To be a woman is to enter the world with an anger not yet quantifiable; you learn from the outset that things will not be so easy for you as it is for the boys. There exists an inherent and sometimes contentious combativeness between your sex, a survival-of-the-fittest ugliness that shouldn’t be and yet simply is: an unspoken, venomous reality that culture both downplays and overplays. We love each other, but we hurt each other, too, with a knowingness no man can really understand. It is brutal with our friends, but even worse among family. Mothers and daughters and sisters: we are fire. There has never been such a powerful, important representation of this competitive anger than there was in Sharp Objects, HBO’s terse 8-episode miniseries that concluded this Sunday, but lives on as a breathtaking mediation on the subversive pain of being female in a world that wants only to destroy you. Amy Adams as Camille Preaker – a St. Louis journalist sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on the mysterious murders of two young, local girls – rings true in a way that is hard to put to words. Camille, the broken daughter of an “old money” Southern/Midwestern dynasty (because Missouri sits so amicably in the middle of those divisions), is a lot of things: a beauty, an alcoholic, a cutter, a purveyor of truth. But she is most of all the victim of an existence she could never escape, a woman indebted to the same grisly fate as the girls she reports on – to a less-deadly degree. The fate of a woman of this world. Who must choose to either comply or rebel, for there is no other life. She rebels, and she is punished for it.
Camille’s pain is the true narrator of Sharp Objects, and when have we seen something so revolutionary on cable TV before? Camille – who returns to Wind Gap to face a mother who never loved her, a younger sister who never knew her, and a dead sister who haunts her – is something of an enigma. She pours vodka into her water bottle to pass as something normal. She hides her scars with long black sleeves. She considers her mother with the same regard as something rotten, disfigured, disavowed – and vice versa.
As we learn in the finale, Camille’s mother, Adora (played by Patricia Clarkson), murdered her own daughter Marion at the behest of Munchausen by Proxy – a mental disorder that leads a mother or authoritative figure to infringe illness upon a child by forcing them to consume poison or other materials to make them “ill.” Adora’s obsession with Marion’s health eventually killed the child; when Adora tried – and failed – to force the same care on Camille, it ended in a fracturing of their relationship. Adora then focused her obsession on her youngest daughter, Amma, who took to it more willingly, and more destructively. As the coda of Sharp Objects tells us, Amma became a serial killer herself; she straight-up killed the girls Adora focused her attention on, because she couldn’t live up to their deadly circumstance on her own.
That’s a lot to soak in. But as Sharp Objects demonstrates, the relationships between women of the same lineage is often as disturbed as that of the Preaker/Crellins. It may be a heightened take, but it’s not without truth, and that is part of the show’s power. The viewer will think this is surreality, but it is – in fact – as real, as painful, as harrowing as those dynamics get. We aren’t accustomed to accepting it because we aren’t accustomed to seeing it. Mainstream media loves a disturbed antihero – think Don Draper, Walter White, Rust Cohle – but never an antiheroine. What has Camille Preaker earned, by that token?
Sharp Objects was based on a novel by the author Gillian Flynn. I remembered, when watching it, Flynn’s essay, “I Was Not A Nice Little Girl.” The opening segment of that piece reads: “I was not a nice little girl. My favorite summertime hobby was stunning ants and feeding them to spiders.” That exact line is given to the father of a murdered child in Sharp Objects, as he describes his daughter. It describes more daughters than you might imagine. Girls, women; we have this same disaster. We ache, we inflict ache, and we will continue to be as grim and disturbed and disinclined as the men in our orbit.
Thank you, Sharp Objects, for finally seeing us.