The most unrelentingly dark show I have ever seen is the 2018 miniseries by HBO, Sharp Objects, which is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel of the same name starring Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson.
Like a lot of prestige television, the set-up is not that different: there’s been two girls murdered in a small town and we need to figure whodunit. But Sharp Objects flips the script somewhat by having Amy Adams’ character, Camille Preaker, be a journalist instead of a detective. Furthermore, not only is Camille from the town of Wind Gap, Missouri where it happened, but she’s also dealing with her own issues of alcoholism and self-harm (she cuts herself). Oh, and Camille’s sister died when she was younger and her roommate at the psychiatric hospital she stayed at killed herself.
Again, unrelentingly dark.
While dealing with all of these issues, Camille’s mother is no Missouri picnic, either. Clarkson plays Adora, the socialite, rich person of the town, who is absolutely a devastating force in Camille’s life. The actions and backstory of the show are dark enough, but Adora’s dialogue, as delivered by an almost-whisper from Clarkson, is difficult to listen to, as she berates Camille bluntly. At one point, she even says she never loved Camille.
When Amma (played by Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s half-sister, sees Camille in her bra and panties at the clothing store and sees Camille’s scars from cutting all over her body, Adora says, “Hardly matters now; you’re ruined. I’m glad Amma saw.” I mean, goodness!
Adora constantly blames Camille for everything. Even the little things. For instance, Adora cuts her finger on a thorn while gardening and she blames Camille, somehow, for that having occurred. I loathed Adora.
The other interesting dynamic at play during the series is that Amma is not the pristine, doll-like figure she portrays in front of her mother. When out and about in the town, she’s a roller-blading 14-year-old getting high, doing ecstasy, and being overly sexual toward older men. She even sucks Camille into it, getting her to do drugs and party with a bunch of high school-aged kids.
Meanwhile, the prime suspects in the killings of the two girls are either the dad of the first victim or the brother of the second victim. The brother, John Keene (played by Taylor John Smith) has a girlfriend, Ashley (played by Madison Davenport), who reminds me of Jeanette from Cruel Summer I recently watched and reviewed. When Camille is interviewing her about the killings, she asks Ashley if she thinks the killer did it for popularity. “What other reason is there?” Ashley responds. She’s also willing and ready to throw her boyfriend under the bus for the killings if it means getting into the newspapers.
Two outstanding questions I have about John, who we later learn isn’t the killer necessarily:
1.) Unless I missed it, we never did get an explanation as to the blood they found under John Keene’s bed. Was it human blood or pig blood (he did work at the pig factory, after all)? Was it his sister’s, Natalie? Was she killed there?
2.) John said some creepy things to Amma at the pool that intimated that she could be the next one killed. I didn’t get that.
One of my only criticisms of the show, and most shows in general, even prestige ones like this, is that the female lead character almost always ends up in a romantic situation with a male counterpart for no discernible reason. If it makes storyline sense, I don’t mind a romantic angle, but most times, it does not make any sense. As such, I didn’t understand why Camille’s character and the detective working the case, Richard Willis (played by Chris Messina) got together. It made me roll my eyes.
Furthermore, I didn’t quite get why Camille later had sex with John Keene! He claims he’s 18 despite I thought only being a sophomore in high school, but yikes. That was awkward and weird to watch.
This isn’t a criticism, but more a misunderstanding: Frank Curry (played by Miguel Sandoval) is Camille’s editor at the St. Louis Chronicle, who is the one who assigns her to go to Wind Gap and cover the murders. His ulterior motive is for her to address her demons while there; he thinks it’ll help there. When he assigns the job to her, he comes across like the stereotypical aloof, cold newspaper editor. He tells Camille to grow up.
Yet, as the series progresses, he not only continues to be involved in the show to get updates from Camille on the story and her life, but he is actually a caring and almost father-like figure for Camille? It just seemed like a character switch that didn’t comport with the first impression we got of Frank. I loved him though. He provided the only comedic reprieve for the show.
The police zero in on John Keene for the murders, but Detective Willis has instead been focusing on Camille’s backstory, particularly that of her mother, Adora. That leads Camille to realize her mother killed her sister and is in the process of killing Amma with rat poison and other poisons.
Adora is afflicted with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a compulsion to make her own child sick in order to feel needed. That’s why she hates Camille so much because Camille never let her feel needed. For some reason, Camille comes back to the house and lets her mother begin poisoning her. Perhaps it was a way of distracting Adora long enough so that Amma could escape?
Unfortunately, Camille didn’t know until later that Amma was basically in on it to some extent. That is, at the end of the show, we think we have this happy ending where Adora has been arrested for her crimes and Camille and Amma have this new beginning in St. Louis, but it turns out, Amma has a bunch of teeth collected in her dollhouse. The girls who were killed had their teeth plucked out. That teases the idea that it was Amma who not only killed those two girls, but has probably already killed her new friend in St. Louis. I figured a show as brutally dark as this one wasn’t going to end on a happy note.
My only thing with that is, I thought Detective Willis established that plucking teeth from a human mouth (he practiced this on a pig’s head) takes an enormous amount of strength, so how did Adora and/or Amma pull that off? Did the father, Alan (played by Henry Czerny), help? He certainly seems like an accomplice. He definitely knows that Adora is poisoning Amma and Camille at the end.
Overall, I thought this was a brutal show to watch. It was hard to watch Camille’s self-destructive behavior, as well as Amma’s, and it was hard to listen to Adora’s verbal abuse. The whodunit mystery is also interesting, but as is usually the case, it’s background noise to the character study at play here.
Adams is a gem and plays the Camille character well. I got fully lost in her being Camille, which is the best compliment for a well-known actor and reason enough to endure the brutality.