The shrine honoring the dead girls sits in the center of town, at the foot of a statue commemorating a Confederate general. The girls are memorialized through pink balloons, teddy bears, and flowers that are already wilting in the summer sun; the general is cast in stone. The first dead girl was named Ann Nash—tomboyish, unpopular, poor—and she was murdered a few months before Camille Preaker, the cracked protagonist of HBO’s Sharp Objects, came back to town. As Camille approaches the shrine one afternoon, she finds some local teenagers—among them her rebellious half-sister Amma—plucking the flowers and playing catch with the stuffed animals. “Hey!” Camille barks. “You can’t take that stuff.” “We knew those girls,” Amma replies. “We just wanted something to remember them by, that’s all. What’s the point in letting all the flowers die?”
In the distance, suddenly, someone wails. The body of the second girl—missing for weeks and feared dead—has just been discovered. The scene that follows is nearly silent, and difficult to endure: Natalie Keene’s limp body has been propped up in the window of an alley, rigor mortis curling her painted fingernails, dirty Chuck Taylors dangling a few inches off the ground. Though we cannot see yet, it is revealed in the next episode that all of her teeth have been removed with pliers.
“I just don’t understand why a young woman like you would even want to dwell on those things,” Camille’s mother Adora says dismissively, the morning after she comes home. But dwelling on those things is Camille’s job: She is a St. Louis newspaper reporter who has come home to write about the murders plaguing her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. She has personal reasons to dwell, too. As we learn in the flickering flashbacks that have now become the signature of director Jean-Marc Vallée, Camille had a younger sister who died in her childhood home, when they were both around the ages of Ann and Natalie. The memory haunts her still.
If you have heard one thing about Sharp Objects, it’s probably that it is “dark” and maybe even “hard to watch.” For a female-driven, female-created show premiering right around the time of the finale of the brutal, dispiriting second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, those aren’t exactly easy selling points. And yet, although I still haven’t been able to psyche myself up to watch past the premiere of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, I have been devouring episodes of Sharp Objects the way Camille does airplane bottles of vodka. Because of its director and its format—star-studded HBO limited series that, with any reverence to narrative, will stay limited—Sharp Objects has drawn comparisons to its impossible-to-live-up-to older sister Big Little Lies. But in truth, Sharp Objects is more indebted to the sudden shocks of horror movies and the gritty color saturation of ’90s alt-rock videos. (One particularly gruesome scene involving a pig’s head somehow evokes both the Nine Inch Nails video for “Closer” and Flannery O’Connor.) Gillian Flynn, who wrote and adapted the novel on which Sharp Objects is based, recently told Vanity Fair, “Anyone who watches this hoping they’re going to get Big Little Lies is going to be like, What the fuck have you sold me? Jesus Christ.”
“I think Variety got it right when they said it’s not Big Little Lies—it’s True Detective,” Flynn went on. “But instead of Matthew McConaughey waxing on about what it is to be a man, it’s looking at what it is to be a woman.”
In April 2014, right after the fan-frenzied first season of True Detective, the essayist Alice Bolin published a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books called “The Oldest Story: Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show.” “All Dead Girl Shows begin with the discovery of the murdered body of a young woman,” she wrote, citing a long list of recent examples: Veronica Mars, The Killing, Pretty Little Liars, Top of the Lake, and, of course, the father of all Dead Girl Shows, Twin Peaks. “The series’ lead characters are attempting to solve the (often impossibly complicated) mystery of who killed her. As such, the Dead Girl is not a ‘character’ in the show, but rather, the memory of her is.” In most of these shows, or at least the ones dreamed up by male creators, the bodies of the Dead Girls are either sexualized or made too pretty to actually shock. “Laura Palmer corpse” is a search term that brings up actual hits on Pinterest.
Four years and plenty Dead Girl Shows later, Bolin has just published a sharply observant book of essays called, what else, Dead Girls. (In the very first paragraph of the book, she grapples transparently with the name: “I find myself wanting to apologize for my book’s title, which, in addition to embarrassingly taking part in a ubiquitous publishing trend by including the word ‘girls,’ seems to evince a lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques.”) And yet the book is about much more than television shows: It’s also a meditation on the patterns of violence that have become all too ordinary in our stories of American life. Although Bolin comes from an Idaho town of just 25,000 people, her community has suffered two mass shootings in the past decade. In May 2007 a man killed his wife (like so many mass shooters, he already had a record of domestic violence) before killing a bystander, a police officer, and finally himself. Then in 2015, a high school classmate of Bolin’s shot and killed his mother, his landlord, and his boss. That same winter, after Bolin had moved to Los Angeles, she recalls, “I was in San Bernardino, California, for a doctor’s appointment when, four miles down the same street, a married couple massacred fourteen people at a holiday party for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. I found myself, not for the first time, compulsively refreshing a newspaper’s story on the shooting, not knowing what information I was looking for. I guess I was trying to divine something about proximity, tragedy, and how random these shootings really were, since they seemed to happen incredibly regularly in the twenty-first century United States.”
