Sharp Objects was always leading here, right? So much of the penultimate episode, “Falling,” feels like a reckoning. The masks people wear slip. Characters find solace in unexpected, even dangerous places. Confrontations spark and the knotted history of the Crellin household untangles enough for us to understand the rot lurking in its manicured halls. “Falling” doesn’t take the rhythm of a mystery doling out clever twists but rather something slipperier — like a fairytale in which the most important story is the one a woman’s body has to tell.
In the opening scene, Camille wakes from a curious dream to find her clothes changed, her ankle swollen, and Adora hovering in the corner, watching. Always watching. Adora tries to care for Camille — her voice in sweet and lilting tones, medicine in hand. But Camille’s scabrous nature and refusal to live within the narrow bounds of sanctified womanhood — everything people in Wind Gap loathe her for — is why she’s survived. Amma, of course, has taken the opposite approach, keeping her rebellion far from home and playing the dutiful daughter. She takes the medicine in the thick blue bottle, leading her to be withdrawn, strangely childlike, and later, vomiting — exactly as Adora wants. Even when she protests, she ultimately relents to Adora’s narrative. Everyone does. She’s the sickly child and Adora is the kind, perfect mother hovering at her children’s bedside with nary a hair out of place. Even though the reality, as Richard finds out in investigating the family, is far different.
Richard moves throughout Wind Gap — from a grimy methadone clinic to speak to a nurse who cared for Marian to the fluorescent halls of a hospital — to piece together a story of Camille’s family. But he finds a startling truth that snaps so much of Sharp Objects into focus: Adora has Munchausen by Proxy. She’s been poisoning her children — killing Marian in the process and leaving Amma with a hospital record littered by a variety of symptoms. But what has pushed Adora to do this? What horrors visited her in her own girlhood?
Munchausen by Proxy snakes through so much of pop culture — crass Law and Order: SVU episodes, true crime like Michelle Dean’s bracing investigative work on Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard; even classic films have traces of it like the controlling mother in the Bette Davis masterwork Now, Voyager, who prefers her daughter to be overcome by anxiety rather than live a full life beyond her grasp. But Adora comes across as no simplistic villain but something far murkier and complex. She strangely synthesizes two different fairy-tale archetypes: the absent mother and the wicked (step)mother. For Camille she comes across as a mother devoid of true care and sympathy — she’s a ghost fluttering through her memories never clearly seen. For Amma, she’s both saviour and torturer. I found myself drawn to the graceful ritualism of Adora’s cruelty. The mortar and pestle with which she grinds up the sunflower-bright pills; the droplets of an unknown liquid; the mysterious glass bottle the color of the ocean deep; the way she gently sways to Alan’s music as if she’s baking a birthday cake, not poisoning her daughter.
When Alan sees Adora concocting her elixir he’s touched by the fear of the inevitable. But he doesn’t stop her. He doesn’t get Amma help even though he knows exactly what’s going on. How could he not? Perhaps, it’s easier to accept Adora’s fiction than to face the bitter truth that he has enabled her darkness, allowed it to fester and inflict harm. But Alan isn’t alone; the entire town of Wind Gap is complicit. The townsfolk who fawn over Adora’s generosity and wealth. Vickery, who brushes off Richard when he mentions Marian’s hospital records and the nurse he spoke with as mere town gossip. Jackie, who loses herself in alcohol in order to numb the hurt, only to confess at episode’s end that she knew the truth but felt helpless to stop Adora.
Amma and Camille wrestle with Adora’s influence in starkly different ways throughout “Falling.” My heart hurt watching Amma see her friends skate away from the house unable to cry out for help. At the end of the episode she looks a step away from death, pale and covered in a sheen of sweet. She wears a crown of flowers looking like a wayward Ophelia who has risen from her riverbed looking for vengeance. Eliza Scanlen is a knockout as Amma, at once a menacing hellion and a girlish figure you can’t help but protect — a contradiction with a slick grin.
