Sharp Objects S1E2: Dirt

by thethreepennyguignol

You know, you can say a lot about Jean-Marc Valee’s directorial style – it took me a long time to actually come around to it and start liking it, and even now I sometimes find it a little jarring and pointed – but it brings such a distinctly cinematic feel to everything he helms. His work on Big Little Lies was, intermittently, some of the best TV direction I’ve ever seen, and Sharp Objects is already heading to those levels of sheer excellence just a couple of episodes in.

To be fair, the second episode, Dirt, really gave him a lot to work with in terms of thematic elements. Last week’s Vanish did a great job laying the groundwork for the town of Wind Rush and it’s inhabitants, and the discovery of the murdered body of the second missing girl set the scene to rip it apart again. And, well, Dirt did just that.

The best way to explore small towns like this one and their dynamics is to bring everyone together at times of great emotion: in comedies, it’s a wedding, and in dramas like Sharp Objects, it’s a funeral. The funeral of the second murdered girl, to be precise. It’s a funeral that doesn’t even feature a body, due to the fact it’s still being processed by law enforcement, and that detail feels the most reflective of this episode of a whole: grand displays of emotion that lack a validity, built around a fundamental emptiness.

The most obvious examples of that come, unsurprisingly, from Patricia Clarkson’s Adora. I love me a really juicy, fucked-up mother figure – just ask the first season of American Horror Story what’s up – and when you have an actress with the depth and grounding that Clarkson brings to the role, it rises from Miss Havisham territory into something more sinister. Adora, picking at her eyelashes during the funeral to simulate grief, is this grotesquely curdled parody of a socialite, telling Camille off for apparently drinking at the funeral while her other daughter lies hysterical in her arms trying to deal with the brutal murders of her contemporaries. Her grief and shock at the murders in Wind Rush aren’t entirely artificial, but not even Adora seems to know where the reality of her emotions begin and end.

And speaking of that other sister: Amma, Adora’s youngest daughter and Camille’s half-sister, is similairly slippery with the authenticity of her emotions. Sneaking out to get drunk and hang out with her friends during the funeral and closing out the episode with a full-blown meltdown in front of her dollhouse, Amma seems to represent this bludgeoning of the Southern Gothic creepy-little-girl trope. On the one hand, she can play the pure innocent to her family and to society as a whole, but she’s keen to subvert that side of herself, far removed from delicate white dresses and pigtails as she jokes callously about the recent deaths in the community. She doesn’t attend the funeral, and that’s about the most realistic display of emotion anyone pulls off this week: she really doesn’t give so much of a shit about the murders, beyond the impact they have on her own life as Adora kicks into mother hen mode and does everything she can to protect her daughter.

And rounding off the Preaker women, there is, of course, Camille. Amy Adams is eating this role alive, and Jean-Marc Valee seems to know what he’s got here, as he allows those long, lingering shots of her face to speak volumes, much the same way he did with the exceptional Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies last year. Camille similarly artificialises her emotions, not through repression or projection, but as she turns to her crutches to push the bad feelings out of her: whether drink, cigarettes, or self-harm (which we actually see on-screen this week, so be warned), she’s hiding from her feelings any way she can, trying to keep focused on the job of synthesizing decent journalism out of the horrors that have already imprinted themselves on the psyche of Wind Rush as a whole. Her storifying of the murders is another way for her to remove herself from them, but they overlap with her own past in a way that she has to find other ways to escape from it. But the stakes are so much higher for Camille, as giving in to her emotions, at least in her eyes, seems to mean consumption by her mental illness in a way that it’s hinted has happened before.

And there’s plenty more bubbling under the surface here to, plot threads for the show to pick up on later: explorations of class, violence, truth and lies, not to mention some decent character work for out-of-town cop Billy Vickery, courtesy of a vulnerable but hard-edged performance from Matt Craven.

All round, this is another brilliant episode for Sharp Objects: taking the classic small town tropes and elevating them into a cogent exploration of emotion, grief, and family, this feel like true prestige television. Match Gillian Flynn’s tender and careful script with those nuanced performances and the unflinching nature of the story, and there’s something extraordinary in here waiting to break out. Wind Rush and the Preaker family have yet to reveal their secrets to us, but I’m sure as hell along for the ride to find out what they are once and for all.

If you like this recap and want to see more like it, you can find my other sets of recaps for American Crime StoryVikingsRiverdaleDoctor Who, UnREALthe 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 Den of Geek)