Indeed, one of the most jarring things about Sharp Objects is how banal and even conventional the murders feel. Reporters, detectives, and townsfolk all trot out their respective templates for coping with such an event: “Nothing people go crazier for than a murdered little girl,” Camille’s editor tells her with an eerie detachment. The question of whodunit feels oddly beside the point. The show is asking larger, albeit more open-ended questions: What is it about the town—and by extension this country—that makes something like this happen again and again? Why do we act surprised when the pattern repeats? Is Wind Gap quietly condoning subtler acts of violence that are harder to see? Notes Bolin, “In the two great feminist Dead Girl Shows, Veronica Mars and Top of the Lake, the female protagonist is both trying to solve the mystery presented by a Dead (or missing) Girl and to solve her own rape, making the question not ‘What have I done?’ but ‘What happened to me?’” This, too, is the question driving Sharp Objects’ Camille—all the way to the brink.
Wind Gap is a town of surfaces, of “putting on appearances.” When Camille’s mother Adora (who Flynn compares, in the book, to “a girl’s very best doll, the kind you don’t play with”) finds out that Camille has spent the night sleeping in her car, the first thing she asks is not “Are you OK?” but “Did anyone see you?” In the second episode, as Camille jots down notes during Natalie Keene’s funeral, Adora begs her in a caustic whisper to stop: “Camille, please. For the sake of the family, please.”
The girls of Wind Gap glide around on roller skates, their long tresses fanning out behind them like mermaid tails. Their only job is to stay pretty, safe, and, eventually, as we see of Camille’s still-catty high school friends, fertile. But boys in Wind Gap are just as limited in their self-expression as the girls. When John Keene dares to cry in public right after his sister has been murdered, this display of perfectly understandable human emotion arouses not only speculation that he did it, but rumors that he and his late sister had some sort of incestuous relationship. It’s suggested that the only reason John is “sensitive” is that he’s not originally from around there—they teach them young in Wind Gap. In the second episode, Camille tells a neighborhood kid she’s surprised he’s unafraid to play outside with a killer on the loose. Retorts the boy, no older than eight, “I’m not a pussy.”
In one of the most chilling flashbacks from the pilot, we see a young Camille—her hair shorn defiantly into a Rosemary’s Baby pixie cut—swimming in a lake. A teenage boy around her age sees her, stops, and points the hunting rifle he’s carrying right at her. He holds her in the crosshairs for a few seconds. When he lowers the rifle, disturbingly yet believably, he’s laughing.
Feminist killjoy spoiler alert: You will not see any boobs in Sharp Objects. Given that this is a prestige drama airing on HBO, this had to have been a conscious decision on the creators’ part. (There is a bit of brief male full frontal nudity, a glimpse of what I will call “dick shadow.” A Gillian Flynn trademark, apparently.)
Sharp Objects aims at every turn to subvert our expectations about female bodies, about beauty, about our desire for “the reveal.” We hear over and over again that Camille “could have been a model” and is still “the prettiest girl in Wind Gap.” And yet, as we learn at the end of the pilot, when she slips off her robe and into the tub, she has mutilated her body so thoroughly that she must wear long-sleeved black shirts year round, causing lasting damage to what many in her hometown believe to be her greatest “gift.” The camera’s fixation with the scars on Camille’s body—spelling out words she’s carved into herself like “VANISH,” “FORNICATE,” and, most bluntly, “BAD”—can at times feel a little campy and heavy-handed. But this imagery also feels in conversation with a semi-recent history of potent third-wave feminist art, from Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna performing with the word “SLUT” scrawled on her belly to Catherine Opie’s searing mid-’90s self-portraits, one of which featured the word “PERVERT” carved into her chest. (In 2002 Opie created a sequel of sorts, breastfeeding her baby with the “PERVERT” scar still visible.) Men are usually socialized to project violence and anger outward, the show reminds us. Women are too often taught to inflict it upon themselves.
Plenty of female viewers might argue that this is not something they need a big-budget HBO show to remind them—or that the Dead Girl Show is too cliché and “male” a trope to bother subverting. “Sharp Objects is a horror story of matrilineal dysfunction,” wrote the TV critic Willa Paskin, in a well-argued dismissal of the show, “a feminist series that reminds us that women can do anything, and it represents a new benchmark for series by and about women—that they too, can make pure, grim prestige television.” And yet I appreciate that unapologetic grimness of Sharp Objects (especially in a summer in which American democracy seems, as usual, to be crumbling all around us) even if it’s only a variation on a conventional form. I love thrillers and murder mysteries, but I am too often put off by their entrenched misogyny, their insistence on sexualizing women’s bodies, their all-too-predictable understandings of gender roles. (Bolin has a whole essay in her book called “The Husband Did It.”) If the strength of a mystery show comes from its solution’s lack of predictability, wouldn’t we welcome stories told from new perspectives, ones that deviate from and see beyond established norms? Shouldn’t male viewers welcome that, too?
What I appreciate most about Sharp Objects is that it is tuned into a particularly American irony: The forms of violence we condemn often sit uncomfortably close to the kinds of violence we condone, even celebrate. (Without spoiling anything, I can say that future episodes of Sharp Objects center around liberties taken by the town’s football team, as well as Wind Gap’s annual bash in honor of that Confederate general and the strange sacrifices made by his wife.)
And yet it would be limiting to see Sharp Objects only as a condemnation of the American South—the ambiance of Wind Gap is so keenly observed as to be uncannily familiar. I see in it uncomfortable reflections of my hometown, even though I was raised in a resolutely blue state on the East Coast. The sad truth is that, even in this time of great division in America, we are still united by a history of violence, a white supremacist patriarchy, and the myths we repeat to delude ourselves of those uncomfortable truths: “Boys will be boys.” “It can’t happen here.” “That’s not who we are.” Big little lies indeed.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.