The Work Never Ends

Amy Adams in Sharp Objects | art by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Camille Preaker stands before her mother and half-sister, dressed only in her underwear, defiant and vulnerable, as they stare at the words she’s carved into her skin: Whine, wrong, rip, proper, afterthought, girl. Suddenly no longer concerned with what her daughter will be wearing to her glorified garden party, her mother says, “It’s worse than I remember,” before Camille reminds her, “You weren’t there at the end.”

After being declared both ruined and spiteful, Camille retreats to the dressing room and lets out a primal, desperate scream. In the aftermath, she looks, all at once, like a frightened child and a weary old soul. If it’s possible to relive every worst part of your life in a single moment, she just has. And if she really is everything her mother says she is, well, then it’s that woman, and this town, that made her so.

*

The thing I had to learn about trauma, in order to even begin to deal with mine, is that it’s not something that just passes. You don’t wake up one day, weeks, or months, or years after it occurs, and find that you are through with it. You endure it, it washes over you in waves, and eventually you learn to live alongside it.

It’s hard work, the processing, muddling, agonizing, surviving. It’s lifelong work that constantly shifts its place in the fabric of your life. Sometimes, it’s just a whisper in the back of your head, a mumble you can’t quite make out. Other times, it’s a scream so loud it feels like it’s rattling your soul, and all you can do is bear down, and wait for it to pass.

This ebb and flow can be difficult to understand if you haven’t lived through it, and it’s also incredibly challenging to flesh out onscreen. But in Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects, this type of disorienting experience is a central, driving theme, one that explores in meticulous, at times uncomfortable detail, what it feels like to live in both the midst and the aftermath of trauma. Camille (Amy Adams) navigates the world via dysfunctional rituals, at once holding relics and symbols of the things that have broken her as close to her body as possible, while doing everything she can to keep them at bay.

But when Curry, her editor at the fictional St. Louis Daily, asks her to return to her hometown to cover the murders of two young girls, Camille is finally forced to reckon with the harrowing experiences that shaped her childhood and gave rise to the self-destructive tendencies she’s carried with her ever since.

Curry thinks he’s helping her career and her well-being; believes that covering a story like this could be her big break, and just the thing she needs to get over the hump following her recent stint at a mental health facility. So she takes the assignment, packs up her liquor and her laptop, and drives home to Wind Gap, Missouri to learn more about Natalie Keene and Ann Nash

Over the course of eight episodes, her work doesn’t just reveal who killed the girls—it also illustrates the slow-motion agony of PTSD, and how re-encountering the spaces where we’ve been broken down can wreak havoc on our psyches. The work that Camille does, both in covering the story and in unpacking her own traumas, becomes less about telling the story of two murdered girls and the town they grew up in, and more about understanding all that she has lost.

*

Sharp Objects is a slow-burning gothic horror about rage and shame and grief. As the series unfolds, we learn that Camille has endured myriad horrors: a sister, Marian (Lulu Wilson), who died in childhood under mysterious circumstances; an adolescence marked by isolation and gang rape; a mother who chose not to love her and made that choice clear; and, most recently, the suicide of Alice (Sydney Sweeney), her teenage roommate at the psychiatric hospital, shortly after Camille tells her that, actually, it doesn’t get any easier when you grow up.

This ill-fated wisdom proves to be especially true once Camille rolls into Wind Gap and begrudgingly takes up temporary residence in her childhood home, an opulent Victorian mansion on the outskirts of town. There, she becomes reacquainted with the family she’d mostly cut out of her life: her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), icy and domineering; her stepfather, Alan (Henry Czerny), an afterthought in his own home; and Amma (Eliza Scanlen), her half-sister, who lives a double-life as her parents’ doting daughter and the town’s wild child.

Marian is there, too, a specter lurking in the corners of Adora’s home, an unavoidable yet still intangible presence. It’s her death, how it happened and what it did to her family, that increasingly comes to dominate Camille’s mental energy once she has returned home. Which, of course, makes the task of reporting on Wind Gap’s dead girl problem a near-constant challenge.

