The new HBO thriller Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille Preaker, a reporter sent to investigate a possible serial killer of young girls in her tiny hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. Like the partially shattered iPhone she uses to listen to music while on the trail, Camille is broken, but she still works. Her younger sister died in childhood; her mother always withheld affection. She is a cutter, wrapping her scarred body in dark jeans and long-sleeved shirts on sweaty Southern summer days. She inflicts pain on herself because she can control it, unlike the shame and self-loathing she still carries from her upbringing. In the pilot episode, she carries a crumpled paper sack filled with candy bars and nip bottles of booze, an early sign that she is also an alcoholic.
Camille’s damage is not inherently compelling. We’re all damaged, especially women, who exist in a world that sometimes seems designed to inflict emotional and literal violence upon us at every turn. What elevates her character is the sensitive and nuanced performance by Amy Adams, which forges a fresh interpretation of the flawed anti-hero trope combined with a compelling and realistic depiction of alcoholism.
Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval), Camille’s endearingly paternal editor at the St. Louis newspaper where she works, means well by assigning her to the murder story. He seems to think that sending her back to her toxic hometown will help her confront her demons and transform her from an unremarkable writer with a perpetual hangover to a Pulitzer Prize winner. Perhaps he sees infinite potential in Camille, but more likely, she’s a broken baby bird that he thinks he can nurse back to health.
There’s a slogan familiar to people in recovery: “people, places, and things,” which warns the newly sober to avoid the old friends and locales that might trigger painful memories, thus causing them to drink. In what he thinks is an act of tough love, Camille’s editor is sending her back to her emotional ground zero. In Wind Gap, she must spend time with her overbearing mother, emotionally absent stepfather, and unruly younger half-sister, all under the roof of a lavish Victorian home that’s straight out of a Tennessee Williams daydream. Sharp Objects is adapted from the novel by Gone Girl‘s Gillian Flynn. Without her prose to explain Camille’s backstory, director Jean-Marc Vallée (previously of Big Little Lies) uses flashbacks to signify repressed memories bubbling to the surface, depicting Camille’s deceased sister and the deterioration of her relationship with her mother, which was unhealthy to begin with and suffered further after the death. The deeper Camille burrows into the small-town dysfunction that drives her story, the more vividly those memories return. Eventually, the ghosts of her past seem to bleed into her waking life.
“I’m recovering from addiction to everything,” show creator Marti Noxon told Time, “so I could relate to the idea that when you’re drinking, the past, present and even the future all gets mushy.”In adapting Flynn’s novel, Noxon takes great care and empathy in relaying Camille’s trauma and the methods in which she copes, resulting in one of the most realistic depictions of alcoholism ever rendered to the small screen. Camille’s hand subtly shakes from delirium tremens as she’s reaching for the steering wheel. A judgmental convenience store clerk glances at his watch when she buys nothing but a bottle of vodka early in the daylight hours. She pours booze into her water bottle and casually sips throughout the day, thinking she’s getting away with something. She blacks out in her car with the engine running while dancing in place in the driver’s seat, listening to music on the broken iPhone. She catches glimpses of childhood specters flickering in the mirrors of the immaculate home, which her mother coldly claimed “was not up to par for visitors” when Camille turned up on the doorstep.
Typically, TV male antiheroes— your Don Drapers, your Gregory Houses, your Sherlocks—are depicted as addicts who are dealing with an unresolved trauma in addition to the carrying the unbearable burden of always being the smartest person in the room. They are exceptional in one area of life to make up for the emotional baggage they refuse to unpack. Writers are not saddled with making them “likable.” Women characters don’t often get the same leverage. And it’s a credit to Adams’s performance that likability doesn’t enter into the discussion around her character.
Aside from a few sarcastic quips designed to prevent people from getting too close to her, Camille is not the smartest person in the room. She’s also kind of an asshole. She shows up on her mother’s door unannounced assuming she’ll be accommodated, she drives drunk, and like any good reporter, she’s intrusive as hell. But after the show thoroughly immerses you in her messy interior world, it’s clear that her strength as a protagonist is not at all contingent on whether you want to actually hang out with her. On the surface, Camille is not exceptional. But once she reconciles the memories fighting their way to her consciousness and figures out how they relate to the horrors gripping her old stomping grounds, she could be.