Television has always loved its dead girls. Laura Palmer. Dora Lange. The list goes on and on, stretching across genres and intents. What unites these disparate examples is how women’s bodies become a canvas to wrestle with societal ills, and for men to ponder their long-running obsession with violence toward women. Ann Nash and Natalie Keene, whose funeral ceremony opens “Dirt,” could easily be added to this list. But Sharp Objects feels different. Although we’ve yet to hear their voices or see them move amongst the living in any flashback, both these girls feel present. Gillian Flynn, who pens this episode, pays a lot of attention to the way these murders reverberate through the town, bringing up long buried memories and old grievances. These young girls may be dead, but the aching wounds they’ve left behind in the living show no signs of leaving the town of Wind Gap.
The way Natalie’s murder and subsequent funeral ripple through the town takes different shadings depending on who you’re paying attention to. In the Keene’s own family it leads to utter devastation. “I want revenge,” Jeanie Keene (Jennifer Aspen) says during the funeral between sobs. Natalie’s brother, John, is an absolute wreck. But his reaction only spurs town gossip, as if a man displaying such naked emotion is also an expression of guilt. For Detective Richard Willis, the funeral creates more questions, all of which annoy police chief Bill Vickery, and earn Willis the nickname “Agent Starling,” a nod to the gruesome procedural workings required of the leading lady of Silence of the Lambs. But his questions hold merit. How does the town of Wind Gap truly work beyond its industries of “guns, meth, and pigs”? Who in the town could do something as gruesome as rip the teeth out of these young girls? Of course, these are all questions that require the denizens of Wind Gap to look in the mirror, an action that seems impossible in a town defined by its secrets and silences. At one point, Camille comes across an older woman taking down the missing signs for Natalie Keene. “I can’t bear to throw them away,” she says sincerely. The ripple effect of these murders is most deeply felt in the intimate architecture of Camille’s memory.
By episode two, I’m confident in saying that the greatest strength of Sharp Objects (beyond its acting) is the editing. Through Camille’s memory, the show’s thematic thrust becomes most evocative: the haziness between reality and memory, past and present — and how the dynamics between them inform our identities. Through Camille’s memory, we can interrogate her past, or at least how she sees her past, as the so-called “Princess of Wind Gap” — rough hewn, bright-eyed, and yearning for affection. Gillian Flynn and director Jean-Marc Vallée are unflinching in uncovering Camille’s yearning interior life, which she now hides with scars, alcohol, and spiky humor. One of my favorite scenes in “Dirt” is a memory involving another funeral of a dead girl that haunts Wind Gap: Camille’s sister, Marian.
The funeral room is empty. Camille kneels before her mother trying to curl into her lap, hoping to be held and comforted. Instead, Adora ignores Camille, as if she isn’t there at all, save for a twinge of disgust. She moves toward the flower arrangements, ripping them to shreds. Adora is only half-seen in this memory. The soles of her high heels, the dainty elegance of her funeral wear. Finding no comfort in her mother, Camille instead picks up her discarded eyelashes, brushing them against her face — it’s a harrowing, gut-wrenching moment that puts into harsh relief how lonely Camille is, one that Sophia Lillis plays with understated strength. It isn’t love or connection, but it’s as close as she can get. The editing in the series is what lends Sharp Objects its dreamlike air, even when we aren’t resting in Camille’s memories. My favorite transition is actually a brief moment early on when we see the family’s maid wiping the floor then suddenly Amma wiping a replica of the floor in her dollhouse with bored ease. This is what “Dirt” excels at: treating sounds, gestures, and small moments with grave importance, suggesting they matter more than what actual people say. It’s through Camille’s memories and the small gestures that she shares with the women in her family that the dynamic she has with them comes more into focus.
Adora is still a hard woman to pin down. Each moment with her adds another contradiction. She seems most present at the beginning of “Dirt,” wordlessly admiring her beautiful form decked in a lacy black number before Natalie’s funeral. But then there are other moments — chastising Camille for touring through the Keene’s home during the wake, crying in Marian’s shrine of a room — that seem like she’s building a story, using the grief of others as fuel. She’s clearly a wounded woman. But by what? Clarkson threads these disparate aspects of Adora — her hidden wounds, cruelty toward Camille, protective stance with Amma — into a beguiling portrait. Some of the most fascinating moments circle around her in “Dirt,” like a tense argument that happens between her and Camille at the episode’s end.