Camille’s life has been marked by violence of nearly every kind, and it’s clear this reality stays with her nearly all the time—in both dreams and intrusive memories of the people she has lost. She constantly seems to be battling herself, indulging in these reminders without ever letting herself fully process the grief that lies underneath. She maintains a near-permanent level of insobriety, in order to keep the dreams and memories at bay. While driving or sleeping or working, she listens to Alice’s shattered iPod, as if paying homage and penance all at once.

In the closing moments of Sharp Objects’ premiere, we see for the first time that Camille has marked her body by carving dozens of words into her skin. By the end of the series, it’s become clear why she’s branded herself this way—the words make manifest every bit of pain that she’s buried deep inside of her.

*

In Sharp Objects’ second episode, Curry’s wife Eileen (Barbara Eve Harris) questions whether he’s assigned Camille too big of a task, given her state of mind. “She could be a great writer, maybe even have a life,” he responds. “But she needs to deal with her issues.”

Curry knows—even Camille knows, that when it comes to hustle or technical proficiency, she isn’t an exceptional journalist. She shows up to interviews drunk or halfway there, isn’t great at taking notes or recording conversations, and has a hard time pushing her subjects to admit the secrets she knows they have. She doesn’t ask seemingly obvious follow-up questions, and struggles to focus on actually writing.

Despite her shortcomings, Camille is almost always working. She uses her work as both an avoidance tactic and a bargaining chip—an excuse to keep Amma at arms’ length, to needle Adora and Alan when they’re pushing her, to pump Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) for information instead of addressing the dysfunctional chemistry that settles in between them almost immediately.

This defense mechanism, busying herself with work in lieu of any kind of meaningful self-reflection, starts to break down as Camille gets deeper into her research. She ends up reliving her worst moments in Wind Gap, either by encountering the people who inflicted them upon her, or by revisiting the places they once occurred. When she takes Richard on a tour of Wind Gap, exposing its long history of violence against women (including herself), she’s ostensibly helping him understand the kind of environment that could have bred a killer—but she’s also reopening her own wounds. Because, in many ways, she is Wind Gap’s story.

Still, she needs to do the work to tell it. And as she does, the line between her work and her self becomes increasingly blurred—yet the only area she doesn’t actively pursue in search of the story is her own childhood home.

To question how her home fits into these disappearances, in spite of the connection Adora had as a mentor to both murdered girls, would be to confront everything those walls contain. So instead, she focuses on the immediate problem at hand. Camille’s increasing concern about the killer-at-large leads her to accept and care for Amma as a sister, after initially resisting any kind of real relationship with her.

For Camille to let Amma in at all requires her to peel back a layer of herself. But it also affords her something she’s been missing since Marian died; even though she hasn’t been able to make peace with a childhood spent under Adora’s thumb and what it did to her, she’s at least found someone, in Amma, who understands exactly what that feels like.

By way of her reporting, she begins to forge relationships with two men on opposite sides of the investigation. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Camille bonds with Richard, because that would mean that, in some capacity, she lets him in. Still, she’s drawn to him, seeking him out to share information (and eventually, a bed). But eventually, their work begins to take them in different directions. Richard wants to find out who killed Natalie and Ann. Camille is far more interested in finding out why.

This leads her to broker an unusually close relationship with John Keene (Taylor John Smith), brother of Natalie, and the prime suspect in both murders. All eyes are on John, including Camille’s, though not because she believes he did it. While the town sees him as an easy scapegoat, Camille sees a grieving sibling, a kindred soul, struggling with the empty hole left by a dead sister.

Before John is set to be arrested she tells him that, as a journalist, she’s supposed to want him to be the killer, but she knows that he didn’t do it—and she didn’t come to find him at a dive bar just to get a story. When she lets him undress her and examine her scars, she appears almost euphoric as he voices the words she’s carved into her skin.

“You’re reading me,” she tells him, grateful to be seen in a way that Adora, or Richard, or even Amma, could never do. But this encounter with John—and the messy fallout that follows his subsequent arrest—leaves Camille feeling vulnerable and raw. So she quickly refocuses that energy away from herself, and toward figuring out who really killed those girls.

