Wind Gap, the fictional Midwestern setting of HBO’s Sharp Objects, is an eerily secretive backwater, an archetypical vision of a podunk town whose inhabitants almost all have wicked streaks. For newspaper reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), who returns home to Wind Gap to investigate the murder of one teenage girl and the disappearance of another, the town is a reminder of her innermost and traumatic realm of being. As the miniseries withholds the details of her past until its shocking climax, the mystery of Camille’s childhood becomes as engrossing as the case she’s investigating.
Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s debut novel of the same name, Sharp Objects finds Camille perpetually on the edge of self-destruction. The series reserves its most poignant insights for the effects of Camille’s trauma, painstakingly detailing the routine of her alcoholism and predilection for self-harm. Even at its most ponderous, the series milks suspense from the juxtaposition of Camille’s memories and the annihilation that would seem to await her.
Mirroring the frustrating impenetrability of Camille’s investigation, Sharp Objects is reluctant to elucidate the details of her past. Throughout, Camille’s memories are presented in rapid-fire flashbacks that form a bleak mosaic made disorienting by a lack of crucial context. Some of these flashbacks are snapshots of a teenage Camille (Sophia Lillis), alone in the woods and surrounded by boys; others provide glimpses of the funeral of her sister Marian, whose death is one of the show’s central mysteries. A hunting cabin and figure clad in white often loom in the background of Camille’s memories, and the series sustains a level of macabre excitement the closer it brings us to understanding the true nature of these and other mysterious visions.
Especially in its early episodes, there’s a sense that Sharp Objects is using the deliberate nature of its flashback structure to prolong the inevitable. Indeed, for long stretches, very little seems to actually happen in Wind Gap. Recurring scenes abound, of Camille drinking in her car or lingering in Marian’s childhood bedroom. These early episodes effectively establish the show’s dour mood, which is its defining characteristic. And because Camille is often drunk, and many of her interactions consist of standoffs with tight-lipped locals, Sharp Objects is pregnant with the possibility for cataclysm. There’s a whiff of tragedy to every parking lot full of muddy pickup trucks, every instance of Camille drunkenly driving down a country road.
Despite being overshadowed by the mystery of Camille’s past, the central murder investigation turns thrilling in the final episodes, when Sharp Objects pays off its suggestive groundwork by unveiling the disturbing truth about Wind Gap’s dead girls. Impressively, even after establishing the town as a place full of untoward people, all of whom are potential suspects in the crimes, the real circumstances of the case still manage to surprise.
Throughout, the show is complicated by Camille’s perspective: Is Wind Gap the insidiously toxic place she envisions, or is her perspective clouded by personal trauma? Even as she comes closer to uncovering certain truths about her past, the series resists suggesting that closure might allow her to heal. Camille’s triggers are specific and unceasing. The series achieves a poignancy and urgency by shrinking the distance between the root of her damage and its effects. When we learn why she consistently wears sleeves and pants, even in summer, it becomes clear that Camille has never stopped trying to survive the events of her childhood. She’s still in the woods, and she’s still at her sister’s funeral. The moving portrait of her grief provides a crushing, resonant counterbalance to the pulpy crime storyline at the show’s center.
Camille’s time in Wind Gap is made less pleasant by her cruel, staid mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), who seems to openly resent Camille for being traumatized at all. Like everyone in Wind Gap, Adora hides some grave truth; similarly, Camille’s younger half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), is a hard-partying, edgy teenager who feigns innocence at home. Because everyone in town, outside of one lone sympathetic detective (Chris Messina), is seemingly protecting a secret, the series can feel exhausting. It’s difficult to parse which of Wind Gap’s natives might be a murderer, but it’s equally hard to tell which of them are redeemable in any meaningful way. Most often, we wish Camille would abandon her investigation and Wind Gap altogether.
Ultimately, though, Sharp Objects views Camille’s assignment, and confrontation with her past, as a laudable, necessary undertaking. Perhaps because it’s framed through Camille’s perspective, the series is unrelentingly pessimistic. Yet beneath its grimness, Sharp Objects ultimately testifies to the triumph of survival, no matter how ugly or desperate a form it takes.