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The Slow, Steady, Brilliant Burn of ‘Sharp Objects’ (Column)

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the “Sharp Objects” finale, which aired Aug. 26 on HBO.

It tends to be obvious when a show is daring and complex — or at least, it tends to be obvious when a show wants you to think as much. They try to dazzle with big budget set pieces (“Game of Thrones”), bend the boundaries of story structure beyond recognition (“Legion”), pile twists on top of twists just to prove they can (“Westworld”), overwhelm with pervasive bleakness and grim protagonists meant to prove that this story about a conflicted man treating people badly needs to be taken seriously (countless examples, but for the sake of consistency, let’s go with “Ozark”).

Sharp Objects” does none of these things — and yet it’s one of the most daring and complex shows of the year.

Despite the prestige trappings of being on HBO and starring powerhouse actors like Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson, the series isn’t flashy in the slightest, nor does it beg for attention. Time drips by, languid as the sweat spreading into puddles at the creases of everyone’s backs in the hot Missourian air. Its central murder mystery often fades into the background. Instead, the heart of this story is soured journalist Camille Preaker (Adams) revisiting her hometown of Wind Gap, her poisonous mother (Clarkson), and the damage both have inflicted upon her and her sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) over the years.

Even with a killer (or two) on the loose, not a whole lot actually happens until the very end when everything seems to happen all at once. In fact, it’s easy to imagine a world in which “Sharp Objects,” like author Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” before it, was adapted into a feature-length thriller instead of the slow burn eight-hour series it became. And judging by the swell of buzz around the finale’s reveal that the girls were killed by Amma — one of their own, or so they thought — there was a hunger out there in the “Sharp Objects” audience for twists and turns that the show largely sidestepped.

Contrary to appearances, however, “Sharp Objects” doesn’t waste any time. Every inch of this show was considered and laid in place for a purpose, from the acting, to the mise en scene, to the constant thrum of cicadas in the background signaling the dead of summer (best heard through headphones). Most tellingly, the show’s most effective stories don’t belong to the question of who killed two of Wind Gap’s most defiant teen girls — but this is a feature, not a bug. The best moments of “Sharp Objects” prove that the show is less a murder mystery than an impressionistic character study that saves its most inventive energy for digging deeper into its characters’ minds.

This is why “Sharp Objects’” most effective tools seem to be its most superfluous at first glance. Take the show’s habit of hiding words onscreen. This trompe l’oeil could be pretentious, but it becomes more searing with every episode. Largely seen from Camille’s perspective, these words pop up during Camille’s winding drives, like the road sign in the premiere as she heads to Wind Gap (“LAST EXIT TO CHANGE YOUR MIND”) or the one in the fourth episode that flashes by as she frantically searches for Amma (“FALLING”). They signal warnings when she starts to feel uneasy, like when Amma tries to lure her to a house party (“HARMFUL” scratched on a car door) or before she passes out in her car (“WRONG” illuminated on her car radio). They reveal her insecurities, like when the show cuts to her time in a psychiatric ward and a sign that once read “YOU ARE NOT INVISIBLE” morphs into one that scoffs, “YOU ARE UNWORTHY.”

These words don’t pop up just for the sake of it; they’re there to flesh out how Camille sees the world and herself within it. There’s a reason they’re often as unsettling and even mean as the words that she has already carved into her own skin.

In clumsier hands, this device would be nothing more than a gimmick meant to prove how clever its creators are, rather than anything interesting about the story itself. But almost all the bonus words lurking in the background of “Sharp Objects” are relevant because they’re rooted in Camille’s psyche, dredging more pieces up from the depths of her into the light.

The same holds true for the show’s distinctive editing, which Jean-Marc Vallée oversaw and fused with his directing in a way that can sometimes feel indulgent. But Camille’s story forms the backbone of “Sharp Objects,” and as such, revealing her history and feelings surrounding it are crucial.

When Camille is trying to stitch the pieces of her life together, we see glimpses of her past as she’s remembering it: fractured, fleeting, significant and useless all at once. When she walks into a place that once caused her pain, we see how she feels it rush to the surface like a freshly opened wound as Vallée cuts to the moment that first made it hurt. Sometimes the cuts fade in and out of each other; other times, they slice back and forth with sudden urgency.

Rarely has a show found a way to depict how memory can be both ephemeral and cutting, impossible to grasp and impossibly sharp, like “Sharp Objects” does. Even when the flashbacks overwhelm the actual plot, the way they flicker in and out of with her present make them feel like urgent, restless ghosts — which, in the end, is exactly what “Sharp Objects” was all about.

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