Amy Adams (left), Patricia Clarkson
Photo: Anne Marie Fox (HBO)

Toward the end of the first episode of Sharp Objects, a teenage girl tells her half-sister that, “Mama says I’m incorrigible.” Her tone winks with mischief, her words bright with a quicksilver menace. She’s wearing a prim, floral-patterned dress, her mother’s living doll (as she has called herself only moments before) as she regards her sister, the black-clad, hard-drinking prodigal daughter. “Just like you,” she adds. These two simple lines of dialogue, which read simultaneously blunt and sly, encapsulate the mood of this series opener—an episode that is largely propelled by its own humid moodiness. Though the premiere sets up two murders to be solved, the series’ central mystery is whether our protagonist, Camille (Amy Adams), that black-wearing, bleak-hearted woman who barely escaped her hothouse of a childhood, could ever change or be redeemed—or if she even wants to be.

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The episode’s opening image, two girls coasting through an industrial town square on their vintage roller-skates, evokes the lush potentiality of girlhood against the gritty reality of a fading backwater: A teenage Camille and her sister, Marian, glide past rain-battered signs touting the local union’s support of “Clinton-Gore ’92,” away from tiny mom-and-pop shops (tellingly, the butcher shop and the florist are next to each other), and toward their eerie dollhouse of a family home. The camera moves through corridors brimming a Southern gothic mustiness that feels like Miss Havisham by way of Tennessee Williams. Camille’s mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson) is framed in a distant doorway, like some predatory cat pacing daintily, yet deliberately, in a gilded cage. Teen Camille sneaks into an unexpectedly grubby room that notably features an Obama “HOPE” poster; she crouches down beside a red-haired woman sleeping in a messy bed and slowly, methodically, stabs her in the hand with an elongated paper clip. That woman is adult Camille, who has recently come back from a hospitalization for self-harm, and this is her dream—a dream whose ephemeral, feminine menace announces the show’s narrative and thematic progression.

Even before her editor at The Chronicle assigns Camille to cover the murder of one girl and the disappearance of another in her small hometown of Wind Gap (where everyone is either “old money or trash,” as she tells him), Camille exists in a drunken, disassociated slur of memories. The editing creates a tense slur between time, where images of Camille’s past—specifically related to Marian’s mysterious illness and death, and teenage Camille’s chilling encounters with a pack of local boys that seems like the prelude to something truly savage—bleed into her present-day with an intrusiveness that feels all the direr, and more damning, because of how subtly and quickly they appear.

This kind of cut is a hallmark of director Jean-Marc Vallée, which he used masterfully in films like Wild and The Dallas Buyers Club to convey the characters’ backstories, and, more importantly, how those backstories inform their here-and-now, for better or worse (most often, for worse). Here, the memories—Camille and Marian skating through town; Marian’s body seizing violently in bed; Camille floating in the creek on a hot summer day; a boy aiming his rifle at her while she’s still half submerged, smirking as he peers through the scope—whip through Camille’s consciousness like an eel moving through dark water.

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These flashbacks provide a lot of the narrative momentum: For a series that is ostensibly a true crime tale, this episode is deliberately lean on actual plot, at least until the very end. Most of the episode is spent in the claustrophobic confines of Camille’s car, her seedy motel room, and various locations around town as Camille slugs down mini-bottles of liquor or an Evian bottle of vodka, chain-smokes, and fidgets when people ask her why she’s back home. The power of knowing that she’s been through some shit (even if we don’t know, exactly, everything about that shit) gives some depth to a character that could easily be a flattened caricature of the beautiful and broody hot mess, a woman who uses sarcasm to deflect her pain and drinks too much because she’s too smart for the world.

Honestly, I’ve become a bit tired of the lady asshole trope, mostly because I think it’s overdone and reductive (and shows like Riverdale, Jane the Virgin, and GLOW clearly demonstrate that women characters don’t have to be ostentatiously unlikeable to be interesting and complex), but writer Marti Noxon, director Vallée, and most of all, star Amy Adams, invest Camille with flashes of personality that make her worth following. Adams is a maestro of the micro-expression. She makes moments that would seem clunky and redundant anywhere else seem both shocking and elegant. In one flashback, teen Camille stumbles into a backwoods shack covered with pages of violent bondage porn and smoked meats; then we cut to adult Camille, masturbating in bed, as she climaxes, her eyes flash rage, disgust, and relief in a single expression.

Adams is one of our greatest living performers (and now that Leonardo DiCaprio has his Oscar, can we now direct our rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the fact that the Arrival star still doesn’t have one?): She evinces grit and fragility in a single look. Adams is at her finest when Camille is on the job, trying to get the sheriff and hunky out-of-town detective brought in on the case (Chris Messina) to share info about the case; surreptitiously coaxing details out of locals (including a caftan-wearing Elizabeth Perkins); and, in one of the most powerful scenes, speaking with the father of the first victim, Ann Nash. This is a brutal duet between two gifted actors—the father has been blunted by his grief, he speaks of how his daughter was plain but good, that he is grateful she was just killed and not raped and killed. Adams’ Camille regards his pain with a receptive tenderness; we see her reporter’s instinct to get more information churning inside her, along with her genuine empathy for the man’s pain. When he snaps into a sudden rage at the sight of her notebook (he’s defensive because the town’s whisper mill has suggested he might be a suspect in his own daughter’s death), she knows exactly how to mollify him—though it doesn’t mitigate her fear.

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Camille may be incorrigible, but the show presents her seemingly intractable knack for self-destruction as a natural response to so much accumulated trauma—not only the loss and the violence she’s endured, but her mother’s indifference to all of it. Adora feigns horror at the goings-on around town; however, she quickly and vociferously demands that Camille not tell her anything about the cases. She’s more concerned about how Camille’s conduct reflects on her than on her daughter’s obvious pain. Compare her callousness with the sheriff’s agony when Camille and some local kids discover the second disappeared girl’s dead body. That body propels the story into the second episode; it also has the potential to catalyze Camille toward redemption (can she give these girls a measure of the justice she never got for herself?) or mire her more deeply in her own personal Hell. The great mystery of Sharp Objects isn’t who did it, but what will happen to Camille’s soul?