Sharp Objects Recap: You’re Ruined

Sharp Objects

Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, my struggle with mental health tipped into self-harm. But I didn’t carve into my skin like Camille. Instead, I bruised myself. Taking my fists, or phones, or the back end of the wooden brushes I used to tame my hair, I bluntly hit myself over and over again. Bruises the color of wilting plums would bloom on my sides and arms and hips. But they would fade and that’s what mattered. It isn’t that I’m squeamish or easily nauseated by blood; I was raised by a mother with exacting standards of presentation and beauty that were drilled into me since birth, and I knew if I left myself scarred, my mother would never look at me the same. In her face, I would see pity and disgust. I couldn’t bear that. The look I always feared to see in my mother’s face is the look Adora gives Camille as her eyes travel over her scars in Sharp Objects’ best scene to date.

“Closer” brings us no nearer to the identity of the killer or even understanding the rot at the heart of Camille’s family. But it is a brilliant hour of television that astutely recognizes the ways we look at ourselves, each other, and the world around us. This idea is interwoven into all aspects of the episode, but it is most evident in Jean Marc Vallée’s direction, which charts the eyelines of the characters with revelatory precision, using them as points of transition, emotional pivots, and a canny way to communicate a rising yet unspoken tension.

The framing of the episode is Calhoun Day, a grotesque half-century tradition in Wind Gap. It’s a garish festivity in which the grand land of the Crellins is colored with all manner of Confederate flags, women wearing some version of The Beguiled cosplay, and oohs and ahhs over a story about a woman’s degradation. As Allan says to Adora while he zips up her blush-pink dress, “Today celebrates what is unmovable about this place” before he asks her which of his Civil War Confederate-regalia jackets he should wear. Allan is right in ways he doesn’t realize: Here is a town celebrating a story in which the child bride of a Confederate soldier protects her husband’s location even when she’s brutally raped and beaten, which the town then has teenagers reenact. (This year, Amma takes on the leading role, which Adora admires with bright, rapt attention.)

I agree more with Camille’s reading of this situation. She insults Calhoun as the “founding pedophile” and refers to Millie, the cherished victim of this town lore, as her “great-great-grandvictim.” It’s a grotesque celebration of the town’s original sin: ignoring the pain of women and teaching them that silence is key. There’s something about this blend of summertime indulgence, history, and skewed rewriting of a situation to make it into anything other than a tragedy that lights a fuse in the town. The air crackles with a greater tension, during and after Calhoun Day, all while Wind Gap’s inability to learn from its past causes horrors to replay themselves throughout generations.

For Adora, Calhoun Day is about appearances. Her lawn must be pristine and punctuated by balloons and Confederate flags. The ivory floor of her bedroom, which was a wedding gift for her great-great-grandmother, must be polished into gleaming perfection. Everything is both achingly beautiful and represents a painful history. Is it any wonder Gayla, their maid, is out of sight? A black person would disrupt the sick fantasy of this day.

Camille is a literal dark mark on the celebration for Adora, like ink spilled on freshly cleaned white satin. As always, she explodes the easy narratives that the people of Wind Gap like to tell themselves. Least she could do is dress the part. So, Adora brings Amma and Camille on a shopping trip that is fraught from the beginning with each playing a certain role. Amma is all sullen teenaged malevolence, mentioning how Camille’s most recent article has the town buzzing about Bob Nash and John Keene as potential killers. Adora plays both victim (“You’ve made me bleed,” she seethes) and villain (nearly every remark she makes about or toward Camille). Meanwhile, yet again, Camille is meant to suffer various indignities in silence. “She takes after her father … his coloring, his temperament,” Adora says to the shopkeeper, Sarabeth, as she breezes into the boutique. It’s the first time Camille has ever heard Adora speak about her father.

Inside the shop, Sarabeth presents Camille with dresses she can never wear: various shades of pink, fabric as light as a summer day, sleeveless, revealing. When she asks for long-sleeved dress she personally requested, she’s ignored and her dark clothes are quickly hidden away from her. Undressed in only a black bra and underwear in the dressing room, she first gazes at her scars then hides from herself. Arms tucked under her chin, her strawberry-blonde hair almost a mask. Adora is unrelenting in wanting Camille to adhere to the rules of presentation for Calhoun Day.

