“I never loved you,” the whispered cruelty Adora says in the closing moments of the previous episode haunt “Cherry”.
Let’s discuss the gravity of this statement for a moment. A part of Camille has perhaps always known this about her mother. Adora’s emotional remove and icy demeanor is hard to miss. But hearing it is another story. These words bring out a hunger in Camille, a hunger so consuming she rushes headlong into trouble just to feel. By the time she’s swinging hand in hand with Amma in their grand front lawn soaked in liquor and bristling with the energy of the ecstasy she took it’s evident Camille is trying to capture a speck of joy. The kind of joy she lost in her childhood — unencumbered by self-doubt and anxiety and the nagging memories that come with living in this world for any lengthy amount of time. On some level she’s trying to prove to herself she’s not the kind of woman Adora believes her to be — diamond hard and marred by untold traumas.
“Cherry” is a powerhouse of an episode. It distills what Sharp Objects excels at: sharpened moods, spiky emotional interactions, and editing guided by the emotional logic of personal memory. It crackles and sings with such an astute understanding of mood it left me feeling as bruised as Camille does at the end. It’s a feast of visual bravura, editing ingenuity, and cunning emotional reveals. What makes “Cherry” the best episode of Sharp Objects thus far is how it cuts into the bruised underbelly of its central idea: the barbed relationships between women and how that in turn shapes their own conception of their womanhood.
She looked like a shipwrecked bride. That’s what I thought watching Camille in the episode’s opening moments, stumbling in her Calhoun Day finest amongst the lush woods with ghosts from her past puncturing the landscape as she searches for Amma. This line is from the Angela Carter short story “Lady of the House of Love.” I thought a lot about Carter throughout the episode. The way it swims through time using Camille’s perspective and the way it feels at once decadent yet tipping into rot to interrogate womanhood through the genre lens of Southern gothic brought to mind the British writer’s gorgeous prose. There are so many hidden grooves to this episode you have to rewatch it to catch the full weight of gestures or the words Camille imagines in the landscape — “bodice” instead of “police” on the side of Vickery’s SUV and “curly” carved into the wood during her dream.
When Camille wakes from this dream she’s in bed with Richard. They’re a study in contrasts. He’s completely naked, she’s fully dressed. (Although his penis is shadowed for those wondering.) She’s consistently in shadow, he’s in the light. They trade flirtatious barbs. But there is a roiling unease to their dynamic. “You slept in your clothes? If you want I’m the proud owner of a 14-year-old flannel,” he tries to casually say. “Sounds like you’re halfway to a question you want to ask me,” she retorts. Once Richard starts digging into Camille’s past — visiting the mental health center she checked herself into, piecing together her trajectory — it became clear just how doomed their romance is. The dynamic between Camille and Richard is fascinating but it’s the knotted landscape of women’s relationships with each other that is especially ripe.
Camille’s old cheerleader “friends” have been bubbling at the edge of the story thus far making bitchy remarks cloaked in honeyed tones. When the pregnant Angie picks up Camille offering whiskey and gossip I knew this was not going to end well. Angie nicely makes prodding remarks to find out if Camille is married or dating. There is a pivotal flashback from Camille’s high school years that frames the reunion. In it, Camille is practicing and dressed in her cheerleading uniform. The girls trade nasty remarks when Camille stops complaining of cramps. Becca, the only black girl in the group, takes a supportive posture offering her a water bottle and massaging her leg. Becca only stops when she sees blood dripping down Camille’s leg. Jokes ensue but it’s not her period but the beginning of her self-harm. The truth is in the blood when you know where to look.
There’s so much to these scenes between Camille and her former cheerleader peers — how quickly their dynamic is established with the wine, crying over Beaches, and statements like “Don’t let feminism tell you what to do with your family!” when one of them mentions returning to work for a sense of purpose. But what I’m most struck by is watching Camille and Becca, both somewhat outsiders to this group for very different reasons. It feels genuine the same way it does when Camille hugs Gayla in the kitchen earlier. The conversation between Becca and Camille is interrupted when the other women drift outside as if smelling genuine happiness in the air draws their interest in sowing seeds of discord. The conversation drifts to the murders which Katie, Kirk’s chipper and very blonde wife, takes the opportunity to extol the joys of motherhood and implicitly insult Camille’s own womanhood.
“Camille doesn’t have any children and you don’t feel the pain the way we do,” one says. “I don’t mean to sound cruel, but I don’t think part of your heart can ever work if you don’t have kids.” Katie’s face brightens, “I didn’t really become a woman until I felt Mackenzie inside of me.”
