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Sharp Objects Finale Recap: Don’t Tell Mama

Sharp Objects

Milk
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****

Sharp Objects

Milk
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

As we grow older as women, are we only destined to repeat the sins of our mothers and replay the stories of their lives for which they never were able to find resolution? Or can we step out of their shadows to craft a narrative of our own making?

It’s these questions that power the transfixing and powerful final hour of Sharp Objects. If you’re expecting the series to present a finale of polished twists and simple resolutions, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it doubles down on its most beguiling quality, subverting our expectations in order to present a bruising character study about how women grapple with intimate abuse and violence, in the process becoming a towering achievement for each of its leads.

The finale, “Milk,” begins only a few moments after the last episode. Camille is plagued by the dark knowledge of her mother’s history and cruelty. The voices of Jackie, Marian, and others echo in her mind. But she has no reprieve. When she walks inside the home, she’s plunged into a claustrophobic scene that trades in one of the most fraught domestic spheres: a family dinner.

Adora, Alan, and Amma, still looking like a wayward Ophelia, sit around the table eating their meal as if their family isn’t unraveling at a breakneck speed. Adora has the uncanny skill of ignoring anything unwholesome or gnarled even while most of her actions could be described as such. She looks at Amma lovingly, somehow not noticing that she’s terribly ill and hovering near death. What she can’t ignore is Camille’s haunted, mascara-smudged gaze. Camille wants to save Amma. It’s why she asks if Amma can come back to St. Louis with her. It’s why she eats this dinner and drinks the poison milk, collapsing on the floor soon after. But there’s something beyond altruism behind this decision — a desire to feel her mother’s love for the first time in her life.

If you knew nothing about the dynamic between Adora and her children, her scenes caring for Camille may seem sweet. This is the first time she’s let into the hallowed ground of Adora’s master bedroom. She lets Adora dress her, caress her cheek. “This will be good for the both of us,” Adora says, beaming with a mother’s love. “You are such a good girl.” When Camille swallows the poison she simply replies, “More, mama.”

The scenes within the Crellin estate are spiky and grotesque in ways that left me feeling as haunted as Camille looks. That such cruelty is occuring in such a beautiful estate feels like a contradiction that fully exemplifies the lives of these women — their gorgeous faces masking the rot and hurt underneath. Even though I understand why the scenes of Vickery and Richard interrogating John Keene — stubbornly reminding them of his own innocence — are necessary, I kept wanting the episode to return to those women nudging at their old wounds and creating new ones.

Watching Camille, I realized that Sharp Objects is offering what no other dead-girl drama on TV has been able to do quite as effectively: place us in the mind of a woman grappling with trauma who narrowly missed becoming a dead girl herself. It’s as if her life is trapped in a liminal space infused by this fact. She’s between the life she’s currently living and the fate that could have befallen her as it did Marian, yet she futilely tries to help Amma, imploring her to escape the home and find Richard. “If anything happens to me, you tell them mama took care of me. You go and you don’t come back,” she warns. Amma is stopped by Alan cooing about getting her a slice of cake.

In many ways, the first half of the finale is completely Adora’s story. Patricia Clarkson makes a meal of her scenes. Her physicality is as beautiful and deadly as the edge of a freshly sharpened blade. She swans around the home, the tray of her elixirs and poisons tinkling with her delicate steps. Her best showcase is when she’s giving Camille a bath and we are allowed an unvarnished window into her mind. She’s humorous splashing water on Camille’s face. Her touch is kind. I understand why Amma, Marian, and now Camille get swept up in her desires. If you could bottle the warm, loving gaze she bestows on Camille in these scenes, I’d drink it in one fatal swoop. The most revealing look into Adora is when she speaks of her mother, Joya. “Once Joya woke me in the dead of night. I was seven, eight. She didn’t say a word,” her eyes are glassy as if fixed on some distant horizon. “She drove me to the woods. Walked me in deep. Sat me down and left me there.” If there is any complaint I have of the finale, it’s that I wanted more of Adora.

I haven’t spent much time in these recaps paying attention to Chris Messina’s acting, but he has a tremendous moment when he comes in to rescue Camille. As the garish police lights flood into the home, he finds Camille crumpled on the floor. She can’t move, can barely speak. But the comfort he offers is short-lived. He sees her scars and he recoils. It’s as if the gravity of her mental illness is only coming into focus for him right at that moment. My heart broke for Camille. Soon, I was crying. The look he gives Camille and his paltry apology in the hospital exemplify one of my greatest fears: that my struggle with mental illness and the scars it has carved into my identity will define me so wholly, no one will be able to look beyond them. At least, Frank can. As he rushes to Camille’s side, putting a blanket over her, I felt thankful she has at least that genuine care to turn to, especially with Adora’s arrest marking the beginning of a difficult new chapter — one predicated on healing.

Camille and Amma quickly reorient each other to life outside of Adora’s shadow, leading to a spritely, bright, and hopeful montage sequence of sisterly connection. We watch as Amma wishes her close friends and Alan goodbye. Camille makes room in her life in St. Louis for Amma, even granting her the bedroom. Amma becomes friends with their neighbor, Mae (Iyana Halley), gliding on roller skates in the narrow alley that leads to Camille’s apartment. This is the closest Sharp Objects comes to not quite a happily ever after, but something like it. The sequence ends when Amma visits Adora in prison. The final image of this former queen of Wind Gap is a jarring contradiction to the elegant, refined woman we’re used to seeing. It looks like she’s been drained of color entirely. She’s out of place in the orange jumpsuit. She doesn’t look like a killer, but a grieving mother aching to be by her daughter’s side. That’s the point though, isn’t it? That violence within women doesn’t take on the form we expect. It’s more mercurial, more difficult to pin down.

