Sharp Objects Was a Gothic Horror About the Violence Women Inflict on Each Other
Sharp Objects wasn’t so much a murder mystery as it was a horror tale of how cycles of abuse replicate. Camille (Amy Adams) internalized the abuse she endured from her mother, by choosing to numb the pain with booze and cutting herself to the point where she has to wear jeans and long sleeved shirts in the summer to avoid exposing her self-inflicted scars. Her younger half sister Amma, on the other hand, deals with the trauma of being slowly poisoned over the course of her childhood by behaving violently towards animals, and then towards her supposed friends once they start attracting too much of her mother Adora’s (Patricia Clarkson) attention.
It’s easy to demonize Adora given how she had already killed one daughter by surreptitiously poisoning her under the guise of caring for a chronically ill child, but Adora is a victim of abuse as well. We learn as much when she tells Camille the story of how her mother dropped her off into the woods barefoot in the middle of the night and left her to find her way home. “When a child knows that young that her mother doesn’t care for her,” Adora says in Gillian Flynn’s novel, “bad things happen.” That idea was foreshadowed in the episode “Cherry,” where after a night of partying and consuming too many drugs, a drunk Amma tells Camille, “Do you ever feel like bad things are gonna happen to you and you can’t stop it?” At the time, it was easy to take her question at face value given that two of her classmates had already met brutal ends. Now it’s clear that she meant something far more sinister.
In Wind Gap, bad things do indeed happen. In Adora’s case, bad things entail developing Munchausen by Proxy via poisoning her children with “medicine” (a combination of antifreeze, rat poison, and crushed up painkillers) so she can soak up all the sympathy for caring for ailing children and ensuring their perpetual dependence. The frosty distance between Adora and Camille is ultimately what allowed Camille to live to see adulthood.
Adora’s position as a pillar of the Wind Gap community, the fact that she owned the pig farm that employed the town, and the implied flirtation between her and Chief Vickery allowed her to fly under the radar as the town’s angel of death. It’s easy to see how abuse can perpetuate in a town where its leaders are so hung up on appearances. If Adora, Amma, and Camille, are damaged, then they are just as much a product of how small towns operate as much as they are casualties of their own familial dysfunction. Camille’s godmother Jackie O’Neill found it easier to self-medicate with booze and pills day in and day out rather than confront the fact that she suspects that Adora did horrible things to her children in order to ensure that she felt needed. She suspects local law enforcement of willfully refusing to see what was right in front of them. It takes a village to look the other way.
Amma (an anagram for Mama) was far less passive in how she inflicted her fury upon others, namely former friends and murder victims Ann Nash and Natalie Keene. Like Adora, Amma craved attention, but she craved her mother’s attention exclusively and was willing to take out any competition for Adora’s attention. Ann and Natalie were Amma’s friends, but they also happened to be the girls Adora tutored and took an interest in, according to Natalie’s brother John. While Adora’s murder of her daughter Marion was quiet and drawn out over years, the mid-credits flashback scene depicts Amma’s violent fury, strangling Ann Nash in the woods while her rollerskating accomplices look on, and killing Natalie Keene under the bed in the carriage house, leaving bloodstains that implicated John. “I blame my mother,” Camille mused in the novel. “A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.”
After Adora unwittingly takes the fall for the murders of Ann and Natalie, Camille takes Amma back home to St. Louis, laboring under the belief that she’s going to rehabilitate a child raised by a sick woman who was unable to seek love in any healthy way and a small town happy to enable her. Camille soon finds out that she was enabling a murderer when she discovers that the replica of the ivory floor in Adora’s bedroom in Amma’s dollhouse was painstakingly constructed with the teeth of Amma’s victims. The final victim is Mae, a girl Amma befriends in Camille’s apartment building. Unfortunately, Camille signs Mae’s death warrant when she begins to take an interest in and show genuine affection for Amma’s new best friend. The mid-credits scene shows Amma strangling Mae to death with the chord dangling off the side of the apartment building.
In the series’ final moments, Camille wrestles with how she might be perpetuating Adora’s abuse. Is she taking care of Amma because she feels Adora’s pathological need to be relied upon, or is she acting out of decency and kindness to a family member at a vulnerable age who lost their main caretaker to a life sentence. Will her relationships with people be predicated on empathy and respect, or will she end up hurting people in order to feed an insatiable disease? “Was I good at caring for Amma because of kindness? Or did 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,” Camille wrote in an article dictated by one of her only true parental figures, her boss Frank Curry. “Lately, I’ve been leaning towards kindness.”
Kindness is nice, but in this case, that kindness also indirectly got her neighbor’s daughter killed.
Unlike the novel, the mini-series ends on an ambiguous note. We’re left with Camille’s stunning realization that she’s sharing an apartment with a murderer, Amma’s simpering yet insidious plea that Camille not “tell mama.” The novel brings a certain closure with Amma, locked away in juvenile detention and looking like a shell of her former self after hacking away at her lion’s mane of hair. Camille falls back into old patterns of self-harm and is physically stopped by Curry and his wife/her surrogate mother Elaine from taking a knife to her own face before ultimately allowing the couple to care for her the way her parents never could. The TV adaptation takes great pains to avoid showing Amma’s downfall, with the final scene depicting her as the mythical lady in white, disappearing into the woods, a specter that will haunt Wind Gap in perpetuity.