Sharp Objects S1E1: Vanish

by thethreepennyguignol

Bit of an old trigger warning for self-harm right here, if that kind of thing bothers you.

I don’t think it’s a particularly bold statement to say that we look for ourselves in the fiction we enjoy. There’s something about seeing yourself reflected in a story that feels grounding – someone experienced something similar to something you experienced, and they found it profound and important enough to build a story around. A lot of the reason I consume so much media, and certainly the reason that I write (hello you can read about my upcoming debut novel Rape Jokes here thank you bye), is because I’m looking for bits of myself reflected in the stories other people tell and want to do that for other people when I put expose little chunks of myself to the world at large. We define ourselves with stories, the ones we tell and the ones we consume, and that’s become all the more potent in the last few years as the stories that reach mainstream media become more diverse, the topics wider than ever before.

And that’s why I found my way to Sharp Objects, the Amy Adams-led adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s debut mystery drama novel. Not only do I just love me some women-led prestige TV, but this is a show that deals with a lead character with a recurring self-harm issue. I have a long and storied relationship with self-injury myself (I’ve got into it in some posts here, here, and here) but frankly, it’s always something I’ve struggled to find a depiction of that didn’t feel totally foreign to me. The reasons behind self-harm are so disparate and varied that it’s hard to create something that people can actually connect to, but I’ve mostly seen it treated as a symptom of another mental illness, where as for me, breaking the addiction to self-harm is really the problem in and of itself for me.

But Sharp Objects deals with a main character who struggles with compulsive self-injurous behavior, and that’s what drew me towards it. Well, not just that – Marti Noxon, who created the patchy but interesting UnREAL wrote a lot of the series, while Jean-Marc Valee, who directed the utterly exquisite Big Little Lies last year were behind the scenes, while Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson sealed the deal in front of camera. The book’s great, and I love Gillian Flynn’s skill at weaving these compelling mysteries studded with an exploration of women’s trauma and reclamation of power. I was always going to watch the shit out of this, and I was always going to write about it, because I skipped out on covering Big Little Lies, thinking it would be too worthy, and then I watched it and it changed my life and I’m not the kind of person who makes the same mistake twice. Well, unless we’re talking about trusting Steven Moffat with Sherlock AND Doctor Who, but nobody’s perfect.

So yeah, coming into this, that’s my mission statement for these recaps: as well as just generally taking a look at Sharp Objects as a TV show and piece of storytelling, I really want to examine how they deal with self-harm and mental illness more broadly, especially in the context of a media landscape that’s becoming more and more literate with it. So let’s kick things off by taking a look at the first episode, Vanish.

Ugh, and first off can I just say what a treat it is to be enjoying television directed by Jean-Marc Valee again? It took me a while to get into his style of direction – it’s jittery and jumpy and initially can feel too pointed, but it’s also an incredibly deft way to introduce the echoes of trauma into a story, as he proved with Big Little Lies last year: we get tiny flashes of impactful memories, uncontextualised and silent, that snarl out at you from between the mundane everyday. It’s such a bold style, something so uniquely his own, and it’s such a sharp way to explore the exhausting nature of traumatic experience: that non-stop, always-on churn at the back of the mind about the Bad Thing you’re always trying to avoid.

The first episode follows Camille Preaker (Adams), a journalist who is compelled by her editor to return to her small, oppressive hometown of Wind Gap to cover the story of two young girls – one dead, one missing. The best way to dissect a character is to send them back home, and Preaker is an instantly compelling lead. One half of the episode, she’s all sharp edges and elbows, and the other she’s gruellingly, uncomfortably vulnerable – Sophia Lillis, of recent IT fame, deserves a whole heap of credit as the infinitely more emotionally expressive younger version of Preaker, who we visit in brief flashbacks as the show introduces us to her painful childhood in Wind Gap. Patricia Clarkson, a barbed, pastel matriarch as Preaker’s mother, is the epitome of the small-town socialite wrapped up in the reflection of herself she has created for the outside world to consume, and honestly I’m just hyped about getting the chance for her to play such a chillingly villainous role.

I mean, there are still pilot problems here – the show has a lot of set-up to do and no matter how carefully it manages a lot of the exposition, it still has a lot to exposite and that requires some shortcuts – there’s some blunt dialogue and tropey characters, but that’s impossible to avoid in a show like this one. As far as the mental illness stuff goes, we’re still early days, but I like what I’m seeing so far and I’m looking forward to pointlessly triggering myself for no good reason seeing the show delve into Preaker’s emotional and mental state in a more profound way as the show goes on.

Are you watching Sharp Objects? What did you think of the first episode? I’m already excited about writing the rest of these recaps (which will be on a Monday from here on out), and I really hope you’ll join me for the next couple of months on another series-long adventure into pretension and bad puns. If you like this recap and want to see more like it, you can find my other sets of recaps for American Crime Story, Vikings, Riverdale, Doctor Who, UnREAL, the Carrie novel, and American Horror Story at the links above. And, as ever, you can support me over at Patreon for access to exclusive posts and the chance to pick article topics for me to write about!

(header image courtesy of Vox)