dressing room, her clothes are whisked away from her, leaving her no choice but to stand in her underwear in front of her mother and Amma. After her polite request for Amma to wait in the car, we see what she wanted her sister not to: Vallée’s camera picks out every scar on Camilles’ arms, legs and stomach, feeling less like we’re viewing it from Adora’s damning perspective, but through the shocked, saddened sympathy of Amma.
“You’re ruined,” remarks Clarkson’s matriarch. “All out of spite. You want to know who your father was? That’s who he was. Spite. I’m glad Amma saw.” Uttered in such private, exposed surroundings, it reinforces just how uncaring Camille’s mother has always been towards her daughter – like everything else, she views Camille’s self-harm as some kind of personal offence against her.
That festering, brewing hurt is amplified over and over through the lens of Calhoun Day, which brings the entire town into a single location where they’re asked to look upon their own distorted mirror image of themselves and their history – even as the secrets of their pasts slowly boil up from below the ground. Even the runtime of the episode, kept strictly to that single day, reinforces the pressurised claustrophobia of the outdoor ritual. It’s only a matter of time until something blows, and Robert and John start trading blows – a scuffle that happens partly because of Robert’s determination to uncover what happened, but also because the rest of the town keeps staring at them, willing for one of their fuses to spark. In Wind Gap, hatred is a spectator sport, and just like Vallée’s astute camerawork, the eyes have the upper hand in every scenario.
There are loaded glances aplenty to spy, from Camille’s flirting whispers with Richard at the back of the group to all those accusingly looking at John or suspiciously glaring at Camille – her first article, which appears to suggest Natalie’s killer was either Bob or John, was published just in time for the town to digest it, share it and close its doors upon the outside world once more. Camille, nonetheless, is the one to help Amma, after she runs away from the event into the woods – and the cabin that has haunted so many flashbacks is the place where Camille instinctively goes to find her sister, fortunately alive and well, but distressed. Adora seems to thank Camille afterwards, inviting her for a drink on the veranda, but it’s all part of her deluded, self-obsessed neurosis.
“Good tree, bad apple,” is how Chief Vickery, at the heart of all this, describes Camille to Richard – both he and Adora continue to warn the agent of how dangerous she is, because of the way she refuses to follow Wind Gap’s expected code of behaviour. But the truth is there to see for anyone without blinkers: the apple may be bruised, but only because the tree is rotten right the way through. We know, by now, that Sharp Objects isn’t about to yield its narrative fruit quickly, and any suspicion that the answer to the crimes at its centre will be linked to these twisted family relationships is rapidly turning to certainty.
As we get closer to that stinking core, Adora dresses it up with sweet smiles and pretend confessions. “You can’t get close to anyone,” she tells Camille, pulling away from her daughter as she does so. “That comes from your father and I think it’s why I’ve never loved you.” Later, we see Camille and Richard feverishly chase after a burst of physical proximity to remedy that precisely painful detachment – and, unlike the pivotal dressing room scene, Camille’s clothes stay on until the lights are off.