“Sharp Objects,” HBO’s latest standalone miniseries offering, ended its eight-week run over the weekend. Based on the debut book by Gillian Flynn (author of suspense novels like “Gone Girl”), the show has been a weekly tour de force for A-list actress Amy Adams, who plays Camille Preaker, a journalist sent back to her hometown to write human interest stories about the grisly murders of two teenage girls. Part of the finale’s corkscrew of twists reveals Camille’s mother, Adora Crellin (played by Patricia Clarkson), to be a murderer. “She was guilty of a very female sort of rage,” says Camille in the final episode. This line sums up the show’s theme nicely.
The series offers a different perspective on female rage than what we’ve seen before, however. Notably, men are neither the perpetrators nor the triggers of the violence in “Sharp Objects.” If anything, men are passive, meek, and slaves to their own emotions. At best, they exist to be the story’s deus ex machina, swooping in to save the day before returning to the background. At worst, they are complicit, turning a blind eye to the horror being perpetrated right in front of them by generations of women.
“She was guilty of a very female sort of rage,” says Camille in the final episode. This line sums up the show’s theme nicely.
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Unfortunately, when it comes to the ending, the show pulled its final punch, truncating Flynn’s original ending. When it came time to reveal that the murder was committed not just by a woman, but by a young girl, with her two best friends as accomplices, the show chose not to delve into the motives, the psychology, or the consequences. Instead it glamorized the killings in a slick credits sequence, leaving the audience bereft of understanding how the rage of women can produce an outcome like this.
“Sharp Objects” has been presented as this year’s answer to HBO’s 2017 hit “Big Little Lies,” another miniseries mystery based on another suspense novel written by a woman, Liane Moriarty. On the surface, both these shows are similar; “Sharp Objects” even looks a little like “Big Little Lies.” Director Jean-Marc Vallée helmed both, and there are times when the two series could be mistaken for half-sisters. But “Big Little Lies” is a show about sisterhood and how women protect their own against the violence men inflict upon them. Men are the monsters, the abusers, the ones who trap these characters into their positions in life. “Sharp Objects” has no need for men in these roles. It posits that sisterhood is a lie.
The show begins with the murders of two 13-year-old girls. When Camille arrives in her tiny hometown of Wind Gap, she finds herself informed by both lead investigators — local police chief Vickery and the big city detective Willis — that only a man could be capable of the violence (strangulation, teeth pulling) that has taken place. Men are also assumed by everyone to be in charge of this investigation, with Camille outwardly performing the trope of the inept and ethics-free female journalist. But in reality, the cops are merely foils. This is really a story all about repressed women, and the different ways their emotions manifest.
While the murders may be the catalyst for the series, the real drama happens inside Camille’s childhood home, the big plantation on the hill, where her mother reigns over the town as the daughter of the wealthiest family and biggest employer in the area. Adora, the aging matriarch of the family, subsumes the rejection she experienced as a child by her parents by performing an exaggerated form of femininity and motherhood. She is also a narcissist, so obsessed with how she appears to others that she’s developed what used to be known as Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy. (Today it’s more often referred to as Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another, or FDIA.) She spends her life poisoning her children, in order to be the virtuous martyr figure.