As Camille pleads for Amma to wait in the car, Adora ignores her pleas and turns to Amma as if to verify the sheer ridiculousness of the requests. Their voices raise and raise. Camille finally gathers the baby pink dress and throws it in Adora’s face. They see it all. Every scar. “You happy?” Camille asks. “This is what you wanted, right?” The camera takes on Amma’s perspective. She’s shocked into silence. Her gaze juts around Camille’s body, studying each word on her arms, shoulder, chests, and legs. Taking in the gravity of each word: WHINE, WRONG, FUCK, VANISH. Adora sends Amma to the car. She, too, is stunned. But also repelled. She seems incapable of looking at Camille directly. Her eyes flutter closed before she issues her ruling: “You’re ruined. All out of spite. You want to know who your father was? That’s who he was — all spite. I’m glad Amma saw.” There’s something about such a barbed, nasty moment happening in this delicate venue. In front of Camille is a triptych mirror. The composition is beautiful and sometimes cluttered, reflections folding into each other, a reminder of Camille’s past crashing into that of her mother’s.

While Adora is not the least bit caring about the trauma that brought Camille to scar herself, seeing it as vengeance rather than a cry for help, Amma tries to make a peace offering back at home. She stumbles over her words, relating a story about a school friend who cuts. “She says it doesn’t hurt because the cuts are already there … the knife just lets them out.” Camille is unmoved: “Your friend sounds like an after-school special.” Amma gives Camille a dress — white, flowy, delicate details, pale-blue ribbon as a belt — as a gift. Sharp Objects is sometimes too blunt in approaching Camille’s various illnesses and issues, but I appreciate that it takes her pain so seriously. It’s grim, but not without its humor, especially as Camille skewers townsfolk and town tradition. “We don’t use the C-word here in Missouri,” she notes to Richard. “Right, bite my tongue. Silent racism is best.”

I keep coming back to Calhoun Day because it says so much about Wind Gap and these people — how they are comforted by and celebrate the silence of a brutalized woman, enough so that they want teenagers to reenact it year after year. As Lindsay Zoladz noted in a recent piece, “The forms of violence we condemn often sit uncomfortably close to the kinds of violence we condone, even celebrate.” Calhoun Day is also a hothouse of unspoken emotion that can only be gleaned from tracking people’s gazes. It’s in the way Kirk Lacey looks at Camille, which brings her back to a rakish grin he gave her before. When they were teenagers in the woods, in the so-called “end zone” before she was so scarred. His wife notices, and she also notices the way Kirk looks at Amma. Or see how everyone looks at Bob Nash and John Keene before a fight breaks out between them, which Amma uses as opportunity to run off, sending Calhoun Day tumbling into upheaval. Or what about Jackie, whose withering gazes toward Adora speak to another thorny history entirely? Then there’s Adora herself, who tracks the way Camille interacts with Richard. Adora will quell any joy in Camille before she gets to taste it.

As Adora takes Richard on a tour of the house, they curve around its hallowed halls and she notes, “This wallpaper is hand-painted on silk from Paris.” She rolls out each fact with an extravagant, proud flourish. They wind up the stairs. She takes off her shoes before urging him to do the same and join him in her bedroom. The bedroom Camille has never been invited into. She notes with calm concern about Camille’s “recent episode”: “She’s delicate, a rose but not without thorns.” It’s meant to be a warning for Richard and a seduction of sorts, coaxing him to believe what they all believe about Camille: that she is toxic and dangerous. As Vickery says earlier, “Good tree, bad apple.”

But the truth is much more difficult: Camille refuses to hide her pain the way women have been taught to. She envelopes it in drinking and cutting and various forms of self-destruction instead. So after Adora invites Camille to drink with her on the veranda and insults her with honey-coated words — “You can’t get close. That’s your father. And it’s why I think I never loved you. You were born to it, that cold nature. I hope that’s some comfort.” — she rushes to Richard even as a storm descends on Wind Gap. Of course, she uses sex not for lust or longing, but a desperation that left my heart aching. Camille needs to prove to herself she can get close to another person, even as she doesn’t take off her clothes, leaving her scars and the parts of herself that need love the most hidden.

This recap has been corrected to show that Adora tells Camille, “I never loved you.”

Sharp Objects Recap: You’re Ruined