It takes just a single conversation with her mother’s longtime friend, Jackie (Elizabeth Perkins), for Camille to put the horrific pieces together: Her mother has Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, knowingly poisoned her daughter Marian to death years ago, and has been doing much the same to Amma, all while numerous friends and allies in Wind Gap stand by and let it happen. When she calls Curry in a panic to share this discovery, he immediately tells her to come back to St. Louis. But she knows her work isn’t done.

Camille’s final visit home isn’t a dramatic showdown. She doesn’t unleash years of justifiable anger or resentment on Adora, doesn’t take her to task for all of her sins. Instead, she relinquishes control to her for the first time. There are so many layers wrapped up in Camille’s decision to submit to her mother’s treatments that it’s hard to fully process as it’s happening. She’s buying Amma a reprieve (as well as a chance to escape) and seeking confirmation straight from the source—but she’s also subjecting herself to a new, especially brutal kind of harm. It’s painful to watch, not only because of what Adora is doing to her child, but because Camille seems, just for a moment, to be so relieved to finally have her mother doting on her. Because Camille is in such a fragile state during her final moments at home, it’s difficult to understand her return to her mother’s oppressive clutches as progress.

But Adora’s withholding of affection toward Camille, because she was incorrigible—or maybe, more cruelly, because she was not Marian—was the most enduring trauma inflicted upon her. By finally engaging in her mother’s twisted version of love, Camille begins to accept the harsh reality that she’s long needed something she never received from her mother, which then gives her the ability to reject it and begin to fight. The Camille we meet in the first episode is hell-bent on actively avoiding the darkest truths about herself and her family, but the one who crawls along her mother’s marble floor—incapacitated but still desperate to save Amma— has faced what she couldn’t bear to see for so long, and managed to survive.

*

It took me a few weeks to even begin to understand what it was about Sharp Objects that left me feeling unmoored. Over the years, I’ve built up countless defenses that help me function, and when I began to interrogate them, it finally clicked.

The way Camille interacts with the world, at least on an emotional level, is nearly identical to how I’ve dealt with my own unresolved issues. Camille has dozens of words that speak to the pain and shame she feels. I have just one, both a burden and sometimes a lie: yes, I bury myself in work at the expense of my emotional needs; yes, I am terrified of the chaos that’s embedded in my DNA; yes, I will always be a little bit broken; and yes, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.

And while Camille certainly turns a corner in the finale, it’s clear that her scars will always be with her. Perhaps the healthiest thing she learns, in the end, is that there is no finite end to the work laid out before her. After Adora is arrested for the murders, Sharp Objects offers an epilogue of sorts. We see Camille take Amma into her care, watch them say goodbye to Wind Gap and settle into a new life together, away from their mother’s clutches and the town that turned a blind eye. We also hear an excerpt of Camille’s final piece about Wind Gap, words that make it clear she has immersed herself in the hard work of processing everything that’s happened to her:

My mother has many years to consider what she’s done. As for me, I’ve forgiven myself for failing to save my sister, and given myself over to raising the other. Am I good at caring for Amma because of kindness, or do I like caring for Amma because I have Adora’s sickness? I waver between the two, especially at night when my skin begins to pulse. Lately, I’ve been leaning toward kindness.

It’s a gratifying moment for Camille, to be so candid in her writing and so gracious with herself; for Curry, who’s wanted this for her all along; and for us, knowing that this is the ending Adora’s daughters deserved.

And then the final tragedy of Sharp Objects, perhaps it’s most heart-wrenching, strikes without warning. While Adora was certainly guilty of more than she could ever be charged with, it was Amma who actually killed Natalie and Ann, Amma whose story she was trying to tell all along.

Sharp Objects’ final moments are more of a revelation than an ending. There’s something horrifying about the last look we get at Camille, shell-shocked, staring at the sister she now realizes was too far gone to save all along. But despite everything she’s been through, it also feels, in a strange way, like exactly the right place to leave her. Although she tried to make it right, to get to the truth and to overcome the trauma that lingers inside of her, people like Camille and I know that it always comes in waves. We know you have to keep going, even when it feels like each new blow is one blow too many.

We know the work is never over.