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In a breathtaking finale, Sharp Objects takes us to the underworld and back again

Illustration for article titled In a breathtaking finale, Sharp Objects takes us to the underworld and back again
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It’s fitting that Persephone, the goddess most known for her suffering, is finally evoked in the last episode of Sharp Objects. Her story is inextricably bound to daughter-hood, motherhood, and obliteration. The innocent, care-free child of a woman powerful enough to freeze the world, to starve and parch every living thing to the verge of death. Stolen away, sexually violated, and forced to exist—not really living, not really dead—in the Halls of Hades. The other goddesses get to wage war and make love, to rage and to hunt, to give and to protect life itself: Persephone is not worshipped or celebrated for anything she can do; she is known by what was done to her. In the myths, Hades is a literal place. Of course, in the modern day, we understand it best as a psychological state, a place in our being that has been rutted and hollowed by the magma of trauma and rage and ungovernable grief. So, Persephone has been a patron saint for the women of the Crellin-Preaker clan: Women who are seemingly damned to live in the echo of the worst moments of their lives; who may find a flash of power or comfort or control in the brief release of violence, against others and against themselves, but will still be forever reigning in Hell.

“I’m Persephone,” Amma tells Camille, as Camille, fresh from her epiphany that Adora killed Marion, likely killed Ann Nash and Natalie Keene, and is in the slow process of killing Amma as well, wanders into a family dinner lit in dark umber, subterranean tones. A symphony of micro-expressions plays across Amy Adams’ face as Camille stares at Adora—rage and shock and barely-constrained horror crescendoing into grim determination. As Camille stares down her mother with the plan crystallizing in her mind, Amma loopily intones the tale of Persephone. Her voices becomes a glint off a knife-blade when she gets to the end part, the best part, where Persephone gets to decide the punishment of each poor, unfortunate soul. Amma may look the part of the goddess in Hell, with her flower crown and her skin slicked in sweat—however, Camille is the one trying to get them back toward daylight. Richard and Curry, her editor back in St. Louis, know about Adora’s Munchausen by Proxy—but Camille must prove it, and to prove it, she must offer her body as a sacrifice; she must willingly descend back into Hades so the season can change.


In a bitter twist of irony, Camille’s capacity for self-destruction—which has been a sign of her supposed sickness, of everything that has made her incorrigible and corrupt (or, as Adora, icily quipped, “ripe”), is now the source of her valor. She fakes a stomachache, so that Adora can “treat” her with the acid green powders and potions that strip away muscle and sizzle the nerves; her poor wretched body, which has suffered in secret for so long, finally bearing testimony, speaking through a hellfire of a fever. Camille is, of course, the series’ Persephone incarnate: Until now, she’s been defined by the path she took into Hell; we know her by what was done to her. Yet this finale episode reimagines Persephone’s descent as something more potent than mere victimhood—it’s a heroine’s journey, where Hades isn’t just about torment, it’s about temptation, the chance to succumb to her desires for her mother’s love (or the approximation of that love) and for the release of death.

One of Jean-Marc Vallee’s most startling achievements with the series is weaponizing intimacy: He frames Adora leaning over the bathtub where Camille soaks and sweats with a claustrophobic intensity. As Adora holds the sick pan to let Camille vomit up the poison, she whispers a sweet seduction about how her own mother once stranded her in a darkened wood, and how she sees her own resilience in Camille. Here, in Adora’s tender caress and crooned affections, is everything Camille ever wanted—and she only has to come to the edge of death to get it.

I’ve compared Sharp Objects’ portrayal of women’s violence and viciousness with the poetry of Sylvia Plath before, and this episode conjures images from Plath’s own spin on the Persephone archetype of the forever-tormented, forever-descending girl, an archetype she weds with the story of Lazarus, the man brought back from the dead: “Dying/is an art, like anything else./I do it exceptionally well./I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels real./I guess you could say I’ve a call.” Plath imagines the death drive as a source of terrifying, incandescent power. Camille’s own willingness to wade into the dark gives her an uncanny strength. Before she gets too sick to even think, she looks Adora in the eye and speaks for Marion: “You burned her.”

Sharp Objects has used editing as an emotive storytelling technique, but the sequence where adult Camille, brutally weakened and fading on the bathroom floor, becomes her younger self and receives Marion’s consoling touch stopped my breath. This moment holds everything that has made the show so unique and affecting—it conveys a depth of longing that can’t be expressed in words. Only the rawest, starkest images can reveal the poignancy of grief. Here, in one quick sequence, one rung of Hell, is Camille’s greatest reason to let go and her only reason to hang on.


Ultimately, Camille’s call to the dark—to the tiny oblivions of every black-out, every cut, every night in some stranger’s bed—serves her exceptionally well. Richard and Curry come to find her and drag her out of Hades, bringing the whole sheriff’s department—which finds the pair of pliers used to wrench Ann and Natalie’s teeth from their jaws, the metal still rusted with blood. When Camille emerges into the daylight of the living, she’s taken down Adora, saved Amma, and avenged Marion. For a brief, shimmering moment, the series seems like it might end in springtime—our living dead girl back in the warm air, feeling sunshine on her skin. Camille takes Amma out of Wind Gap, and builds a life, a real life with family dinners at Curry’s house and new friendships with new neighbors. But even in the myths, Persephone’s happy ending is fleeting. The warm months end. As the cold comes whistling through the air to sheath our bones and kill the crops, the pit to Hades cracks open and the old call comes again.

The grand reveal that Amma is, in fact, the killer, could easily feel like a final gotcha twist—a final reveal meant to shock us into dropping our popcorn (or, in my case, my coffee mug, when I yelled, “oh my God” over the end credits montage) rather than illuminate any truth. But it’s so chilling, so successful, because the show has been slyly and subconsciously working toward it ever since we met Amma, who has been coddled and stroked and revered like a goddess on roller skates—by Adora, by Allan, by her devoted girl squad, by everyone else in Wind Gap, by a culture that worships youth and beauty and deifies the young and beautiful.


When Amma’s new friend Mae expresses a girlish adoration for Camille, the crush that a teenage girl can get on an adult woman who lives the kind of grown-up life she daydreams about for herself, someday, Amma glares at her with pure wrath. Though Valle wisely resists the urge to replay Amma’s earlier words, “she gets to decide the punishment,” we can practically hear them pounding inside Amma’s skull with the militant insistence of a pulse. The following sequence crackles and hums with an unbearable dread: Mae’s distraught mother turns up at Camille’s apartment, searching for her missing daughter. Camille gets an impulse to check Amma’s dollhouse, where she finds a single tooth—and then, finds that the floor of the bathroom, a perfect miniature of Adora’s perfect ivory bathroom floor, is made of the mashed and glued teeth of decidedly imperfect girls.

Sharp Objects ends with its fangs around our throats—a reminder that it’s not (entirely) a story about redemption, it’s a story about the underworld of inherited violence and trauma. The show is a potent and complicated look at the whirling morass of feelings we try to sanitize with terms like “women’s rage.” We’re in a cultural moment that wants to regard women’s anger as always and inherently constructive, a political force for good—and certainly, it can be that. But a mature work of art will look at women’s anger with the nuance and complexity so often paid to men’s anger, and it may find that, sometimes, women’s anger is simply savage, destructive, and entitled—that there is nothing in it to champion or celebrate. The show can hold space for Camille coming into her personal power, and for Amma exerting her power over weaker, more vulnerable girls (that shot of Eliza Scanlen screaming behind the fence will haunt me for years). This balance makes Sharp Objects a true masterpiece.


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