Sharp Objects is a dark meditation of a show, long on mood and short on forward action. These six hours have been an imagistic evocation of history and emotion animated by a murder mystery that often seems quite cursory—at least, compared to the terrifying richness of the series’ real story, about how Camille Preaker went from a golden girl to a woman with a brass heart, and how, or, frankly, if ,she can ever find a semblance of peace. As viewers, we either lean into the show’s twisted, intense dreaminess or we stand back and reject it as all aesthetics without meaning.
Throughout the first five episodes, I’ve found Sharp Objects’ focus on interiority to be narratively and thematically rich. The series remains a sophisticated study in women’s pain and rage that doesn’t shirk from the hard truths that women will weaponize their pain and rage against themselves and each other—victim and violator are the thinnest twin edges of the sharpest blade. The writing, editing, direction, and acting have aligned to create a depth of complexity and nuance (that opening sequence of the first episode, where the older Camille dreams of her younger self delicately sticking a pin in her hand, is an absolute testament to editing as an art form)—which makes “Cherry,” a true wheel-spinner of an episode, so disappointing.
The episode’s signature flaw is encapsulated in a passage of dialogue. One of Camille’s childhood friends gives her a ride to the liquor store after a grotesque “girl’s night” with the old cheer squad. These queen bees gone to seed spend their afternoon crying over Beaches; crying about how “feminism” makes them feel bad for wanting four children, and how they just didn’t “become a woman” until they felt their first babies moving inside them; and crying that they feel so guilty for going back to work once their kids went to school because they just, like, want to feel a sense of purpose. This friend sighs that she’s still in Wind Gap because she set such a low bar for herself. Then, she ruminates that, back in their heyday, all the girls were like cherries because they were so shiny and lush on the outside, but with dark hard pits on the inside. This image of the young woman’s shiny, sweet, and sensual surface hiding a subterranean darkness has arguably been a bit stale ever since Sue Lyons donned her heart-shaped sunglasses and put on a cherry-red pout in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita—but here it seems especially stale, to the point of fuzzing with rot, because Sharp Objects has already shown us this dynamic in far more harrowing, affecting scenes.
The moment when Amma and her crew terrorize Camille and Richard, and Amma literally weaponizes a spit-slick lollipop by forcing it into Camille’s hair, is evidence that A Clockwork Orange could be hypothetically ripe for an all-female reboot. The queen bee sob-fest belongs to a fairly rote network sitcom; it lacks the arctic edge of their set-piece during Natalie Keene’s memorial service, when they lob enough “bless your heart” bombs to decimate half the Western hemisphere. Even Adora’s flash of signature meanness is but a paler imitation of her earlier work, like a plodding, overproduced club remix of a classic song: She asks Alan to please tell Camille that she’s overstayed her welcome and hovers spookily outside out of Camille’s bedroom as Camille and Amma come down from their molly high. This episode feels like a more bluntly articulated retread of everything we’ve seen before: We get that John Keene is a weirdo outcast and possibly a killer, but this point is more poignantly expressed in the wordless sequence where he sneaks into the woods at night and brings his sister’s pet tarantula back to the jar on her desk, than in an overlong party scene where all the obnoxious popular teenagers call him a weirdo outcast killer to his face.
The few bits of genuinely new and compelling information that “Cherry” provides could have easily, and more effectively, been tucked into other episodes. Alan tells Camille that Adora’s mother used to sneak into young Adora’s room and pinch her, and that years later, Adora’s mother delighted when baby Camille refused to breastfeed. I understand not front-loading this delightfully witchy family history to excuse Adora’s viciousness. However, Alan and Camille’s brief exchange could’ve easily occurred after the ruckus of Calhoun Day, when Alan would’ve seen Adora at her absolute nastiest and might try to simultaneously explain her outbursts and console (however inexpertly) Camille. The scene where one of the football players who “had his way” with teenage Camille in the woods, now an adult and unhappily married to one of her old pals, tries to apologize for his role in her assault, should strike us like a knife between the ribs, but it’s weighed down by the episode’s formidable bloat.
This apology, and Camille’s appropriately brusque response to it (as she recalls, he couldn’t even “get it up”) might’ve also been more thematically resonant in “Closer,” which was all about the appropriation of women’s pain: The man is asking Camille to absolve him of his role in her trauma (now that he has daughters, of course, he can see that what he did was wrong; now that he has daughters, who might encounter a guy just like him, he is haunted by his actions) and she bluntly, powerfully, refuses to do it. “Looks like we both got fucked,” she says, tartly, before walking out the door.
Even the reveal that one of the hog plant workers claims to have seen John Keene dumping Ann Nash’s bicycle into a pile of pig feces seems tacked-on, rather than taut and purposeful. Yes, the show hasn’t exactly been compelled by its own crime story, and no, that hasn’t been a problem (at least for viewers like me)—still, this break in the case and arguable frame job (I’ve purposefully not watched ahead, so this is only my opinion: I just don’t see John as the killer, it’s been too telegraphed for a show that has, until now, eschewed the obvious) is significant enough to perhaps open one of the last two episodes; it certainly merits more than a tossed-off line of dialogue between Chief Vickery and Richard.
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was to make sure that every decision advances some aspect of the story—whether it’s the forward action, the characterizations, or the themes—so that the reader (or, in this case, the viewer) is in a state of constant discovery. Sharp Objects may not have been as bracingly-plotted as some viewers might’ve liked; however, most of the show’s choices have clearly defined its characters and its themes. The show’s powerful sense of interiority has driven the viewers’ discoveries—or, rather, unfurled those discoveries, like the petals of some dark, velvety flower slowly opening to reveal its fragrant center.
“Cherry” devotes far too much narrative real estate to the same old terrain. It’s a frustrating episode because there’s no joy of discovery. The teenage rager, while gorgeously shot, doesn’t reveal anything new about Amma and her friends. The episode sends Richard on an investigative tear through Camille’s past, chatting up her surrogate aunt, Jackie (which makes sense) and using his badge to get details out of the clinic where Camille received treatment (which is just gross). Richard’s fact-finding expedition doesn’t dredge up anything new about Camille and it doesn’t illuminate anything about his own past or personality; it’s the storytelling equivalent of treading water.
Even the episode’s best sequence—that creepily loopy sequence of Amma and Camille roller-skating through town—has a truly cringe-worthy, straight-from-my-eighth-grade poetry ending. As Camille spins Amma around, Amma’s face blurs into Marion’s face and Alice’s (Camille’s hospital roommate) face (and, as if you didn’t already know that Camille was traumatized by her death, her face is bloody and foaming), and Natalie Keene’s face. Amma becomes all the dead girls that Camille has loved (or at least known) before. It’s everything we’ve already seen, already known, before—and it’s a rare, but hopefully one-time, foray into mediocrity for such an electric, innovative show.