Elsewhere, Camille doesn’t suffer in silence. Instead, she finds John at a Mexican-populated bar at the edge of town just as the police are closing in on him. But it’s not clear what she’s looking for. Truth? Solace? To collect new hurts? When she finds John he’s slinging back cheap beer and wallowing in his grief. He jokes, bitterly, about suicide. He laments the way he’s been framed by everyone in Wind Gap. “Guys aren’t allowed to have soft emotions,” Camille explains. He describes Ann and Natalie during this long conversation as girls who spoke their own truths, and Wind Gap swallowed them whole for it. Then he tries to play the part the townsfolk have framed him with: the perverse killer. His face goes slack, and eyes dark, as he feeds Camille the story he thinks she wants to hear — about killing his sister and Ann out of some dark desire. “See I can tell stories too,” he counters. He of course admits he didn’t kill either of them, despite what evidence Vickery was able to dredge up with help from his girlfriend, Ashley, who is more interested in the fame that comes from seeing her name in the paper rather than any justice. Soon, their conversation drifts into something flirtatious, at least on John’s end, like he has a schoolyard crush. He remarks on Camille’s beauty, her face both incredulous and doubtful in response. Then she follows him to the El Camino motel. And when he grabs her in an achingly longing way, the whole episode spins in a new direction.
“Let me see you,” John whispers. He knows of her scars and he wants to see all of them. It seems John can see Camille clearer than anyone else. He’s drawn to hurt because it reflects his. He slowly undresses her, his eyes hungrily darting across her body. But it isn’t lust, so much as communion. This is undoubtedly a bad idea on more levels than I can count. Yes, John is 18. But he’s still a high school student with a target on his back. Camille has never known how to love in a healthy way. Look who she’s learn how to live from. The sex scene between John and Camille is sad and yearning and heartbreaking. Her scars seem to leap from the screen in the harsh light of day. “Drained. Cherry. Sick. Gone. Wrong. Wicked,” he rattles off the words that mark Camille’s body as if he’s searching for an answer.
When he kisses the word “mercy” that’s carved on her back — in one of the rare moments she exposes her entire body to someone — I could have sworn I heard the whistle of sirens. When he describes Ann and Natalie as “the lost girls … the ones everyone gave up on,” I braced myself for Vickery and a hoard of police to knock down the door. I was on the edge waiting for that knock to come. Sharp Objects is excellent on the kind of suspense that hinges on emotional cataclysms not procedural ones. She has to feel the same anxiety because she sloppily puts on her clothes just before the harsh knock of Vickery explodes the silence of the room. Then the room tips into chaos. Camille huddling under the sheets. John halfway putting on his pants as he’s arrested. Richard with a stare a mile long.
The moment Richard and Camille kissed, the series was heading to this. They could never last. She has yet to fully grapple with her familial and mental health struggles; she guards her secrets. He doesn’t know if he wants to save her or force her truths into the open. Richard closes the door, leaving them alone, and the room suddenly feels vacuum-sealed, teeth-gratingly claustrophobic. Camille tries to play it off. But he can see right through her. “This room stinks of you. Believe me I know that smell,” isn’t the worst of his responses. “Is that what you discussed when he had his dick in you?” he says. I get it. He’s hurt and angry. She ran into another terrible mistake looking for a spark of connection with someone who has experienced her specific trauma. She’s so desperate to not be hated she throws herself at his feet, tries to kiss him, pleasure him, anything. He’s only cruel and biting and sexist in response. “I don’t think you’re bad, okay. I think one bad thing happened and you blamed the rest of your shitty life on it. People really buy it … your sad story. But really you’re just a drunk and a slut.”
Richard’s remark reveals that Sharp Objects is as much about the cultural obsession with dead girls as it is about the ways women grappling with mental illness are framed and mistreated in this culture. Is it any surprise no one cares for Camille? That her pain is minimized or disregarded? Is it all that shocking that she doesn’t know how to care for herself when she’s never had someone fully care for her? Camille shares a tense scene at the end with Jackie. With the support of the medical files Richard found, she’s able to piece together that Jackie has known about Adora — including how she cremated Marian to hide evidence — but she stopped short of doing much about it. Asking for hospital records isn’t enough. So a town suffers in silence and a child dies. But it’s this scene with Camille and Richard — all their hurts writhing in the open — that is the most impactful. Amy Adams’s performance — a nesting doll layered with hurt and trauma and desperate yearning — is so potent it left me bruised.
“Your health is not a debt you just cancel,” Adora warns Camille in the beginning of the episode. “The body collects.” The body is the vehicle for so much of Sharp Objects’ commentary on the fraught, beguiling nature of womanhood. It collects scars and bruises, the inherited traits of our families, the politics of beauty and presentation as a means of survival. For Camille and Amma, their bodies tell a story they are just now coming to understand. Whether this story saves them or consumes them remains uncertain.