Photo: Anne Marie Fox (HBO)

The episode titles for Sharp Objects offer a kind of wry commentary about the surface and subterranean events of the show: “Vanish” is, on its surface, about the two disappeared girls, but it’s also very much about how Camille, despite her best efforts at self-obliteration, will never be able to truly leave her past behind. “Dirt” examines the churning brutality of Wind Gap’s gossip mill, and it twins that more genteel, feminine brutality with the sadism of Ann’s and Natalie’s deaths. “Fix” may have been the most barbed, sardonic title yet: That episode is a study in irrevocable brokenness that ends on images of Camille losing her hospital roommate, Alice, the one woman with whom she enjoys a kind, even loving, bond. This fourth episode, “Ripe” focuses on lost potential, on people and situations that seem ready to bloom or burst, or, more likely, to decay.

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This episode’s title comes from an insult that Adora levels at Camille after Camille returns home from her outing with Richard, aka Dick, aka the hot cop from Kansas City. Though Camille has just walked her kinda-sorta suitor through the grislier, more haunted parts of Wind Gap’s history—the riverbed where two young women who were in love with each other were found dead (a double-suicide, murder-suicide, or double-murder-made-to-look-like-a-murder-suicide); the hunting shack still covered with bondage porn; and the clearing where the football players used to “have their way” with the cheerleaders, including young Camille—she is still as cowed as a child when her mother confronts her. Adora is a steel-trap magnolia: She’s seductive in a frail, silken sort of way; her neediness drapes itself oh-so-delicately around your throat, a scarf that feels almost frivolously thin, poignant in its attempts to warm you—until it suddenly coils ever-tighter, chokes you breathless.

We see her slide effortlessly into attack mode with Chief Vickery: For hours, she’s flattered him into thinking this is a cordial visit between the town’s law enforcement and its most influential, and very concerned, citizen. She lulls him into gentlemanly solicitousness with gentle, yet persistent, complaints about her wounded hand—cut while tending her rose bushes, which is like a fairy princess ailment given to the wicked queen—as she draws out details about the cases, and discusses plans for Calhoun Day festivities. When the chief rightfully suggests canceling the celebration, “given the circumstances” of the girls’ deaths, Adora squeezes him with the knowledge that she could easily have him replaced.

She’s so civil in her savagery that her naked viciousness toward Camille feels even more intense, a stinging slap of a rebuke about Camille’s willfulness, her inability to love and be loved, and her inner ugliness—which ends with the blunt, and titular, assertion: “You smell ripe.” Patricia Clarkson puts such invective into that one little word that I gasped as if I’d been hit (and startled my dog): She’s laying into her daughter for a history of promiscuity in the starkest, rawest way, leveling her with a sneer that should refer to something hopeful, something about to come into being, and instead, becomes a site of ruin. It’s one of the hardest, most heartbreaking scenes in a show that already thrums with ache. Adora might be trying to destroy her daughter, but she is, however unintentionally, also referring to the broader state of the women in Wind Gap. Ripeness can be a gift if it’s allowed to fully bloom, to expand into a better self; it’s excruciatingly painful if all that raw, teeming potential remains trapped in its skin.

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Camille has been trapped inside her own thwarted potential for decades—this is tragic in and of itself, but the tragedy is compounded by the fact that she knows exactly how stuck she is; she’s just become comfortable in, or at least used to, her desperate, miserable little life. The editing evokes her internal paralysis by cross-cutting between young Camille waiting vigil outside of Adora’s room, working up the nerve to set a foot (the toenails painted a sweet baby blue) inside the doorway, only for the family’s servant to usher her away with a pitying “Momma’s not well;” young Camille as the cheerleader anxiously waiting for the football players to “have their way” with her in the woods; and young Camille staring bitterly at the birthday cake her stepfather Alan (who seems like a genuinely good guy) has prepared for her. These traumas still define her (and understandably so); she can’t grow up, can’t bloom.

When she takes Richard through the haunted woods of Wind Gap and admits to being one of those unfortunate cheerleaders, he expresses true sympathy for her as the victim of a crime. Camille replies that the sex was consensual and quips the old chestnut that a guy who has sex with five girls would have a statue in his honor, but the girl who has sex with five guys is—well, we all know what she is. Adams’ delivery is appropriately brittle, conveying Camille’s terse exhaustion at being considered a victim—which certainly aligns with the show’s spiderweb of intricate notions about women’s rage, suffering, and capacity for violence.

If anything, most of the men in Wind Gap seem kinder, or at least easier to know, than the women. Alan sublimates his life to Adora’s moods; still, he knows that Camille is suffering under her mother’s neglect and he tries, in his own small yet sincere way, to comfort her. Chief Vickery loves his wife and he loves the town; his desire to halt the Calhoun Day festivities isn’t rooted in a what-will-the-neighbors-say decorum, he simply doesn’t want to rub salt in some raw spots. John cares for his emotionally-wrecked mother with a compassion far beyond his years. Richard, for all his big city bravado, is still a fundamentally decent guy; he wants to court, and kiss, Camille—although, when she’d prefer he go down on her, he’s more than happy to oblige her. However, the specter of male brutality bleeds through the edges of everyday life—the authorities still believe a man is the killer; a wolf pack of young men, boys, really, had their way with Camille.

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Though adult Camille may shrug off what happened to her as an unfortunate example of teenage adventurousness, young Camille regards what is about to happen with a clenched, stoic kind of fear. As she pokes and chases a panicked spider with a long stick in a last display of tomboyish insouciance before the hurt begins, the camera frames her face with a claustrophobic tightness. Sophia Lillis is utterly devastating, holding fear and steeliness in a single look. This is the moment where Camille cocoons herself inside her own skin, seals herself away from the world to, if not survive it, at least endure it. The show’s moral quandary isn’t really who killed Ann and Natalie, it’s about Camille’s central choice: Will she continue rotting away with her apathy, her razors, and her booze? Or will she become who she might’ve been if the precious seed of her life had flourished, instead of stalled?

There’s potential: The Camille we see in the here-and-now is acerbically intelligent, and she must have some chops as a reporter for her editor to take such interest in her (especially while he’s undergoing chemotherapy). When she takes Adora’s place at the ladies who lunch gossip-fest, she’s savvy enough to mine through the coal-dark bon mots the women toss out for diamonds of insight about the town and the murdered girls. But she’s also evolved so far beyond the mean girl ethos of Wind Gap that she can find real empathy for John Keene, and even for Ann Nash’s father, men who have become suspects in their own beloved kin’s killings simply because they display an uncompromised emotionality that makes the other townspeople uncomfortable.

John is particularly suspect—even fired from the hog farm that Adora owns—because he’s grieving too openly, and too tearfully, for a sister who was murdered and then defiled after death. Amy Adams and Taylor John Smith have an easy chemistry when John further unburdens himself at the local bar: She regards him with a tenderness that is, if not exactly maternal, then at least Cool Aunt-like; he trusts her because he senses that she has an odd side, an angry side, not unlike his sister. The Keenes moved to Wind Gap because Natalie put a pencil in another girl’s eye. Now, Natalie will forever remain that troubled girl; she’ll never get to ripen. Camille’s homecoming may have cracked open some long-calcified parts of her heart, but she at least has the chance to reckon with everything that has unmade and re-made her. Maybe, just maybe, she can grow up.

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