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In a beautiful, bruising episode, Sharp Objects shows us the pain of being extraordinary

Illustration for article titled In a beautiful, bruising episode, iSharp Objects /ishows us the pain of being extraordinary
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In “Falling,” Chief Vickery wryly, wistfully, wonders why the women of Wind Gap aren’t content to be ordinary. The whole series has been a study in female extremity: Camille scars her body into a living testament to her pain; Adora and Amma assert themselves through pageants of stylized cruelty; Jackie presents herself as a theatrically faded Southern belle, like a tarter, sharper, Blanche DuBois; and even Ann Nash and Natalie Keene, girls we only know through memories, come across as more sinister than mere tomboys, they are feral girls quick to bite and stab and fight against anyone who tries to tame them. The only women who are defined by their ordinariness, Camille’s former clique, are simultaneously bored and boring, curdling inside their suburban lives.

But this penultimate episode interrogates the concept of the extraordinary by reminding us that everything that is, truly, extraordinary, isn’t some exalted ideal. The ordinary is normal, rational, and calmly quotidian—the extraordinary is simply anything that isn’t, well, ordinary. The mother who bakes homemade goodies for the nurses tending to her fatally ill daughter, and presents those goodies in-person, immaculately coiffed and unfailingly gracious, is extraordinary. So is the mother who will slowly poison her daughter—her desire for attention, for attaining the kind of dark beatification that comes from so stoically enduring such an unfathomable loss, overriding her normal maternal instincts. “Falling” crystallizes a truth that the previous six episodes have slyly elided: Adora has Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, she systematically tortured Marion to death, and she’s beginning the process anew with Amma.


Our earlier glimpses of Adora as a caregiver are always filtered through Camille’s memory, always slightly askew: We see Adora kneeling at Marion’s casket, the heels of her pumps framed like vampire stakes; Adora cradling baby Amma, but with her back turned, glimpsed through the bars of a staircase; and Adora weeping wrathfully, still, over Marion’s long-abandoned in-house hospital bed. These memories feel like colorized flashes from a classic monster movie: They’re thick with an anticipatory menace, a sense that the demon is just outside the door.

But Richard’s sleuthing—which yields Marion’s medical files and an interview with a nurse who long suspected that there was something rotten in Adora’s immaculately lipsticked smile—draws that sense of menace taut as a garrote around a tender neck. Of course, it’s Adora; it’s always been Adora—the well-mannered madwoman who never stopped tormenting Camille, the vampire in a sundress who stole her great love. Ironically, this discovery positions Camille’s prolonged resistance to Adora’s ministrations—in the present, she refuses to let Adora wrap her swollen ankle; in the past, she closes her mouth and shakes her head to a spoonful of Adora’s “medicine”—as an act of extraordinary intuition and self-preservation (not the very ordinary daughterly petulance that it initially appeared to be).

I researched Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy after watching this episode, and one of the first articles I came across was an academic paper called “Monsters in the Closet: Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy”. The paper does describe truly monstrous behavior (like rubbing dirt and coffee grounds into orthopedic pin sites; injecting urine into a child; and poisoning a child with ipecac, insulin, and salt), but watching Adora grind down pills with her pestle and stare intently at her brightly-colored vials doesn’t conjure images of a green-faced, bolt-necked beast: I think of Dr. Frankenstein, the man who made the monster—and became a monster—because he wanted to be as powerful, as extraordinary, as God. Adora has been manufacturing sick girls, and then dead girls—figures who inspire a pathos and terror that are best expressed in a close-up of Ann’s crime scene photo, her face bloated and purpled, toothless and helpless, wrenched with pain—because she wants the power that comes in being needed as a mother, a mentor; the power that comes in being a glamorous martyr in a small town; and, of course, the power that comes from controlling life and death.

It’s telling that we often conflate Dr. Victor Frankenstein with his monster (calling the creature “Frankenstein”), which makes him synonymous with the evil he created. Yet, in Mary Shelley’s original novel and its most artistically successful reinterpretations, James Whale’s 1931 horror classic Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, Victor is far eviler than his monster (who is, after all, only acting on instinct). He corrupts what should be a noble and socially-useful pursuit of wisdom and science into a twisted, vainglorious obsession with his own brilliance. Adora has been cruel before, certainly not the mother any of us would choose for ourselves—but she’s never been as genuinely scary as she is while smoothing Amma’s brow and offering her spoonful after spoonful of “medicine.”