This pointed critique of Camille feels all the more important when you look at it alongside Alan’s attempt to kick Camille, at Adora’s request, out in the most diplomatic yet insulting way possible. He argues that she would have sympathy from Adora if she knew what she had been through. And what has she been through? We don’t get a full picture, but it includes a mother of her own so full of venom she’d only smile when Camille refused to breastfeed from Adora. Alan doesn’t hesitate to compare Camille to her grandmother saying in so many words they’re cruel women disrupting any semblance of peace in their path. “I know how jealous you’ve been of everyone else’s well-being,” Alan spits at Camille. In Sharp Objects, motherhood is simultaneously a glorious, expected burden women must bear and a vehicle for inherited trauma.
Adora’s approach to motherhood — cloying and exacting in equal measure — has left her daughters stranded emotionally. She’s present during the intense interactions between Amma and Camille even when she’s not physically present. After saying good-bye to Becca who gives her a ride, Camille buys liquor from the corner store but Amma, with her rambunctious crew in tow, finds her. A quiet night turns into a long escapade with teenagers, reluctantly taking OxyContin, joining a party humid with alcohol-soaked intentions and teenagers in every corner of the house. Camille knows doing drugs and attending a party with her kid sister isn’t a good look, she even says as much. Yet that doesn’t stop her. What snaps into focus watching Camille stop Amma from getting into a fight with Ashley or how she navigates this party she’s ill-suited for is how no one in their family knows how to love or be loved in a healthy way.
With Amma this is all the more glaring because there is something strangely incestuous about how she shows her love to Camille. Perhaps, as she says later when they get home, it’s that girls are harder to get on her side. “Boys are easy … you just let them do stuff to you,” Amma says. So she’s replicating what she knows. Maybe that’s why her love allows has a sickly sexual undercurrent. “I thought you liked it rough,” she tells Camille at one point. Then there’s the game she ropes Camille into at the party. Cluttered into a room with several friends Amma introduces Camille to a game where they pass ecstasy from tongue to tongue until it melts. Then you have your winner. Camille recoils a bit but Amma won’t have it. She slinks close to Camille. When she won’t accept an ecstasy-laced kiss Amma grabs her mouth tightly pushing their lips together. It’s a kiss that feels more like a provocation or a warning.
With ecstasy, OxyContin, and alcohol churning through her system Camille plays things looser, going along with Amma’s every desire. They go roller skating through Wind Gap giving way to an impressionistic, rich sequence. It’s a mosaic of various memories colliding. A whisper plea to Alice, “Let’s get out of here,” plays over and over again. The night feels velvet and enveloping. Her pupils wide Camille takes it all in — the curves of the town, Amma’s silver movements and menacing smile, the memories of Marian and all the dead girls in her life, “bodice” glaring on the side of Vickery’s SUV. Everything feels decadent and immediate, like the night and its strange pleasures will never end. But they do, abruptly.
When they stumble drunkenly back home an edge of longing and toxicity enters Camille’s voice. Camille and Amma clasp hands spinning, spinning, spinning in the front yard. Amma pleads for Camille to take her back to St. Louis that she’ll get a job at some boutique after school, she concocts a simple beautiful life that could be. But as they spin Amma shapeshifts. In her place is a bloodied and sullen Alice, a toothless Ann with a far off gaze, Natalie mouth agape as if in the midst of a silent scream. Scared, Camille lets go. They fall hard onto the perfect lawn before slipping into the house.
When in the car earlier, Becca and Camille have an honest conversation that gets to the heart of the episode. Becca knew Camille was cutting when they were younger. Becca describes their girlhood, their pasts like a cherry (a word Camille cut into herself all those years ago) — luscious, shiny with a dark hard pit at the center. This metaphor applies also to the home Amma and Camille sneak back into after their raucous night: gorgeous with a darkness at its heart, a darkness in the form of all those dead girls and their ghosts that Camille struggles to quiet.
Wind Gap Gossip
• It took rewatching this episode to fully understand the focus on Ashley’s ear. Camille notices that her ear looks mangled during their interview. Time slows to a crawl and the camera focuses intensely on the ear, so it’s important. At the overheated party Camille attends with Amma she runs into Ashley. “Someone took a chunk out of your ear,” I caught Camille saying. Readers, who do you think mutilated Ashley?
• The ending with Marian holding Camille’s hand, her image seen in the mirror as she offers a warning is potent. Mirrors often prove to be revealing in Sharp Objects — of emotional realities not necessarily physical ones.
• The brief scene between Kirk and Camille is tense. He’s apologetic about participating in raping her with the other boys all those years ago. But Camille tries to brush it off, harden herself. “That day has haunted me,” Kirk notes after mentioning how he thinks about it so much in light of having daughters — as if women aren’t people to certain men but appendages. They only matter if you can relate them to a daughter, which is galling.