Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Sharp Objects? Read our spoiler-free first review here.
“Don’t tell mama.” With those three words, Sharp Objects completes its full circle of internalised abuse and externalised violence. Gillian Flynn’s story is one of toxic parenthood, a tale fuelled by things not said by mother or child, either because they’re afraid or they’re in denial. Jean-Marc Vallee’s TV adaptation (penned by Marti Noxon with skin-crawling nuance) has been so effective because it’s immersed us entirely in that distorted perception of the world, not only conveying Camille’s past trauma as it involuntarily interrupts her present, but also refusing to dwell on details Camille herself cannot process or doesn’t want to. It’s poignantly fitting, then, that the final revelation of this twisting narrative only occurs once the end credits have started.
We pick up from the penultimate episode with Adora’s poisonous plan fully in the Camille’s headlights, and the whole family sitting around the dinner tablet like there’s nothing wrong – Adora serving up spoonfuls of sugar to help her medicine go down, after all, is just business as normal for the Preakers. “One they have a preferred poison, they tend to stick with it,” observes Rich to Camille, later, with an unnerving, matter-of-fact familiarity.
Rat poison, it turns out, it Adora’s venom of choice, spooned up with a sickly sweet smile. Over the years, Amma has built up a resistance to it – a dark metaphor for the way that children naturally adjust to damaging home lives and harmful parenting. Camille, on the other hand, has built up her own resilience to life – after a lot of pain, both self-inflicted and otherwise – but hasn’t built up a tolerance to rodenticide, because she, unlike Amma, has been free from her mother’s grasp for several years. When she pretends to be sick to divert Adora’s attention away from Amma, she therefore gets a hard dose of the killer liquid – she almost dies from over-mothering.
It’s only when Richard calls round for Camille that how insidious the whole household has become is made clear; Camille’s step-father, Alan, lies to cover Adora’s behaviour, signalling him as complicit in the abuse. Richard, though, doesn’t give up easily and he returns with Chief Vickery, leading to Adora‘s arrest.
Bloody pliers are ultimately found on the premises that connect the house to the killing of Ann and Natalie, but it’s telling that Adora is initially only arrested for poisoning her daughters – and, as we’re once again sucked into Camille’s perspective of events, here faintly in the background of her recovery Adora pleading not guilty in court. Things appear almost happy, with a sun-bleached hopefulness that’s at dramatic odds with the grim drama that has come before: we watch as Camille moves back to St. Louis with Amma, as she previously requested, and see Amma make a new friend in Mae – and even get a glimpse of them all happily sitting down for a makeshift family dinner.
But in Sharp Objects, family meals aren’t necessarily a signifier of a happy, healthy home. Clarkson’s imperious, creepy presence still looms over everything; the way she brazenly flaunted her relationship with Chief Vickery in front of Alan is echoed in the casual cruelty of Amma when taunting Camille, a behavioural trait that a few cheerful conversations can’t erase, while even the innocent act of feeding a loved one has been tainted by the knowledge of how Adora systematically fed toxins into Marian to make her fatally ill. “It’s always the family,” Richard said when arresting John Keene, and those words haven’t stopped resonating throughout the pernicious halls of the Preaker abode.
What’s wonderfully warped about the whole climax is the way that the characters all do show some perverse form of love; Camille sacrifices herself for Amma, while Adora ultimately takes the blame for her daughter’s actions, both oddly affectionate deeds, with the former infantilising Camille in the way that Acora had always wanted. And so the circle closes, in a shrill crescendo that delves right into the madness and horror of a southern gothic murder mystery – within an hour, we see Camille running around a house in a dressing gown, unveil a larger conspiracy (Vickery and Alan both had to know something, a question that’s left deliciously unanswered), and see a doll’s house made up of body parts.
Ok, so it’s not the entire house, but let’s not downplay the fact that Amma’s prized domestic plaything contains a bathroom where the tiled floor is composed entirely of other people’s teeth. Sylvanian Families, it ain’t. It’s that final discovery that provides the sting in the story’s tail, a moment of realisation that shatters the brightly lit, optimistic conclusion that was already feeling too good to be true – after all, it shouldn’t be that easy to gloss over the disappearance of Mae, only a short while after she encounters the youngest Preaker daughter.
“Don’t tell Mama,” begs Amma with a innocent squint, reinforcing just how under her mother’s thumb she still is – so much for Camille being the child most like Adora. Even Amma’s name is only an anagram away from starting that old adage “Mama knows best”, the kind of catchphrase you can bet was sung by Adora to her wards daily. It’s a nasty blow to Camille’s hoped-for rehabilitation, one that she – like us – can only begin to piece together after her own narrative has ended. And yet even then, there’s still the lingering question of dependency and what counts as a healthy parent-child bond, a question posed by what all this means for Camille’s well-being; as she ponders in her own poetically phrased newspaper article, does she care for Amma out of pure compassion or her own Adora-like neediness? After eight episodes of things not being said, or not being confronted, even daring to ask that question of herself makes for a satisfying sense of progress.