In the limited series Sharp Objects, a sickly green light hangs over the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri. At first, series director Jean-Marc Vallée focuses on the greens of the local forest, which are as mysterious and untameable as the three women at its heart. But by the time the series reaches its dark endpoint, its yellow-greens have become lurid, reminiscent of much more stomach-churning imagery. The bare, mildewed bulb of a street lamp. A bitter tonic. Bile.
Sharp Objects is, after all, about sickness. Everyone in this psychological slow burn is either relaxing into the placid peace of sickness or trying to claw their way out of it. There’s Camille Preaker (a career-best Amy Adams), the self-harming alcoholic who’s tormented by memories of a childhood gang rape and her long-dead sister. There’s Adora (Patricia Clarkson), Camille’s Munchausen-by-proxy mom, who is a deadly nightshade disguised as a wilting flower. And then there’s Amma (Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s unpredictable sister, who submits to her mothers’ drugging as if she’s a baby doll to be played with.
In the secret-keeping South of author Gillian Flynn and creator Marti Noxon’s dark imaginations, all of this goes unspoken for seven of the series’ eight hours. Until the show’s final episode, “Milk,” Sharp Objects communicates its essential information through jarring, silent scenes that appear on screen like intrusive thoughts. In his last completed project before his death, Vallée uses the precise language of his filmmaking to communicate the depths of this dark mystery without saying a word.
In “Milk,” though, the truth finally bubbles up. John Keene (Taylor John Smith) has just been arrested for the murders that brought journalist Camille back to Wind Gap, but she’s not convinced he’s guilty. In the series’ penultimate episode, Camille learns that her sister Marian, whom she remembered having a childhood illness, actually died as a result of Camille’s overtreatment of non-existent ailments. Camille has been trying to kill herself in small doses throughout the series, so it’s no surprise that she heads straight back into the den of a killer when she begins to suspect her own mother.
“Milk” begins with one of the weirdest family dinners imaginable. Amma, already dosed half to unconsciousness, sits dressed as Persephone. She wears a flower crown over her unkempt hair, and a white nightgown. She whispers to Camille that “the living are afraid of Persephone because of where she’s been.” Meanwhile, Camille’s stepfather, Alan (Henry Czerny), speaks nonchalantly about the problems Missouri has been having with its lethal injection mixture, noting pointlessly that they’re importing fluid from Romania. The scene reads like something out of a Shirley Jackson novel, but Adora’s only concern, as usual, seems to be how Camille represents the family. Hopefully, Adora says, she’ll write something more upbeat now that the murderer’s behind bars.
The evening takes a sharp turn when Camille proposes that Amma come stay with her. It’s clear, then, that she came back not to confront her mother, but to save her last remaining sister as discreetly as she can. It doesn’t work. Adora suddenly mutters that Amma’s “color is high” — this series weaponizes Southern turns of phrase like no other — and takes her away from the table. When Camille gets up to leave, she stumbles in pain, and it’s clear her food or drink has been laced. This is the part of the whodunnit where most heroes would make a break for it, but the Preakers’ dynamic is a sticky web that’s not easy to escape.
Instead, Adora puts Camille to bed. She feeds her daughter a spoonful of something thick from an unlabeled bottle. “Do you see how nice it is not to have to worry or fight? Just to let yourself be looked after?” she insists. Camille doesn’t fight, but lays back under the covers. As with so much of the series, the filmmakers don’t let us into our protagonist’s mind, and they don’t have to. She may be bleary, but the show captures her moment of submission with clear-eyed focus. The word “tranquilizer” carries in it the word “tranquil,” after all. It doesn’t matter whether traumatized and avoidant Camille intends to finally give up control to her mother in this moment: she just does.
Sharp Objects is a mystery, but it’s less about who killed whom and more about what made these people this way. Adora gave Camille and Amma their most crucial wounds, and here, she reveals her own. “I’ve waited for this for so long. For you to need me,” she says, before revealing that her own mother once purposefully left her in the woods when she was a little girl. This, then, is her dysfunctional attempt at tenderness.
This series is scary. Its darkness is like a void. On the spectrum of cable mysteries, it’s closer to the existential terror of True Detective than to any of the women-led contemporaries critics often compare it to. Camille, Amma, and Adora are all scary in their own ways, but in the 11th hour, no one is scarier than Alan. The man is an enigma. For most of the series, he’s a blandly uninterested stepdad who, like his wife, cares more about not making a scandal than anything else. Here, though, his culpability becomes clear. When Detective Willis (Chris Messina) comes to check on Camille, Alan blatantly lies, telling him she’s out with friends. When Camille rouses herself enough to send Amma for help, he sends her back to her room and tells her not to interfere. We never get to know why Alan is the man he is, but we know that his crime isn’t passivity or ignorance.
