The pace of Sharp Objects might be off-putting to some, but the second episode, “Dirt”, is as impressively compelling as the premiere, and bolstered by a particularly fine performance from Patricia Clarkson.
The most interesting thing about HBO’s Sharp Objects, which was much more prevalent in the second episode, “Dirt”, than it was in the miniseries’ premiere last week, is how the show’s core is built on contradictions. It asks you, the audience, to care about a mystery – the deaths of two young girls, no less – that the town’s inhabitants and local police force don’t seem particularly concerned with. It despatches Amy Adams’s heroine, Camille, to solve that mystery; and yet her editor (Miguel Sandoval) reminds her she’s not there to solve a mystery. Why, then, is she there?
Of course she’s there in the Southern Gothic tradition of peeling away layers from a crumbling town, from an ugly past, from a poisonous relationship, from herself. In many ways Sharp Objects is less a whodunit than a fable; it’s about trauma and legacy, how the erosion of the latter precipitates the former, out of necessity and desperation. These are tropes, of course, but director Jean-Marc Vallée has sharpened their edges, dipped their tips in slow-acting poison. The apathy of Sharp Objects, the general sense of complacency, is the show waiting for you to succumb to the toxin.
But it can be frustrating all the same. The centrepiece of “Dirt” is the funeral of Natalie, the middle-class girl who turned up dead last week, displayed eerily on a windowsill in the centre of town. She’s the second victim of Wind Gap’s phantom serial murderer; the first, Ann, was found dead in a pond the year before Camille arrived. The last thing anyone seems to want to do, though, is actually solve those murders. The small-town police chief, Vickery (Matt Craven), doesn’t want the big-city detective, Willis, to observe the funeral attendees for suspicious behaviour, even though both Ann’s father and Natalie’s brother are potential suspects. He ignores eyewitness reports. During the ceremony, Camille clashes with her mother about taking notes.
It might be disrespectful to scribble observations on mourners, but how else can you pry secrets from a town so tight-lipped? Wind Gap is built on disintegrating foundations, but nobody is willing to admit it. The old-money families – of which Camille’s mother, Adora, is the royal heir – are approaching obsolescence. The long-buried secrets are starting to break through the dirt; pale bones poking through the thin veneer of Southern hospitality. The slow-moving erosion might be true to the show’s themes, but in the context of a mystery, even one the heroine has been explicitly asked not to solve, it’s difficult for an audience to care about the culprit when nobody else seems to.
The show’s lack of immediacy is forgivable, though, in part because of the high quality of its production and the faultless work of its cast (Patricia Clarkson is phenomenal in “Dirt”), but also because of how it draws explicit parallels between the deaths of the girls and that of Wind Gap itself. It isn’t just a stylistic flourish, how Camille’s past flashes into the present so frequently, quick-cuts of lingering trauma and suggestions of its root. You can see Camille reflected in the rebellious adolescence of her sister, Amma, and the revealed eccentricities of Natalie. Between them there are three generations of Wind Gap residents, stifled and repressed, scraping away at the pristine, prim and proper façade. The most recent tragedy is just an outgrowth of an older, buried one; the guilty parties today are the same as they always were.