Patricia Clarkson has calibrated Adora’s emotional state as a tenuous balance between constant, low-thrumming drollness and fatigued agitation, with an occasional spike of raw rage. But here, in full “caregiver” mode, she’s alive and electric in a way we’ve never seen—she has a purpose now, just as she had a purpose with Marion and with Ann and with Natalie. She corrupts what should be a noble and socially-useful urge to mother and nurture into a twisted, vainglorious obsession with her own importance.

This tendency to call Frankenstein’s monster “Frankenstein” (in the book, he is called “Adam”) also conflates the poor creature, who is just a collection of stitched-together flesh, with his chief tormentor. The monster may be extraordinary to behold, with his (literal) murderer’s row of assembled body parts; however, his desire for companionship and understanding—something that the very circumstances of his existence, not to mention his looks, should innately preclude—is what makes him truly remarkable. Camille is Adora’s first surviving victim. She may not bear Adora’s last name (she’s the only Preaker in a family of Crellins), but she is very much Adora’s monster. She is what Adora has done to her (and, of course, to her sister), her psyche stitched together with booze and blades, random sex and good ol’ fashioned repression.


In Wind Gap, Camille is extraordinary in all the wrong ways, the tarnished exemplar of everything a lady shouldn’t be. Throughout her whole life, she’s been told she’s unlovable, incorrigible, ungovernably ugly (on the inside, at first, and then, after she’s started cutting, on the outside as well). Yet her desire for companionship and understanding (an unconscious, perhaps, but still potent desire) makes her truly remarkable. First, she connects with Richard, who is also a cynical outsider; for all her flaws, she makes enough of an impression to inspire his investigation in her past, which ironically (and still unbeknownst to him, or any of the lawmen who think that only a bad man could be a killer) resolves the two murder cases. We know that Adora had taken an interest in “mentoring” the two unruly girls, in remaking them into more docile creatures; we also know how Adora regards the girls who remain unruly and willful.

But Richard mostly serves as a conduit for this information. Camille’s real soulmate in monstrosity, in the vicious notoriety of being out of the ordinary, is John Keene. After the slaughterhouse worker (as in, a man who works at a slaughterhouse that Adora owns) claims he saw John dump Ann Nash’s bicycle in the pig crap, authorities search the guest house where John has been staying. They find Natalie’s blood under his mattress—although we know that Natalie was a biter, and we see that Ashley, John’s girlfriend, is missing a hefty chunk of her earlobe, so we can reasonably assume that the two girls duked it out and this is not where Natalie died. John knows he is a wanted man, turned into a scapegoat, a fugitive, and yes, a monster, because he grieves his sister with a rawness and an intensity that is unmanly, at least to the pitchfork-wielders in Wind Gap.


When Camille tracks him down, he’s in a dive bar, drinking up the nerve to blow his brains out. He asks her if her dead sister would have liked his dead sister. He laughs when Camille drawls out the word no. Her sister was a little lady, not a biter. (Maybe the monster has a touch of her maker in her, after all). After Richard finds Camille and John in the motel room, he tells her that she let the worst moment of her life (Marion’s death) define her life. But John knows that there really is no coming back from that kind of loss; grief is no ordinary feeling, it estranges you from ordinary life. He kneels before Camille’s scarred body in reverence for the depth and lingering intensity of her pain (Taylor John Smith is truly a remarkable actor, swinging between John’s brittle wit, fear of the unknown, and the tenuous sense of peace with natural ease and aplomb).

For the first time, Camille bears herself, all of herself, a body that is remarkable for the punishment it has endured and for its scrappy tenacity to survive. Extraordinary—in the most shimmering sense of the word. Although her mother’s machinations will take this joy away from her, just as they took Marion away from her, and now threaten to take Amma away from her. But Camille knows what Adora did to Marion, what Adora likely did to Ann and Natalie, and what she must do now. As she drives back to her mother’s home, Camille evokes the other core truth that Frankenstein teaches us—the monster will always destroy its maker.


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