Luckily, Detective Willis doesn’t believe him. Along with Camille’s boss, Frank (Miguel Sandoval), he pushes into the house, where he finds Camille crawling across the floor upstairs. When Adora gets hauled away in handcuffs, it’s not a triumphant or cathartic moment. Instead, the camera focuses on Willis noticing the cross-hatched scars Camille tried to hide from him, and on Amma’s paradoxical screams for her mother. Sharp Objects, in its heart of hearts, wants us to feel bad.
In the book on which this series is based, Flynn writes that “a child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.” This may as well be Sharp Objects’ thesis statement. The show’s heaviness is somehow all the more suffocating because it doesn’t seem to come from a place of nihilism but from a place of realistic understanding of the million different ways the world can make women hurt. If this wasn’t clear from the series’ first eight hours, it’s clear from its absolutely gobsmacking last five minutes.
Amma moves to St. Louis with Camille. She makes a friend, and the two roller skate together. Camille files her essay, in which she talks about her fear that any care she shows is really her mother’s sickness reborn. Adora is in prison for the murders now, after a pair of pliers matching the ones used to pull teeth from victims was found in her possession. Camille calls Adora’s problem a particularly feminine brand of rage, sublimated into overcare.
It’s possible to guess where Sharp Objects is headed in its last moments, but it’s not possible to foresee its wry, breathtaking execution. Amma is out somewhere, enjoying the freedom she rarely had under Adora’s care. Her friend’s mom stops by and mentions offhand that the two got in a fight — classic teenage girls! When she leaves, she closes the door and it causes a photo to fall off the wall. In a lesser series, Camille would look at the photo and have a sudden realization, but the picture doesn’t actually matter here. She puts it back, then wanders into the next room, where she finds a piece of Amma’s dollhouse in the trash.
Amma’s dollhouse is an exact replica of the austere, ivory-floored Preaker home. In Wind Gap, it was creepy, but taken from that context, it seems like an innocent coping mechanism for a traumatized teenager. That is until Camille lifts up the roof and notices a human tooth on the house’s bedroom floor, alongside a figure that’s posed just like Amma’s murdered friend. Sharp Objects, ever-more trusting of its viewers than most TV, doesn’t signify this moment with an intense musical cue or a sharp gasp. Camille looks at the tooth and then down at the dollhouse floor. It’s made entirely of teeth. Amma steps through the doorway at that moment, looking flushed and more alive than she ever has before. “Don’t tell Mama,” she whispers, and the show cuts to black.
In one of the greatest prestige television power moves of all time, Sharp Objects reveals its killer in the mid-credits scene of its final episode. For a few seconds, we’re left stupefied while the credits roll, then another silent scene comes into focus. Hands on a chain link fence. Amma’s new friend, Amma’s old friends, all of them writhing in turmoil as she brutalizes them. It’s too quick to take in the icky details. Before we can even breathe, the sequence ends with a shot of Amma’s face, triumphant and powerful as she reels back after taking a life.
In the time since it’s aired, I’ve become convinced that Sharp Objects can never be replicated. Aside from featuring Vallée’s unique touch, the series is beautifully unconcerned with what mystery miniseries tropes dictate it should be and deeply confident in what it actually is. We don’t need words for what happened to Camille in the woods, because the images are more than enough. We don’t need to be told about the direct line between Adora’s parenting and her daughters’ self-destruction, because it’s made clear as day.
And by the time we learn that Amma is the show’s real killer, and are left to sit with our blunt astonishment, we don’t need that explained to us, either. Sharp Objects tells its story almost entirely through the language of emotive visual storytelling and high-caliber acting. Its slow-burn character study is so watertight that its twist ending doesn’t necessitate any closure or epilogue.
Sharp Objects is an actual bold, dark, character-driven mystery series in a sea of comparative lightweights. Its commitment to hopelessness, too, already seems like a relic of a bygone era. Last year’s great mystery miniseries, Mare of Easttown, for example, ends its bleak run on a vaguely optimistic note. Sharp Objects, on the other hand, is happy to leave us feeling like we might never be okay again. In the end, there’s no sweet here, only bitter. The series leaves us feeling queasy by design, and like Amma gulping down her poison, it somehow makes us feel thankful for it.