Sharp Objects S1E3: Fix

by thethreepennyguignol

(trigger warning for discussions of self-harm and suicide)

When you’re a teenager, adolescence feels like an eternity.

And not just that the bad hair, cheap make-up, and roiling angst feel as though they’re going on for decades: no, when you’re a teenager, there doesn’t feel like a way out of the place you’re in now. The only other life you know is childhood, and you can’t go back there – adulthood feels impossibly distant, until it suddenly isn’t. Adolescence, for many people, feels impossibly eternal, like there could never be anything different than this.

And that’s what Sharp Objects explores, with its third episode, Fix. We get three significant teenage girl characters in this storyline, and each of them represents, in their own way, the sprawling distance of those in-between years.

The first, and most significant, is Amma, Camille’s half-sister, who has been relegated to the sidelines of the last couple of episodes but steps forward into centre stage here, as played by Eliza Scanlen. Amma, more than anything, embodies the impossible self-confidence of adolescence, the kind that can only possibly spring from not really knowing how much you lack. She frequently references her power over the various people in her life – the social power over her friends, her power that lies in the deception of her mother into believing she is the dutiful daughter, the sexual power she holds over one of the suspects in the murder case – and she believes wholeheartedly that this power is perhaps the most important thing about her, and can see no end or limit to it. Amma is a simmering character, bubbling with arrogance and duplicity, one of the Heathers played for drama instead of satire.

Elsewhere in the town, a very different kind of teenage girl exerts a similair power over the people around her. Madison Davenport plays Ashley Wheeler, the girlfriend of the older brother of the latest victim, who has been a tacit suspect in her murder since the start. She plays a small role in the episode, really just turning up to facilitate a meeting between Camille and John, her boyfriend, but it speaks volumes to her place in Wind Rush: she greets Camille in her high school cheerleading outfit, even though school’s out for summer, and offers her own interpretation of events before she lets her boyfriend speak.

My favourite moment for her this episode, the one that speaks the most about her characters, comes as John laments that if the family had never come to Wind Rush, his sister would still be alive – she counters, immediatley, that they would never have met if he hadn’t moved there, as if that’s any kind of comparison. Ashley’s own duplicity isn’t as clear as Amma’s, maybe not even to her, but it’s there: the all-American girl who wants all of America to put her story at the center of their telling of what happened in Wind Rush. In that cheerleading outfit, she feels like she’s voluntary pinned herself under glass, to be preserved and examined as she is at that moment: beautiful, dutiful. Her power comes from controlling her narrative and that of her boyfriend, no matter the clear emotional cost on him

And the final part of this teenage girl trilogy comes in the form of Alice, Camille’s roommate when she committed herself to a mental insititution to deal with her self-harm. The flashbacks in Sharp Objects so far have felt shattered and unformed, but we get the full, flickering story of what happens between them in that place, and it’s fucking devastating.

Alice (Sydney Sweeney) is perhaps the best example of the eternity of being young – for her, it’s not a promise of endless opportunity and freedom from responsibility. Suffering from severe self-harming tendencies and dealing with painful family relationships, she continually asks Camille, as they grow closer, if things change as you grow older. Camille tells Alice her truth: that it hasn’t. For Alice, there is no frame of reference for what’s beyond this, and, with Camille still suffering from parallel problems long into her adulthood, she’s stuck in this permanent tormented teenagedom. So she escapes the only way she can: suicide.

The scenes that surround Alice’s suicide are perhaps the most brutal the show has offered so far, for totally different reasons: prior, Camille convinces one of the staff members to lend her Alice’s iPod so they can listen to music together, an activity they’ve bonded over in the past, and they lay in Alice’s bed together and share the sound. It’s the first time we’ve really been allowed to see Camille connect with someone on this level, in such detail. And that’s what makes it so much worse when Camille returns to the room soon afterwards to find Alice, covered in vomit and blood, dead from drinking bleach.

Her immediate reaction is to claw a screw out of the toilet and use it to violently cut herself, and I’m going to be honest here, this scene was really hard to watch for me. The circumstances that brought me there were different, but I have been in that exact position: on a bathroom floor, feeling like rubble, taking chunks out of myself with whatever I had closest to hand. I wrote in my first episode recap that I was really interested to see how I would find Sharp Objects treatment of self-harm, and I suppose I have my answer here: all too familiar, which is a testament to Amy Adam’s sensational performance and the sheer raw emotionality of the show thus far. I’m reminded of my own adolescence, when I was certain this pain I felt would go on forever, the endless eternity of not knowing there was a way out of the place I had retreated to in my head.

Before I draw this recap to a close, I just want to mention Patricia Clarkson again, who is just dominating the show as Adora. As villains go, she’s gloriously well-realized, the bless-your-heart Southern iciness matching with her self-centred obsession to create this monstrously real matriarch who gets you cringing the moment she steps on-screen. If she doesn’t get an Emmy for this, I tell you, there will be trouble.

Fix is a painful episode, the kind that feels a little grueling to sit through: this isn’t so much entertainment as it is guerilla therapy, but I have to admit I like that. Compelling performances and a fabulous sense of gothic atmosphere combine to bring Sharp Objects to bloody reality. The nightmare of the here and now meet with the bad dreams of the past to create a brutal narrative momentum, and Sharp Objects has made it clear that it isn’t here to play.

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(header image courtesy of Vulture)