Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Sharp Objects? Read our spoiler-free first review here.
“My demons aren’t tackled. They’re just mildly concussed,” quips Camille (Amy Adams) in Episode 2 of Sharp Objects, with the kind of withering deadpan that will be familiar to fans of equally hard-boiled TV, such as True Detective. Where Southern Gothic thrillers have typically been the territory of brooding, booze-loving men, though, HBO’s series is a riveting riposte to the genre’s typical macho cliches. Episode 2 opens up the world of Wind Gap a little more, but in doing so, only doubles down on the opening chapter’s absorbing approach: this is a crime mystery that’s more about relationships than plot, about character than exposition, about the mystery of human behaviour than the enigma of a particular crime. The story takes second place to detail – and director Jean-Marc Vallée hones in on them with growing intensity.
Sharp Objects is increasingly about the juxtaposition of surface and hidden truth – or, more accurately, the disjunct between what people want to be reality and what actually is. “The girl she described is not Natalie,” one local comments after the funeral of Natalie Keene, in which her mother delivers a tear-filled eulogy about the wedding that will never happen for her daughter. The more we find out about Natalie, though, the more we doubt she was yearning to be married in a picture-perfect romantic ceremony.
That mismatch between wish and truth even extends to the police investigation, with local police chief Vickery adamant that “a man did this”, because of the brute force behind the violent killings. The more anyone asserts anything, though, the less we believe it to be true – and it’s that dedication to accuracy that marks out Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) from the pack, as he tries to calculate the strength required to pull teeth out of a pig’s head. He, however, doesn’t conclude automatically that this points to a male culprit.
“I’m having trouble figuring it out,” he tells Camille in the bar – everyone in this town, even the visitors, spend their days drinking. He’s not talking about the murderer’s identity, but the town itself, and the way that people seem happy leaning on dreams rather than real life. While scouting for leads, Camille comes across a young boy playing with his sister in the park – the only kids in sight. He insists he’s not “a pussy” and she smiles at the faux bravado, but her grin is wiped by the boy’s assertion that Natalie was taken into the forest by The Woman in White, a local horror legend that goes all the way back to Camille’s own childhood.
“Maybe someone doesn’t believe it’s folklore,” she muses to Richard. “Maybe they want to make it real.”
And so the stage is set for a simmering pot of secrets that threatens to boil over at all levels of the community. A gripping, painfully believable wake after Natalie’s funeral sees Camille awkwardly touring the room, picking up on fragments of whispered gossip that just make it to our ears. The sound design on the show is impeccable, moving music into one ear or the other, depending on what Camille’s doing with her headphones on-screen, and balancing it carefully with sound effects that ground everything in her highly subjective surroundings. And so everything is filtered through her lens: the funeral in the present only sparks further flashbacks to the funeral of Camille’s sister, Marian, while the brief glimpses we get of Camille’s scars hint at past trauma and self-harm, seeping into the hazy reality of the present day; the word “scared” (only one letter away from “scarred”) is visible on her forearm, before shortly appearing on the door of her car, a hallucination that she may not see, but we certainly do.
Camille’s self-harming has clearly been going on long enough to leave its marks, even though she appears to have largely moved on. And yet her demons are only mildly concussed, to use her words, and they’re far from banished; her fingers calmly, instinctively retrace old lines, her memories always interfere with her current thoughts, and her behaviour treads the line between decent and dubious – see, for example, how coolly she sneaks into Natalie’s bedroom to get the details she needs for her story, even as she kindly helps Natalie’s old pet spider.
What’s fascinating is to see the way that, much like the town dealing with its communal grief, others project what they want Camille to be onto her. “This could be your big break!” her editor declares, encouragingly, but his hope that she can be fixed doesn’t take into account that she has no apparent interest in fixing herself. Her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), likewise struggles to reconcile the daughter she wants and the daughter she has, balancing maternal concern with bitter control – she stops Camille cutting an apple (leading to the maid hiding all the knives in the house), then, during the funeral, she wrestles with Camille to take her pen from her, a tiny gesture that speaks volumes about trying to stop yet another pointed object doing untold damage.
That intense, overbearing household hasn’t just harmed Camille, but it’s also left its pernicious mark on Amma, her sister who remains a strange double-personality in her own right. “Don’t try to work me, Amma. I’ve played that game for 20 years,” Camille spits, when Amma in the local supermarket sneaks vodka into a bottle of lemonade – an echo of Camille’s own water bottle tricks, and far from the innocent young girl Amma plays at home for Adora. There’s a wonderful tension between those personalities, and the two siblings, which threatens to unravel so fast that by the end of the episode, it’s already happening: Camille walks in on Amma screaming in pain and having some kind of fit, as Adora tries (and seems to fail) to comfort her. Adora yells at Camille that she just wants things to be “nice” between them. “Natalie reminded me of you,” she observes at another point. “I thought maybe I could help her, since I couldn’t help you.”
Even after two episodes, Sharp Objects has many more secrets lurking beneath the surface to uncover – and many more people breaking the roles and expectations the town has set for them. Natalie’s sister, Jeanie, says in no uncertain terms at the funeral that she wants revenge, her anger contrasting with the sobbing tears of John – and, in this town, the idea of a man being so vulnerable and emotional immediately marks him out as suspicious. And yet it’s from a young girl that we get our best clue of the episode, as a teen remarks in passing that the “cool kids” aren’t the ones in danger from this killer. It’s those details that make Sharp Objects such a compelling, complex watch – how much you trust those details, versus how much you just want to, is set to make for many more hours of meaty viewing.