Photo: Anne Marie Fox (HBO)

“Dirt,” the second episode of Sharp Objects, is a study in contradictions. Those contradictions revolve around beauty and brutality, grief and cruelty, familial love and twisted obsession. These contradictions exist in a tight, sharp symbiosis; they’re like the thin sides of the needle that Camille drives into her skin, repeatedly—they come together in a single point that might look tiny and harmless, but still draws blood.

The episode, on its surface, kicks off the crime procedural part of the show, like a swimmer moving through water in long, languid motions: We start learning about how these girls died (and what happened to their bodies after they died), and who might have killed them (and, more tellingly, why they’re suspects), but the darker, murkier truths that reside underneath these more superficial discoveries—about Wind Gap and its people, about repression and desire, and about Camille and her mother—are the currents that truly move the story along.

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The memorial for Natalie Keene, the girl whose body is discovered at the end of the episode one, serves as the narrative ballast. We open on the Preaker family preparing for the service—Adora may not be blood-kin to the murdered girl, but she is reacting (or, more pointedly, making a show of reacting) to Natalie’s death as if she were; Amma is begging to attend, but is shut down, again, and cloistered in the house for her own supposed safety; and Camille thrums with a raw, anxious energy that she must compress, quite painfully, to maintain the uneasy truce with her mother (or, more specifically, with her mother’s obsession with decorum) and to maintain a steel magnolia stoicism around the cadre of now-adult but hardly grown-up mean girls she used to run with back before she became a “big city girl.”

The scenes at Natalie’s funeral (which doesn’t include her body, since the town coroner must still examine it) and at the gathering in her family’s home, deftly yet bluntly reveal the shadows under the smiley, shiny facade of Southern pleasantries. As Camille later tells Richard, the Kansas City cop feeling out-of-his element, “bless your heart” really means “fuck you”—but there are still different kinds of “fuck you,” and some of them are more terrifying than others.

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Camille’s former girl squad makes a good show of feigning basic human empathy, peppering their speech with a lot of “poor girls” and “her poor mother”: They’re also whip-crack quick to point out that Natalie was an odd girl, and her brother, well, he’s an odd boy. Standing mere feet away from the grieving family, these women suggest, in hushed, honeyed tones, that the brother was “queer” and maybe a bit too “attached” to his sister, that he could’ve killed her in a sick crime of passion. This “viciousness in the kitchen,” to borrow a phrase from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lesbos,” is later mirrored in the convenience store, where Amma and her friends will bum a few bucks off Camille to pay for the Sprite bottle they’ve clearly spiked with liquor (itself a clever call-back to Camille’s Evian bottle of vodka); when Camille tells them to get home before curfew, because someone’s out there hurting little girls, Amma retorts, “not the cool ones.” The line and line reading is so barbed, that I winced (as a decidedly uncool girl in high school, I always had a suspicion that some of my classmates likely didn’t care whether I lived or died, but to hear it articulated like that was surprisingly painful, even years later).

Actually, much of this episode reminded me of Plath’s poem, which expresses the speaker’s seething rage at her confines of refined domesticity in a series of lines and images that twin the banality of life as wife and mother with feelings of unquenchable violence: “Now I am silent, hate/Up to my neck,/Thick, thick/ I do not speak./ I am packing the hard potatoes like good clothes,/I am packing the babies,/I am packing the sick cats./O vase of acid,/It is love you are full of.” The women of Wind Gap may have curdled under their own boredom and the cultural mandate of faux politeness—but they are complicit in enforcing that mandate, and in punishing women who defy it; they are damned to pack the hard potatoes and the babies and the sick cats, in part, by their own personal myopia. Ironically, the women who flirt more openly, and graphically, with the edge, feel more redeemable, or at least authentic, than the “respectable” ladies with their vases of acid.

When Camille releases the tarantula that Natalie kept in a jar on her desk so that it won’t starve, she performs a genuine act of compassion—one that feels even more precious because it’s so rare in this town. Camille clearly has some measure of empathy for Natalie, which becomes more evident as she more aggressively pursues the case; her pursuit leads her to a potential witness, a young boy who says that Natalie was taken into the woods by “a woman in white.” That empathy is more clearly explained when a sobbing Adora tells Camille that she wanted to “help” Natalie, because she was a wild and willful girl who was always playing in the woods and coming home dirty, “just like you.”

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Adora emerges as a figure of Plathian menace—a tyrant in suede pumps, a mother who would devour her children’s spirits before she’d allow them a semblance of self that is independent of her, because autonomy is too ugly, too inconvenient. She conjures other lines from “Lesbos”: “I see your cute décor/Close on you like the fist of a baby.” The way that director Jean-Marc Vallee frames Adora in a flashback sequence to Marian’s funeral weaponizes the symbols of her femininity. The camera hews to young Camille’s perspective as she watches Adora pluck out her impeccably mascaraed lashes with a chilling meticulousness; when she rejects Camille’s desperate attempt at a hug (Sophia Lillis is utterly heart-shattering in the part) and kneels, instead, at Marian’s coffin, we see the heels of her pumps in such intense foreshortening that they look like black stakes sharp enough to puncture a breastbone and stop a human heart. Patricia Clarkson turns Adora’s pain into an unexpectedly muscular tendril, capable of whipping loose and taking out everyone around her, or coiling inward and choking her spirit out from the inside.

She’s arguably the scariest, most sinister force in the show. When she tells Camille that she just wanted to help Natalie, we get a very plausible sense that the “woman in white” might not just be a piece of town folklore (for the record, I haven’t read the book, so I have no idea if this loose idea might have a semblance of truth to it)—even though the lawmen are convinced that the killer must be a man because of brute strength, and a general assumption that men are inherently more savage. Yet the male violence we see in this episode is either so conventional that it feels rote (like when Ann Nash’s father gets into a physical skirmish with a group of men at Natalie’s memorial) or cartoonishly grotesque (like when the young boy who witnessed “the woman in white” take Natalie shows Camille his revolver and drawls that he can take care of himself). Sharp Objects may focus on women’s pain, on personal and collective levels, but it is equally invested in the pain that women inflict on each other.