When writing her latest story, Camille is interrupted by a scream emanating from downstairs. She rushes to find Amma having a strange fit, and Adora comforting her. What is this precipitated by? It definitely has more to it than grief since Amma acts as if she wasn’t that close with Natalie and Anne anymore. But what else? How do we reconcile this unraveling Amma with the smart-mouth hellion we saw earlier, fooling a convenience clerk by slipping vodka into a bottle of Sprite? Camille doesn’t have time to ponder these questions before Adora is on her like a viper. “Natalie reminded me of you… I thought maybe I could help her since I clearly couldn’t help you,” Adora says, making no effort to hide her resentment toward Camille.
What I love about “Dirt” is also what makes it rather difficult to watch in moments. It’s beautiful, but piercing. The series has been compared to Big Little Lies due to superficial similarities and shared interests. But Sharp Objects isn’t the darkly humorous confection that Big Little Lies is. There’s no witty Reese Witherspoon turn or glossy Southern California interiors to make the poisonous psychological insights into damaged characters go down smoother. The series is also eschewing the obsession with a puzzle-like structure and procedural dynamics you’d expect. Instead, its writers and actors amplify smaller moments. Gazes held for too long. The gathering of discarded eyelashes. The soft whisper of gossip. The imagined visions of a town’s folklore to piece together a portrait of what happens to a people and a town as a whole in the wake of tragedy.
Folklore is as much about cultural memory as it is about superstition. In traversing Wind Gap looking for leads, Camille happens upon the eight-year old, James, who says he saw Natalie being taken into the woods by the Woman in White. It’s a bit of town folklore Camille remembers from her childhood, of a woman decked in all white, killing kids. Vickery doesn’t see James’ story as that of an eyewitness, but a troubled boys’ cry for help that no one cares enough to answer. His mother is cruel, meth addicted, and has cancer. Furthermore, he’s from a poor family, which in Wind Gap isn’t just an economic matter, but a moral judgment your neighbors can make. “Maybe someone doesn’t believe it’s folklore. Maybe they want to make it real,” Camille says to a uninterested Vickery as she argues that maybe the killer isn’t the man he thinks it is, or a man at all.
Earlier in “Dirt,” Camille shares a snarky rapport with her aunt-like figure, Jackie (Elizabeth Perkins). Jackie marvels at Camille’s strength and that she managed to escape Wind Gap even if it wasn’t all that far. “My demons aren’t remotely tackled. They’re mostly mildly concussed,” Camille says in the patter of sharp-tongued retort. When Camille’s dress rips at the funeral briefly revealing her scars to Adora, or when she pricks her skin with a needle hoping for the release that comes with carving a new scar, it’s evident that they aren’t even mildly concussed. They’re desperate and hungry as ever, warping her vision even as she tries to take a closer look at her past.
Wind Gap Gossip:
• What is the history between Kirk Lacey (Jackson Hurst) and Camille? He doesn’t say a word to her but he holds her gaze and draws her attention at the funeral, wake, and when she stops at the bar midday.
• While Frank’s care toward Camille is admirable, there’s nothing more misguided than trying to save someone who doesn’t want to even save themselves.
• At the wake, John’s girlfriend Ashley says something that brings up a lot of questions. “That girl she described is not Natalie. I should know.” If Jeanie’s recollection of her daughter at the funeral is that off — which wouldn’t surprise me — what was Natalie really like when she was alive?
• How much blowback will Camille receive for writing about the intimate details of the Keene home including Natalie’s room without permission in her latest story?
• “Dirt” is full of many remarkably potent, fleeting moments. My favorite? Adora not letting Camille cut her own apple before the funeral and the family’s maid hiding all the knives soon after. This says a lot about the psychology of this family and how they try to keep things out of sight.
• “Don’t try to work me, Amma. I’ve been playing that game for 20 years,” Camille says when Amma tries to play it sweet after she sees her slipping vodka into a soda bottle at the corner store. I really want more juicy scenes like this between Camille and Amma.