Southern Slow Burn

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A Review of HBO's SHARP OBJECTS by Allyson LarcomWe’re three episodes deep into HBO’s Sharp Objects, based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, but already the show has given us plenty to say. Sharp Objects, like the novel, is a winding and opaque psychological gothic following a hard-drinking, troubled crime reporter, Camille Preaker, as she returns to her small hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate the murders of two teenage girls. In the process, Camille must grapple with the demons of her past, particularly the death of her sister Marian and her near-impossible relationship with her mother.

The show is split between brief flashbacks into Camille’s childhood and abrupt shifts back to the present, as she delves deeper into the murders. In Wind Gap, she encounters a fascinating cast of characters: Adora (Patricia Clarkson), Camille’s proper Southern mother who seems to want nothing to do with her; Amma (Eliza Scanlen), her mean-girl younger half-sister always zipping around town in roller skates; genial fellow investigator Richard Willis (Chris Messina); and a slew of gossipy, untrustworthy former high-school classmates.

Sweet-faced Amy Adams at first seemed an unexpected casting choice for the steel-edged Camille, more of a Jessica Jones-type investigator than a Lois Lane. Camille drinks vodka in almost every scene, even when she’s behind the wheel of a car, struggles with an old habit of self-harm, and seems to disappoint her mother at every turn. But it is perhaps exactly this that makes the casting so good, because for a character as tough as Camille, Adams (alongside Sophia Lillis, of IT fame, who plays Camille as a child) creates a portal of accessibility into her difficult personality. It’s challenging not to root for her.

This is a slow burn of a show focused on dismantling the idea of a nostalgic, innocent Southern town. The murders of teenagers Natalie Keene and Ann Nash appear to have shaken what appears to outsiders a peaceful and insular community. Camille, though, with her upbringing in Wind Gap, is intimately aware of its dark side and tells her boss about it as soon as he assigns her the story. It doesn’t take long for the town’s dark side to reveal itself to the audience, as well. Whether images of dilapidated and worn-down buildings on abandoned streets, children playing with guns, or mean-spirited and controlling fathers yelling at their children, the façade is swept clean almost immediately. However, understanding the extent of cruelty and evil in the people of this town and how deep the wounds of the community go is gearing up tantalizingly as the series continues.

The show is well-made, and the story fascinates as it unfolds. Its characters each have unique and complex psychologies behind them. (This is an HBO show, after all; we’ve seen this kind of character-driven narrative on Game of Thrones and Westworld, too). By far the most interesting dynamic is the inter-generational relationship between the three women in Camille’s family: Camille, her mother, and Amma. Their interactions and perceptions are skewed by each woman’s understanding of Southern propriety and womanhood and what that should mean in the modern day. Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s work is arresting, and the visuals mingle beauty and horror in a single image. So much goes unspoken because it doesn’t need to be spoken—it’s all there for us, only if we’re watching carefully.

However, for all its strong points, Sharp Objects can be hard to get into. It’s a murder mystery, yes, but even with its genre marker, it errs on the side of abstractness. This can sometimes make the expertly-made show come off as pretentious and inaccessible. Again, one must watch carefully—this is a show that requires you to pay attention to every last tiny detail. For good or for bad, the show refuses to simply tell us anything (at least thus far into the series), which leaves deciphering the content up to the viewer.

We still have five episodes to go before we reach the show’s conclusion, but I worry that, even while it draws out the darkness and dysfunction in the “sweet” community, there are certain issues that the show may still gloss over. I’m troubled by the treatment of the show’s few black characters, relegated to the roles of maids, service workers, and the unnamed wife of Camille’s white boss. For a show whose end goal is exposing the rotten core at the heart of Southern charm, it feels very tone-deaf to have no characters of color in the main cast. In the year 2018, it feels wildly inappropriate to relegate black people to background, service-worker roles. The novel is also overwhelmingly white, as is much of the Southern gothic genre, but I would argue that an adaptation is not always beholden to its subject material, just as a book is not beholden to the pre-existing tropes of its genre.

Sharp Objects is an exquisitely crafted piece of television, but it’s also an alienating one. I don’t want to make that a definitive judgement call, though, because I believe there is still much left to see. It might become a little more accessible, but my gut is telling me I’m going to have to work for understanding. This show isn’t likely to give anything up for free. Knowing how the book ends, I’m curious if the show will take the same route, or if they’ll craft an alternate ending to keep the surprise element. Either way, I know I’ll be taking notes the next time I watch.

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Allyson Larcom is a Boston-based writer whose work has appeared in The Satirist and Wellesley College's Counterpoint Magazine. Follow her on twitter @ogrewitch, or visit her website allysonlarcom.wordpress.com to find more of her writing.

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