Calling something a “slow burn” usually means emphasizing the “slow.” But “Sharp Objects” proves that the real trick to a masterful slow burn is tapping into a story’s underlying heat and fanning it until the moment when it can finally go up in flames. Every frame crackles with a barely (and expertly) restrained tension — slow and steady, but threatening with every passing second to explode. Where so many other shows would seize every opportunity to boil over, “Sharp Objects” simmers with astonishing patience — or at least it would be astonishing, if women didn’t know that feeling intimately.
“Sharp Objects” is a bruising depiction of the kind of barely, expertly restrained anger that many women know all too well. It reminds us at every turn that women would run through the streets screaming if they could — and that their inability to express as much can eat away at them, bit by bit.
Every woman on “Sharp Objects” runs on righteous fury, though they rarely acknowledge as much in words. Frayed journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) spends most of her waking hours hiding her scars — both figurative and startlingly literal, scrawled across her body in her own hand. Camille’s teenage half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) plays the role of dutiful daughter in a sundress when home, but once mom Adora’s (Patricia Clarkson) out of sight, she roller-skates through town sporting cutoff shorts and a wicked smirk. Adora wanders through their family mansion with a perpetual chip on her shoulder and drink in hand, which makes her far more like her wayward daughter than she’d ever care to admit. (Camille favors vodka out of a water bottle to Adora’s bourbon in a tumbler, but their hopes for oblivion are the same.)
“Sharp Objects” drives that particular point home by haunting all three Preaker women with the ghosts of girls past. Camille’s sister died suddenly as a teen, ripping a hole in the family that neither Camille nor Adora ever figured out how to fill (not to mention one that Amma knows she can never fill). Adora and Camille, unable to express their hurt out loud, both turned their anger on themselves. Amma releases hers by finding a target’s weakness and throwing verbal darts at it, pointed and deadly, furious and helpless all at once.
And of course, the only reason Camille even reluctantly returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri is because her editor pushes her to cover the murders of two teen girls, saying that it could be her “big break” if she just strikes the right balance of local flavor with the macabre details. He’s not wrong; as the dozens of similar stories unfolding across TV at any given time prove, it’s a familiar trope that many find irresistible. But “Sharp Objects” is self-aware enough not to let the crimes lapse into cliché. What the placid obituaries don’t reveal, for instance, is that both of the girls had defiant tomboy streaks that pushed them to resist the paths laid before them.They didn’t quite fit in anywhere else, and found a safe space to lash out about it and forge their own way in each other, but still couldn’t escape being punished for it — just like Camille, once upon a time.
“Sharp Objects” deals with sexist injustices from the everyday to the deadly with bruising deftness, but it would be disingenuous to call it a “#MeToo show”; after all, the Gillian Flynn novel it’s based on was published in 2006 and optioned in 2011. But “Sharp Objects” understands women’s anger inside and out — making it not just relevant for our current moment, but revelatory. As “Sharp Objects” and the very cases that spurred #MeToo on show, women have been struggling to express the truth of their trauma and anger for a long, long time. This moment of release isn’t sudden; it’s overdue.
So maybe the most fascinating thing about “Sharp Object’s” case studies of female anger is how, lurking right underneath the eerie surface, lies a palpable frustration that more people (particularly more men) won’t take it seriously. Don’t they know how much these women are hurting? Can’t they feel the fury lying dormant all around them, ready and waiting to erupt? The women know how strong their anger is; they feel it every time they aim it directly at their own hearts. So why isn’t everyone else more scared of them? They could burn everything to the ground, if only they got the chance.