I hope you stayed through the end credits.
It’s not coincidental that Sharp Objects comes at a time when the complexity and dignity of female anger, passed through generations, is finally being understood and amplified. As the sweat- and blood-soaked ties that bind Adora Crellin, Camille Preaker, Amma Crellin, Jackie O’Neill, Natalie Keene, and Ann Nash prove, these sentiments and traumas have been kinking and coiling in dark tangles for far too long, ready to spring.
“Don’t tell mama” might be both the most shocking, haunting, and, in some ways, most heartbreaking three words spoken at the end of a drama series in years.
So many girls are dead, both now and then. And we’ve spent eight episodes following fever-dream clues as to who could have killed them, being led down rabbit holes by unreliable narrators, putting faith in investigators either unequipped or unwilling to bring justice, and being misled by small-town lore and propriety.
There were ostensibly several mysteries to solve by the time Sunday night’s episode of Sharp Objects came to an end. What happened to Marian Crellin, Camille’s sister who died in childhood? Who killed Natalie and Ann, and why? And will Camille ever be OK?
That last question, by virtue of the series’ decision to offer little backstory for the young girls who were murdered, might be the most important. The mystery of the girls’ deaths becomes crassly irrelevant once we learn how Camille’s well-being is intertwined with their cases. As to that well-being, we’re given a frustrating, at once brutally realistic and deliciously pulpy tease: finally, some peace. And then: never again.
Here’s what we learn in the finale of Sharp Objects. (That there are spoilers coming should be obvious. Also, this is a series based on a book that was published in 2006. The spoilers have been out there for a decade, folks—though this finale departs significantly from how the novel ends.)
It was last week that the bombshell dropped, revealing how Camille’s sister probably died: Munchausen by proxy, at the hand of her mother. Adora (Patricia Clarkson) had been poisoning Marian, keeping her sick so that she could care for her, until finally she passed. She’s doing it again to Amma (Eliza Scanlen), an epiphany Camille (Amy Adams) has after Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina, turning sweat stains into a new personal fetish) leaves Amma’s medical files for her to read, complete with notes from a nurse who suspected Adora’s machinations.
What happens next is slightly unclear to me. Did Camille, noticing that Amma was ravaged by poison while at dinner with the family, fake an illness in order to save her, siphoning Adora’s attention away? Or was she genuinely sick herself? Either way, Camille gives herself over to Adora’s care. At once, they fall into familiar roles. Camille becomes infantile, while Adora becomes, finally, sweet. “More, mama,” Camille says, almost pathetically, begging for the medicine/poison that will help with her plan. Adora is positively giddy at this. “I’ve waited for this for so long. For you to need me.”
Patricia Clarkson is transifixing in these scenes. Mixing her potions, she’s at once sinister, delicate, creepy, lyrical, and repulsive. When we meet Adora in the first episode, we’re meant to think that she’s a steel magnolia, wilted from the trauma she’s faced in her life. Now we see her for who she is: a deadly lily of the valley.
Next there’s a scene in which Amy Adams basically wins an Emmy from a bathtub. (It’s kind of wild that Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson deliver performances that will win next year's Emmys on Sunday night, just a day before the end of Emmy voting this year.)
Much of this season we’re meant to think that Camille is hurtling towards, or wallowing in, rock bottom: sabotaging her career, compromising an investigation, and giving into the temptations of sex and liquor. But it’s in this sequence that we realize Camille’s weakest moment—crawling on the floor of a bathroom, poisoned by her mother, pleading for help—is evidence of how strong she really is. She’s going through this to help Amma, and to stop the cycle.
Sharp Objects is a murder mystery, sure. But it’s also about the cycle of abuse, how we’re held hostage by tradition and by lineage, and the bravery it takes to heal or break free—the messiness of that process be damned. Even as Adora is being carted away in handcuffs, Amma screams for mama.
Richard finds pliers that look like they were used to extract teeth from the two murder victims, Natalie and Ann, in Adora’s kitchen. It’s not just Munchausen by proxy that killed Marian decades ago. It appears Adora also murdered two teenage neighborhood girls.
Amma moves with Camille. Adora pleads not guilty to murder. And Camille writes her article. We’re going to reprint here the final paragraph of her article because it encompasses, in our mind, the power of this show. The nuance of, double-standard of, and even the power to forgive female anger and cruelty.
Men get to be warrior poets. What woman is described that way? Not Adora. Prosecution says my mother is a warrior martyr. If she was guilty, they argued, it was only of a very female sort of rage: overcare. Killing through kindness. It shouldn’t surprise me that Adora fell on that sword spectacularly. Of course she never did explain the teeth, or the kind of naked rage a man or woman would need to want to do something like that. It didn’t fit. So as with everything in my mother’s world it didn’t exist, except perhaps in some dark place only she knows about. My mother has many years to think about what she’s done. As for me, I forgive myself for failing to save my sister and have given myself over to raising the other. Am I good at caring for Amma because of kindness? Or am I good at 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 towards kindness.
When she most deserves to, Camille can’t eviscerate her mother. She can’t blame her for everything. Not everything is her fault. She has to forgive Adora in order to forgive herself. Her mother had been someone for whom the need to care was a lethal illness. Camille had never been cared for, really, and it made her think she wasn’t deserving of care, to the point of self-harm. She had been carving the words she needed to express onto her body. Now she’s ready to share them with the world.
But here’s the bleak part. The cycle doesn’t end.
We were shocked to learn in the final scene that it was Amma who actually killed Natalie and Ann. Sure, we suspected it at some points during the season, but we assumed that was a red herring: the arguable instability of this teenage girl leading two lives, exacerbated by the menacing imagery of her with her friends roller skating through Wind Gap.
So specifically and cleverly staged throughout the season by masterminds director Jean-Marc Vallée, showrunner Marti Noxon, and writer Gillian Flynn, Camille knew not to step onto the floor of Adora’s bedroom because of how precious and delicate the tiles on the floor were. And for every dark scene of Amma partying and provoking, there was an unsettling contrast: sitting in her inappropriately juvenile babydoll dresses, playing with the dollhouse replica of Adora’s home.
Seemingly settled in their new life together, Camille innocently examines Amma’s dollhouse and sees: the floor of their mother’s bedroom in the dollhouse is tiled with teeth. Adora was guilty of poisoning Marian. But Amma had committed the murders.
But again, I hope you stayed for the end credits.
There’s a mid-credits sequence showing Amma with her three murder victims—that fight with her new friend alluded to in the last scene? She is seen being terrorized in that trippy sequence, too.
This revelation is different from how it takes place in the book. In Flynn’s novel, Camille learns that it was Amma who committed the murders when, once they move, another girl is found dead in their new community with her teeth removed. But there’s something more grotesquely beautiful about how Camille makes the discovery here. It combines the feminine expectation—sweet girl plays with dollhouse—with the macabre repercussions of that: the tooth-tiled floor.
“Don’t tell mama,” Amma tells Camille once she sees that Camille knows. The women in Sharp Objects are hostage to their pasts, the people in it, and all its unresolved anger. The dejecting truth, which Camille seemed to have known all along: You’ll never escape it. Just succumb.