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‘Sharp Objects’ Starts to Fill in the Blanks

For a mystery, the HBO series is unexpectedly light on plot—but its third episode suggests that the show has other, more personal priorities

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Spoiler alert

To the extent that Sharp Objects has a central Dead Girl, it’s arguably not Ann Nash, the precocious tween who was abducted and murdered a year before journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) came back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. Nor is it Natalie Keene, the headstrong tomboy whose eerily similar disappearance precipitated Camille’s return. Ann and Natalie are both dead, and they are both girls. But the Dead Girl is something more specific than that: an avatar of innocence lost and depravity concealed, a blank onto which her would-be avenger can project his (it’s almost always his) misconceptions and spoiled illusions. You can find her in noir fiction; you can find her on true-crime podcasts; most especially, you can find her on dark, gritty premium cable shows. But as my colleague Lindsay Zoladz wrote last week, Sharp Objects—a dark, gritty premium cable show in its own right—“aims at every turn to subvert our expectations about female bodies, about beauty, about our desire for ‘the reveal.’” And the Dead Girl archetype lies at the center of all three.

Contrary to the typical Dead Girl, neither Ann nor Natalie has been mythologized into something more sinister than they are, in part because they don’t have to be. Refracted through the memories of their parents, peers, and siblings, Ann and Natalie come across as normal kids, with imperfect home lives and particular quirks. (Natalie’s favorite color was black, and she kept a pet spider in her bedroom.) And placed among an ensemble cast made up almost entirely of women—black sheep Camille, Southern belle Adora (Patricia Clarkson), queen bee Amma (Eliza Scanlen)—Ann and Natalie’s femininity doesn’t make them uniquely vulnerable or precious. It just makes them people.

But as we learn in “Fix,” the third of Sharp Objects eventual eight episodes, there is, in fact, a Dead Girl who haunts this story. Thanks to director Jean-Marc Vallée’s elliptical editing style, it’s been clear that Camille is consumed by something from her past, or rather, multiple somethings. The death of her little sister Marian was spelled out in the premiere, and flashbacks have hinted at the routine yet grotesque abuses that might rain down on a pretty young cheerleader in a retrograde small town. Yet “Fix” exposes a crucial inflection point between Camille’s past as a scion of Wind Gap’s wealthiest family and her present as an alcoholic reporter, estranged from her mother and covered in self-inflicted scars. As far as murder mysteries go, it’s not a conventional twist, but it does reveal something crucial about Sharp Objects’ narrative priorities.

Camille’s editor Curry (Miguel Sandoval) theorized in Sharp Objects first episode that the Wind Gap assignment might help her get “back on her feet.” We now know he was referring to a recent stay in a mental hospital, where Camille shared a room with a fellow self-harmer named Alice (Sydney Sweeney, most recently seen as Eden on The Handmaid’s Tale). A teenage girl who cuts herself above the thigh to conceal her habit, Alice becomes a surrogate sister of sorts to Camille; she’s how Camille picked up her habit of sleeping with her iPod earbuds in, playing music to drown out her thoughts. An addict who carves words into her skin that turn her body into a horrifying catalog of fixations, Camille is in no place to serve as anyone’s rock. But in a place like a psych ward, you grab onto what you can, and so Camille and Alice develop an unsteady bond.

Within a few scenes, the viewer recognizes where they’ve seen Alice before. She’s a recurring figure in the split-second reveries and hallucinations that define Camille’s consciousness, popping up in the mirror or in Camille’s peripheral vision. We recognize other things, too: the chemical cart a hospital orderly wheels past; the toilet seat in Camille and Alice’s shared bathroom. Even before “Fix” reveals the hospital interlude’s horrific conclusion, it’s understood that we’re unlocking some core part of Camille’s personality—part of the bridge between the popular cheerleader of yesteryear and black-clad outcast of today.

For a mystery, Sharp Objects is almost shockingly light on plot. By the episode’s end, the case Camille is theoretically there to solve, or at least witness the solving of, has barely progressed. The suspects are the same, less because of any actual evidence than the lazy assumption that a disgruntled male relative, like Ann’s surly father Bob (Will Chase) or Natalie’s moody brother John (Taylor John Smith), makes for the most logical choice of killer. The leads are still nonexistent. The only real progress made or blank filled in is the blurry tangle of Camille’s past, suggesting that Sharp Objects is less a traditional murder mystery about predatory men and victimized girls than a story that uses murder to explore one woman’s dysfunction.

Consequently, the most significant development in “Fix” has nothing to do with zeroing in on Ann and Natalie’s killer. Rather, it’s the depiction of a third death that’s already happened: Alice’s suicide, by drinking cleaning fluid from the aforementioned cart. Camille’s immediate response is to violently regress to the habit she came to the hospital to try to stop, at once a comforting source of stability and a cathartic way to exorcise her guilt. Grabbing at the first titular sharp object she sees, a loose screw from the toilet she’s just vomited in, Camille starts sawing at her own skin before the orderlies physically force her to stop, though not before the episode’s title is left carved onto her forearm. Vallée’s style shows the viewer only as much as they need to understand what’s happened before cutting away to another flash of imagery. Adams takes on the heavy lifting instead, showing an outcome that’s just as gruesome as the visual Vallée declines to dwell on, if not as graphic. This is the first glimpse we’ve gotten of Camille at her most raw—the naked hurt she’s spent her life accruing emotional scars, in addition to literal ones, to cover up. Adams’s performance already offers hints of anger and despair, but the unfiltered stuff still has the power to stun.

Camille’s memories of a young woman she ultimately couldn’t protect are interspersed with scenes of another young woman who doesn’t need or want her help. If Alice is the unorthodox Dead Girl at the heart of Sharp Objects, Camille’s half-sister Amma satisfies all the role’s conventional requirements—except here, she gets to be something with more agency and menace than simply dead. A childish good girl by day and a rebellious partier by night, Amma straddles the Palmer-esque line between propriety and misbehavior, a seeming contradiction “Fix” explores in more detail than previous episodes. Amma crashes a golf cart into Adora’s beloved rose bushes, then cuddles a piglet at the family farm the next day. She drunkenly begs Camille, who left home when she was a child, to get to know her better, then gleefully provokes her in a parking lot: “Be dangerous, like mama said.” Amma is manipulative and cruel, bragging about how her underlings would do anything for her. But she’s anything but passive.

“Fix” doesn’t overemphasize the contrasts between these two figures in Camille’s life, but it also doesn’t have to. Amma is the kind of person universally understood to be a victim-in-waiting, which she both knows and plays to her advantage. Her mother is so insistently blind to Amma’s independence, not to mention her responsibility for her own actions, that she fails to see the irony in warning her younger daughter to stay away from her older one. “Your sister does not see herself in a good light. It has caused her difficulty,” Adora admonishes, in a typical elegant understatement. “You need to be careful with Camille.” But it’s Camille, not Amma, who’s at risk of unraveling from the goings-on in Wind Gap; it’s Camille who sees herself in a Dead Girl, not Amma. The typical Dead Girl show is retroactive, working to unlock someone’s hidden pain after it’s already too late. In “Fix,” Sharp Objects shows that it’s out to understand these women while they’re still alive. Viewers can adjust their expectations for what’s to come accordingly.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.