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Sharp Objects Broke the Mystery Box

Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Messages are hidden all over Sharp Objects. There are hidden words, hallucinations from Camille’s point of view that appear for mere fractions of a second. Camille’s skin remains covered for most of the miniseries, but when she occasionally bares it, we see the hidden words she’s cut all over herself. The soundtrack gets in on the game, too: Diehard viewers went in search of a track from episode four called “Cupcake Kitty Curls,” not realizing that those three words are etched onto Camille’s skin, and appear in a later episode as hallucinatory words. The Led Zeppelin tracks are also embedded in the show’s mysteries, and even the opening credits are yet another piece of obfuscation: Each episode’s credits seem to be accompanied by a different song, but they’re all different versions of the same melody.

The Sharp Objects finale gives us one last covert bit of storytelling. After the shocking discovery in the closing seconds that Amma killed Natalie and Ann — a discovery prompted by Camille realizing the ivory floor of Amma’s dollhouse is made from human teeth — the show cuts to the end credits. As you reel from the revelation, assuming the story is complete, the credits halt for a moment as brief flashes of a scene show us Amma’s new friend gripping a fence in terror, Ann and Natalie’s faces as they’re pushed down by hands overpowering them, and Amma’s brutal, defiant expression as she grips a strangulating cord. Then, a final scene shows Amma haunting the edge of the woods as the Woman in White. These end-credits scenes are terrifying, and they’re also the last expression of a crucial Sharp Objects tenet. There are things lurking in the corner of your vision, the show tells us. There are things hidden where you don’t expect to see them.

I’ve had an odd relationship with the hidden words of Sharp Objects because I’ve been one of their cataloguers. I’ve looped back through certain scenes again and again, trying to get exactly the right screenshot, and I’ve trawled through the Sharp Objects subreddit and combed through Twitter to find all the words I inevitably missed. The best part of my search was watching viewers who posted incredulously about seeing a shifting word in the corner of their vision, and then watching as they discovered that they missed a potent layer of storytelling. The strangest part was the viewers who kept asking, over and over, what the words are for, and what they mean.

It’s weird to treat the hidden messages of Sharp Objects as though they’re clues, because the secret meaning behind them is stubbornly clear. The word “QUEASY” flashes as Camille realizes that her mother murdered her sister, and the murder method was induced illness. The word “CHERRY,” with all its attendant meanings of virginity and ripeness, is scarred onto Camille’s upper thigh; it’s also on a laptop at a house party as Amma dances buoyantly with her friends. The words are hard to find, but once you see them, they scream at you in all-caps: “BITCH,” “LIPSTICK,” “PETTICOAT,” “KITTY,” “YELP,” “BAD,” “HURT,” “SCARED.” If this is a show about pain and motherhood and the cloud of gender signifiers that hovers over femininity, the words are clues in the same way that a nametag reading, “Hello, my name is Kathryn” is a clue about my name.

The show’s visual hallucinations do more than scatter suggestions across the screen. They align us with Camille’s perspective, turning our vision of Wind Gap into her vision and undermining our ability to rely on anything we see as “real.” The hidden words of Sharp Objects are probably the most effective way I’ve seen a TV show achieve what would be called “free indirect discourse” if it were a written text. In a novel, it’s the narrative act of making us believe what we’re reading comes from an impartial omniscient voice, even when it’s deeply embedded in one character’s point of view. The hidden words of Sharp Objects hold the same role, but because they seem like clues — and because we’re so primed to view any mystery as full of decipherable secrets — it’s easy to ignore that subtler purpose and get stuck on questions like, But why was “RUBBER” on that street sign?!

Certain kinds of “mystery box” storytelling have trained us to treat hidden things like they’re always hints, to assume that they’re pieces of evidence meant to connect to some deep, secret truth. Clues and half-seen things in a mystery story — and yes, Sharp Objects is a mystery story — must be motivated by information that’s been withheld. In the mode of the mystery box, they’re not just signs. They’re Easter eggs, a metaphor that plainly suggests that the whole point is to crack them open so you can get the candy inside. If this were Westworld, Lost, Stranger Things, or even This Is Us, these little hints would be leading somewhere, either to foreshadow what’s coming, or to a cute pop-culture reference, or to some deliberately obscure part of the narrative. They are supposed to connect us to an otherwise inaccessible bit of knowledge.

Sharp Objects is as full of hidden things as any TV show I’ve ever seen, but those things are not really clues. These hidden words don’t lead us to information the show was otherwise trying to keep from us; they’re words that make text out of subtext. Sharp Objects does not hide its themes. Right there on the surface, it’s a story about a woman trying to process her past trauma, her damaging bond with her mother, the claustrophobic pressures of growing up in a tiny town, and her debilitating relationship with her own sense of her sexuality, femininity, and self-worth. When we catch flashes of the hidden words, the information they provide isn’t new. It’s an explicit label for something that didn’t quite have a name yet. When Camille stands in a hunting shed full of porn and violence, the hidden word reads “WICKED.” While following Amma to the pig farm, where she appears to cuddle new piglets, Camille’s windshield flashes the word “BABY.” When Camille and Amma hunch over Amma’s beloved dollhouse — a symbol of how Amma and Adora both cling to ideas of perfect domesticity, femininity, and unchangeable youth — the hidden word says “GIRL.”

That dollhouse word is one of the rare exceptions when a hidden word is also a clue. As we learn in the finale, the missing girls’ teeth are literally hidden in the dollhouse floor. But “GIRL” is the exception that proves the rule, because while Sharp Objects is a mystery, it’s one that telegraphs the answer to that mystery from the opening episode. The word “GIRL” is hidden, but if we stretch to read it as a clue, the information it gives us is that Ann and Natalie’s disappearance is connected with the Crellin house, and that Adora and Amma’s relationship to each other and the house and the whole world is profoundly awry. That’s the text and subtext of nearly every other scene in the show. It’s a clue, but so is every word that Patricia Clarkson breathes as Adora, and every off-putting glance Eliza Scanlan throws as Amma. Like all the other “hints” of Sharp Objects, it’s a name for what’s already there.

That’s also the case for the end-credits scenes, which don’t twist the finale’s tone into humor, or preview a sequel, or turn into a Big Little Lies crossover joke, or reveal much of anything new. They double down on what we already knew, making us gasp at how direct it all is. Just like the hidden words, the implication is that when you look beyond the surface, when you turn yourself into a detective and piece together every tiny hint, what you find is a more explicit version of what was already expressed on the surface. Like the music, the hidden words, and the text on Camille’s skin, it’s all part of an anti-mystery box storytelling. After digging and sifting and searching, you end up right back where you started, awash in thematic resonances and a new, blunt vocabulary for the things you couldn’t quite describe.

Sharp Objects Broke the Mystery Box