Review: ‘Sharp Objects’ revives the Midwestern Gothic tradition

by Jordan McDonald | 10/19/18 2:05am

Airing in July this past summer, HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” an adaption of “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn’s book of the same name, sets out to remind its audience of what is unique to the identity of the Midwestern United States and what is possible within the supposedly limited format of the miniseries. Following the story of St. Louis Chronicle journalist Camille Preaker, played by Amy Adams, “Sharp Objects” takes its audience on the journey of an investigative reporter who must vanquish her own demons while hunting down others. Assigned to report on a murder and a series of child disappearances in rural Missouri, Camille is forced to return to the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri, the hometown she had long left behind.

A small town a few miles north of Tennessee, Wind Gap is divided between the haves and the have-nots, or as Camille puts it, “your trash and your old money.” Previously known for its hog farming and butchery industry, Wind Gap has been devastated by major economic shifts and its growing morbid reputation. With her own history and baggage, Camille returns to Wind Gap with palpable apprehension. Wind Gap authorities and old-money elites like Camille’s mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson), are openly hostile to the investigation of their beloved community. Camille’s presence brings backs old memories and threatens the world sustained in her absence

Injecting the show with a sense of urgency and tension, the turbulent and disturbing relationship between Camille and her mother acts as an allegory for the kind of rejection and consumption that informed Camille’s life as a young girl. As a teenager, Camille witnessed the slow death of her younger sister who was overtaken by a chronic illness. The trauma of losing her sibling is only exacerbated by the strain it put on her already troublesome relationship with her mother. Adora, who has since remarried and had Camille’s half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen), still struggles to incorporate Camille in her life. A powerful matriarch who exercises absolute control over her daughters, Adora is most fond of those who submit to her authority. For her routine failure to do so, Camille is often on the receiving end of her mother’s frustration and ire.

Unflappable and independent, Camille has grown into a young woman with an iron resolve but deep physical and emotional wounds. Struggling with self-harm, attempted suicide and substance abuse, Camille has spent her time away in St. Louis fighting to keep her ghosts at bay. Her return to the town that haunts her forces her to dance with relapse as she tries to find out who killed one young girl before the second missing girl turns up dead.

Throughout the show, Camille’s family home rests at the center of her personal history, but as the narrative unravels it begins to seem as though all roads in Wind Gap lead back to Adora’s mansion. In the episode “Closer,” Adora hosts the inaugural Calhoun Day celebration in the midst of Camille’s investigation. A town holiday that honors the sacrifices of fictional Confederate soldier, Zeke Calhoun, and his young bride, Millie, who endured rape by Union troops to protect the soldiers of Wind Gap, Calhoun Day reveals the racial and patriarchal roots of the town’s own folklore, and explain why it proves to be inhospitable to the full humanity of young girls even centuries later.

Interested in questions of gender performance, vulnerability and power, “Sharp Objects” makes a point of centering the realities of Wind Gap womanhood. For young girls, the show asserts that Wind Gap can be a stifling place for self-expression. Steeped in respectability and small-town decorum, each generation of young women learns to resist in their own particular way. For most of the women in Wind Gap, secrets and sweetness are the weapons of choice. With sharp tongues and complex social networks, their dark side to feminine pleasantries give the show a distinct sugar coating. In the end, some female characters even rise as primary suspects in the ever-intensifying murder mystery.

Over the course of eight episodes, “Sharp Objects” constructs an elaborate world and textured characters in order to bear witness to their de-evolution. Despite the dynamic performances of its cast, Adam’s performance as Camille is upstaged only by the massive character presence of the show’s geography. The Midwest and the state of Missouri itself emerges as a character, running parallel to the psychological drama of Wind Gap. Providing added texture to the show, geography and regional specificity assist in arguing on behalf of the story and its character’s positions in the world.

Since the Missouri Compromise in 1820, Missouri has long occupied a liminal status in the nation’s history. A state with a history of slavery and Confederate secession, Missouri sits at an intersection of ideas regarding the “progress” of western expansion and the spirit of the South’s plantation-based economies. This intermediary history informs the show’s Midwestern imagery. In Wind Gap, industrial production has slowed and 19th century gendered and racialized hierarchies are intact and face little opposition. Articulating the essence of a national interlocutor, “Sharp Objects” imagines Wind Gap as a place that time forgot.

This Midwest is distinctive in its angst and gothic narratives of isolation. Here, the region is one made by conflicts between rich whites and poor whites, the North and the South, economic devastation, social depression and rural austerity. When Camille describes her family as “trash from old money,” she situates herself within this context explicitly, but the plot devices, props and set design arguably do more to paint a picture of exactly where Wind Gap is geographically, socially and culturally located than Camille ever could.

The large plantation home passed down to Adora is perhaps the show’s most effective geographical prop. A true home body, Adora asserts her family’s relation to Wind Gap by comporting herself as a woman of high tastes and class, and her home is her prized testament. Adora gushes over her DeGournay wallpaper, lavish landscape paintings and ivory finishings. She does not live alone, but the house is undeniably hers, and everything in it is an artifact of lost status. Resisting association with the immaculate house’s furnishings, Adora’s black housekeeper Gayla (Emily Yancy) appears in seven of the show’s eight episodes and is the only black character in Wind Gap. Though she has few lines, her presence is blaring, effective and haunting. As she takes orders for family meals and glides through the house with familiarity, she calls us to remember where the show is and whose story is being told. “Sharp Objects” is not Gayla’s story. There are no black girls in Wind Gap.