But this rhythm of sisterly connection and new friendship sours. The first signs occur when Camille brings Amma and Mae over to Frank’s home for dinner. Amma seems annoyed by Mae mentioning that she wants to be a politician or a journalist, as if she’s trying to suck up to Camille.

One afternoon, Mae’s mother comes over asking where her daughter is. Camille notes that they went off to hang out by the closed, local pool. Mae’s mother asks if she knows about the tiff they got into. Then there are a number of portents — the framed picture of Camille and Marian falling from the wall, the dollhouse bedspread that Mae helped make in the garbage. When Camille goes to replace it in the dollhouse, she finds something she wasn’t expecting that turns her carefully recreated new life on its head: teeth. There is a molar under the bed. Teeth are broken and sanded into submission, meant to reflect the gleaming ivory floor of Adora’s bedroom. Amy Adams’s best work in the finale proves to be the quietest moments when she allows Camille’s emotional life to be transparent, each groove illuminated on her face. Here, her expression travels from astonishment to grief. Amma comes in behind her with a plea: “Don’t tell mama.”

I imagine this ending will be jarring for viewers who didn’t read Gillian Flynn’s book. It’s a sudden, disorienting turn just before the credits roll, giving scant resolution, emotional or narrative. But this is what I love about the series — its choice to not only subvert our desires for mysteries, but wildly experiment with the form of television. The finale scans, in its closing moments, as a devastating reminder of inherited trauma. The conversation around Sharp Objects has suggested that it is a series fueled, to its detriment, by atmosphere more than anything else. But Sharp Objects isn’t merely a mood or a vibe. To say so ignores what its creative forces — namely, Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn, who pen the finale and have made a career out of exploring the murky depths of complex, dangerous women — are working toward.

The series is a piercing character study injected with the mores of a Southern Gothic. The most impactful images of “Milk” — Adora’s glassy gaze as she speaks of her mother, Amma fashioned after Persephone, Amma in the surprising end-credit scenes — all circle around the ways women reckon with inherited trauma, mental illness, and violence, often to tragic ends. Maybe the problem isn’t that Sharp Objects prefers to eschew any desire for a traditional mystery narratively, but that people desire that stories of women’s trauma be “campy” spectacles and full of GIF-able moments that makes the tragedy easier to bear. The revelation that Amma has inherited Adora’s cruelty — with a greater sense of spectacle with these murders — makes sense. Did Camille really believe that cutting Adora from their lives would solve everything? That all that was necessary was cleaving her from their family tree when it’s the entire tree that’s infested with this cruelty? This makes Amma’s monologue about Persephone at the dinner table in the opening scene all the more meaningful.

Clad in her ornate flower crown and sweat-soaked nightgown, she asks Camille, “Guess which Greek goddess I am?” With hazy focus, she launches into an explanation about Persephone, queen of the underworld. “She’s married to that big dude Hades. He runs hell, but she’s in charge of punishment,” she says as Adora beams with pride at her daughter. “I feel sorry for Persephone because even when she’s back with the living, they’re afraid of her because of where she’s been.” As Jean Marc-Vallée kept his camera trained on the looks passing between Camille (pained) and Adora (probing), I felt Persephone’s myth spoke mostly about them. Camille exerting punishment only on herself, Adora inflicting it on her children. But it also speaks to Amma, who learned how to hide her demons well and inflict damage on a greater number of people as a means to both exorcise her own traumas and revel in them. Perhaps this is why I kept rewatching the scenes nestled in the closing credits. The most potent is a chaotic montage of Amma, along with her two close cohorts, killing the girls of Wind Gap with a manic desire. The most bloodcurdling moment is watching Amma kill her new friend Mae, strangling her from behind. Mae’s painted fingernails interlaced in the fence, reaching out for a savior who will never come. Amma’s face is somewhere between barbed bliss and raw anger. Teeth bared, hair tousled on her face. She looks as she never has under Adora’s gaze — powerful, like the kind of woman who believes she’s in charge of her own narrative when in actuality she is simply replicating the lies her mother taught her: that beauty is the most powerful currency a woman can have, even in death, and that violence can be transcendent.

Wind Gap gossip

• Alan has never been much of a character, but the finale puts under the spotlight just how much he is to blame too. Adora is a monstress, but she has been supported by a community that chooses to ignore her darkness rather than stop it. She couldn’t have killed Marian or harmed her own daughters without the support of men like Vickery and Alan (men so struck by her allure, they acted as if nothing was wrong), or women like Jackie who felt powerless to stop her.

• Camille has never been framed by the show as a good journalist. She’s a wreck of a woman downing alcohol in water bottles before interviewing her subjects. She makes scant notes, rarely records conversations, makes unethical decisions. But hearing Frank read her final piece about “a very female sort of rage” (which could be the alternate title to the series) I realized she is, at least, a beautiful writer.

Sharp Objects Finale Recap: Don’t Tell Mama