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Let’s Talk About the Sharp Objects Finale

“Don’t tell mama.” Photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Spoilers ahead for Sharp Objects, obviously. You’ve been warned!

The final minutes of Sunday’s Sharp Objects finale tell us exactly who is responsible for the deaths of Ann Nash and Natalie Keene, the gone girls whose murders act as the catalyst for everything that transpires in the series. With loaded dialogue, flashes of suggestive imagery, a revelatory scene involving teeth, and two key end-credits scenes, the ending tells you everything you need to know, as long as you’re paying close attention. It’s exactly the kind of conclusion we should have expected, given the show’s reliance on visual language and its habit of revealing words and potential clues in unexpected places.

For all its fixation on words, though, Sharp Objects makes a point of not blatantly announcing the identity of Ann and Natalie’s murderer. On first viewing, some may not even fully grasp what the last few moments mean, especially those who haven’t read the Gillian Flynn novel that inspired the series. To appreciate their detail-oriented brilliance, you need to go back and look at them more closely, and probably more than once.

Before its third act, Sharp Objects implies that its central questions have been answered. Adora (Patricia Clarkson), who has Munchausen syndrome by proxy, has been arrested and charged with the murder of her daughter, Marian, and it appears she’s responsible for ending the lives of Ann and Natalie, too. All that’s left, it seems, is for this series to show us Camille (Amy Adams) and Amma (Eliza Scanlen), two sisters now living in St. Louis together and healing from the wounds inflicted by their mother.

But that would be a bit too pat and happy for a show as ambiguous and dark as this one. Instead, the core creators — Flynn; showrunner Marti Noxon, who co-wrote the finale; and director-editor Jean-Marc Vallée — pull out several of their signature techniques and turn the last ten minutes into a low-key, fireworks grand finale of Sharp Objects’ particular artistry.

The highlighting of words in Camille’s environment, a reminder of her addiction to cutting that has been a regular feature of the series, creeps back in during the dinner scene at the home of Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval), Camille’s editor. After Amma announces her plans to become an “on-camera personality” — an obvious attempt to endear herself to Camille after Mae says she’s interested in journalism — Camille spots words scrawled on Mae’s hand and fingers. They’re written in pen, impermanent marks that also serve to suggest Camille’s fixation on carving is waning, as is her alcoholism. Camille, notably, has nothing but a glass of water with her dinner. (Also notable: Mae and Amma are drinking virgin Bloody Marys, a nod to the moment in episode seven when Jackie confirmed that Adora was indeed responsible for Marian’s death.)

One phrase that pops most strikingly off of Mae’s skin is, “Call Mom,” perhaps just an innocuous reminder, the equivalent of a string around the kid’s finger. But it reads as a warning that Camille won’t heed: “Call Adora. Ask her more about who really killed Ann and Natalie.”

Subtext-packed dialogue is also a Sharp Objects specialty, and the closing moments contain a couple of doozies in that regard. Amma’s comment to Camille, her new surrogate mother — “I could eat you up” — is supposed to sound sweet, but comes out like a threat. The odd look on Camille’s face suggests she picks up on that, but, as is her custom, chooses to look past the warning sign. But it’s Camille’s conversation with Mae’s mom (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) that turns out to be of greater significance.

When Mae’s mother stops by to ask where the girls are, she notes that Mae and Amma recently had their first “little fight.” That choice of terminology — that a fight between girls is something small and inconsequential — is echoed in the rest of the discussion, with Mae’s mom suggesting that they probably argued over nail polish or boys. As it’s been throughout much of the series, “girl stuff” is deemed frivolous and young women are assumed to be harmless by default, even by other women. Then Mae’s mom says something that screams, Listen to the subtext here!: “I envy the skin, but nothing else about that age.” Her skin comment refers to youth in all its natural, collagen-filled beauty, but in the context of Sharp Objects, it also means skin that’s been untouched. Camille’s skin acted as a canvas for expressing her pain: In Flynn’s novel, that’s explicitly been the case since Camille was around Amma’s age. Amma has been similarly damaged by Adora, but hasn’t expressed her anguish on her own flesh. Subconsciously, that reference to skin raises a question: If Amma doesn’t cut, what acts as her release?

That’s when Valleée turns our attention to Camille’s apartment, which has been cozied up a few degrees since Amma moved in. As soon as Camille closes the door after talking to Mae’s mom, a framed photo falls off the wall. It’s a picture of Camille and Marian, although that’s hard to make it out. (An HBO rep had to confirm that detail for me.) What’s more important is what this small incident makes us notice. First, that Camille has placed her memories in a more acceptable context. The camera no longer shows her fragmented flashbacks at this point, which suggests she’s finally moving on and feeling healthy, hanging up moments from the past instead of fixating on them. The other thing that Sharp Objects is telegraphing here is that a home can tell us a lot about a person’s mental state.

That’s when the show goes back to Amma’s dollhouse. Camille, having found the tiny replica of her bedspread — which Mae made — in the trash, takes a closer look at Amma’s favorite toy and discovers something shocking: a single tooth, and then the ivory-laid floor of Adora’s miniature bedroom, which is comprised of multiple white teeth. I am writing about this calmly, but please know that the first time I understood the significance of this scene, my insides screamed: Holy shit! The calls have been coming from inside the dollhouse! Amma’s traumatic environment shaped her. In response, she recreated that environment and made it even more ghoulish.

While all this is happening, the soundtrack returns to Led Zeppelin. In the first half of the scene, the faint strains of “Thank You” — the song that captured the bond between Camille and her rehab roommate, Alice — can be heard in the apartment, a musical signal that Camille and Amma are truly connected now. But as soon as Camille starts eyeballing that dollhouse, the track changes to the ominous opening of “In the Evening,” a song we’ve heard before, but one that always cuts out just before the explosive arrival of Jimmy Page’s sliding guitar riff. This time, the riff arrives right after Amma’s pseudo-admission of guilt — “Don’t tell mama” — and just as the credits begin. Hearing that section of the song is the audio equivalent of a last puzzle piece sliding into place, and a reminder to keep paying attention even after we already think we’ve gotten to the end.

Keep paying attention to the end credits, for example, and you see the quick montage that confirms what those teeth imply: Adora may have poisoned Marian and nearly murdered Camille and Amma, but it was Amma and her rollergirl friends who viciously killed Ann and Natalie, and then Amma who did the same to poor Mae.

Like everything in these closing moments, placing that modestly grisly sequence in the end credits is deliberate. By Vallée’s design, Camille’s perspective has dominated the vast majority of the moments we’ve seen, so we can’t get the unvarnished truth about Amma until the series is over and that POV has been fully abandoned. The fact that it’s just a peek at what happened to the victims feels right for a show about a protagonist who hides her most shameful deeds under long sleeves and jeans.

In the last goosebump-inducing image that appears after the credits finish rolling, the truth about Wind Gap’s well-circulated horror story is finally revealed: Amma was the woman in white. She hid in plain sight because she looked like something that could easily be dismissed: a girl wrapped up in ribbons, bows, and flowing, diaphanous skirts. But she was right in front of everyone the whole time. The idea that Amma could follow in her mother’s sick footsteps was even spelled out for us. If only, as this series told us to do so often, we had looked closer.

Amma. It’s just an anagram for “mama.”

Let’s Talk About the Sharp Objects Finale