In her seminal essay, “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison assesses the ways that women are violated and wounded, humiliated and abused, throughout our art and our culture. She describes Mina Harker from Dracula, crying out as she’s bitten and drained of her blood; Anna Karenina leaping to her doom in front of a screeching train, rather than endure another day of unrequited love and social purgatory; Sylvia Plath railing at her father’s ghost; Mimi from La Bohème succumbing to her tuberculosis, as her lover calls her “beautiful as the dawn.” Jamison wonders if “we may have turned the wounded woman into a kind of goddess, romanticized her illness and idealized her suffering,” by associating her pain as an endemic part of her femaleness. If, by creating so many stories that center, in some core way, around a woman’s debasement—even a woman’s heroic survival of, and perseverance through, that debasement—we’re saying that being debased is just a natural part of being a woman (so just grit your teeth and get through it. Or don’t, as long as you leave a beautiful corpse).
Sharp Objects is quite literally about a woman’s woundedness: It’s fitting that “Closure,” the show’s fifth episode—which functions as a jaundiced commentary on how we elevate and mythologize women’s pain—should derive narrative and emotional momentum from Camille’s scars. Though Amy Adams’ miracle of a performance has breathed the vodka-scented life into Camille, the character could easily tip into the archetype of the damaged lady hero—she’s been sexually assaulted, abused and neglected by a parent, and cast off from “polite society;” she drinks too much, sleeps around, and hurts herself; she doesn’t let anyone get too close, and she’s always sorry whenever someone does sneak a thin blade of affection through her armored heart. She could be Jessica Jones, or Cersei Lannister, or even Buffy Summers in BTVS season six. “Closer” seems to acknowledge both the broader ways we romanticize women’s illnesses and idealize their suffering, and its own relationship to those tropes.
The episode’s forward action occurs over Calhoun Day, where the residents of Wind Gap celebrate the rape and torture of a pregnant Confederate teenage bride who wouldn’t give her husband up to a squad of Yankee soldiers. Although the residents of Wind Gap, decked out in their full-on Confederacy cosplay or their Sunday finest, wouldn’t say they were celebrating Millie Calhoun’s rape and torture—they’d say they were honoring her sacrifice by re-enacting it, or by watching the sanitized version of it as they guzzle beer and stuff themselves with barbecue, gossip and flirt, and pretend to mourn a bygone version of the South that actually never existed.
The Calhoun Day pageant, where Amma plays the unfortunate lead, forms the center and spine of the episode. Jean Marc Vallee is immaculately merciless, juxtaposing images of charred hogs slapped down on a table-top, about to be cut into and feasted upon, with Amma, playing the woman that Camille snidely calls their “great, great grandvictim,” reciting some grandiloquent lines about how her tormentors can “burn the tree” that they’re tying her to because she’ll never betray her beloved and her country. Here is the full lurid spectacle of a woman’s debasement—the most violent and terrifying moments of her life, the moments when her body was broken and rent, when she lost her baby—turned into entertainment.
In her essay, Jamison maintains that, even as we “[turn] female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship,” we simultaneously loathe wounded women for so starkly reminding us of our own frailty, of the physical pain and the emotional turmoil that can’t be scrubbed up and staged by singing teenagers. Jamison admits that she has cut herself in the past, and that she feels some embarrassment about this—not about the cutting itself, per say, but about the culture’s reaction to cutters, which is, like Adora’s and Amma’s reactions to Camille’s scarred body, one of revulsion and/or condescending fascination. “People want to believe in self-improvement—it’s an American ethos, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps—and here we have the equivalent of affective downward mobility: cutting as a failure to feel better,” she writes. It’s ironic that one of the first times we see Camille’s full array of scars, raw white weals of words and calcified scratch marks, is while she’s shopping for her Calhoun Day attire. A woman who is ambling through her own very real, very private hellscape must gussy up so she can partake in the garish public theater of another woman’s Hell.
The scene when Camille bears her body, in full, for the first time, is so unnerving—not because of her wounds (although one can’t help but feel a vicarious rush of pain while bearing witness to them), but because of her mother’s utter callousness to them. “You’re ruined,” Adora hisses, equating the state of her daughter’s body (at least, in her opinion) with the state of her daughter’s soul. Patricia Clarkson has so deftly wielded the iron fist of Adora’s cruelty inside the velvet glove of her gentility that it’s natural to assume that she’s loathed Camille for failing to adhere to that immaculately lacquered version of femininity (one of our flashbacks to young Camille includes the girl tracking a spot of mud on the family’s one-of-a-kind real-elephant-ivory floor). Yet this episode introduces the specter of Camille’s father, who Adora speaks of with a combination of tightly-suppressed fear and begrudging admiration as a cold man, a man who was incapable of love—a man that, in her estimation, Camille resembles, in her “coloring” and in the marrow of her bones, her inability to ever get close to anyone.
Adora makes such public spectacles of her pain (however minor it may be; that cut from the rose bush registers as an impaling at this point), and yet we’ve not heard anything about Camille’s father, the man who seemingly hurt her the most, until now. Apparently, this pain is so terrible that it can only be sublimated into a similar viciousness: One could suggest that, just as Camille inflicts her pain upon her own tender body, Adora inflicts her pain upon Camille. It’s a kind of dark dance between public and private expressions of pain, which ends in a moment of truly breathtaking cruelty, even by Adora’s already-high standards of maternal menace: At the tail end of a conversation that seems like it could maybe, just maybe, offer a semblance of reconciliation, Adora tells Camille that she never really loved her—and that she never really loved her because she is just like her no-good, very-very-very bad daddy.
This confession accelerates Camille’s flirtation with Richard, aka “Kansas City” in a sex scene that is all the more arousing for its furtiveness. Camille and Richard consummate their attraction in a tussle of bodies that is equally awkward and urgent. She can’t truly reveal herself to him. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Chris Messina and Amy Adams have a truly unique kind of chemistry: They’re obviously drawn to each other in a very raw, physical way and yet there’s also something gentle and companionable in their burgeoning attachment.
After Adora takes Richard on a tour of the house (so that she can essentially warn him off Camille, who “lost her spirit” when her sister died), Camille asks him what, exactly, Adora told him. Adams reveals a sweet sliver of underbelly as Camille tries to keep her hard-ass persona intact; Messina lets us see that Richard, in turn, sees right through that hard-ass act. Richard quips that Adora told him a lot about that ivory floor, and his gently sarcastic tone manages to soothe Camille’s anxiety by pretending it doesn’t exist. Yet this promise of compassion, and passion, is haunted by Camille’s scars.
The question of how Richard will react when he first sees them, or feels them under her clothes has now, in certain ways, attained a parallel urgency to the question of who killed Ann and Natalie (arguably attained a greater urgency, given that “Closer,” which begins the final sprint of series episodes, doesn’t advance the murder plot at all). Will he look at the scars as a sign of Camille’s inner weakness, a validation of Adora’s assessment that she is soul-sick and unworthy? Or will he become a White Knight, who proves his dudely valor by idealizing a woman in pain, just so he can make a show of rescuing her? Can the show’s first foray into, if not love, then something like tenderness, truly last?