“Don’t tell Mama.”
These three words spoken at the end of the finale of Sharp Objects reveal the final twist in a winding mystery that took us both through the meandering streets of Wind Gap, Missouri and the tangled history of the Preaker family. Both Camille’s mother and half-sister are murderers responsible for separate but equally diabolical crimes. But how did we get there? How did a double twist at the end of a confusing murder mystery actually land? To me, it all comes back to the editing.
I know it’s a patently ridiculous idea to credit the editing as the key aspect of a show that that starred Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, written by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, and produced by Marti Noxon, but it’s true. And not necessarily in the way you might think.
Director/editor Jean-Marc Valleé brought his unique style of filmmaking to television last summer with the surprise hit of the summer: Big Little Lies (although we probably shouldn’t be surprised when a show starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, et al is a hit). He elapses time before our eyes, interspersing the present with fragments of the past, creating a visual link between the characters we’re watching and the past that exists beyond the boundaries of the show. At its core, it’s a visceral representation of trauma which is what made the story of troubled journalist Camille Preaker returning home to investigate a murder in Sharp Objects the perfect marriage of thematic material and Valleé’s distinctive style. As the show’s premiere neared, it was something highlighted in preview articles by a number of high profile TV critics like Alan Sepinwall and Todd VanDerWerff.
And boy did Sharp Objects feature Valleé’s trademark style of filmmaking. He injected us inside Camille’s head, a particularly chilling place to experience a particularly chilling story. His style was conspicuous, something most editors avoid and even annoyed some viewers, who felt that Valleé was just recycling his greatest hits. But what Vallee did so expertly was use that style to misdirect us in the same way Camille was misdirected.
As the murder mystery unwound, we quickly realized that the details of the investigation — where the bike was found, the woman in white, the strength required to pull teeth — were never that important. Instead, we were always meant to see this story from Camille’s perspective and through the prism of tone. The evidence never mattered nearly as much as the most central question to the series: Who could have done this?
And as we dug into the characters of Wind Gap, we set the red herrings aside. John Keene — the brother — was too obvious. The father was too unwound by the experience. Amma’s aggression toward her sister was easy to dismiss as jealousy rather than a seed of evil. Indeed, as the story played out over the 8 episode season, we were given time to move on from our first impressions. Amma’s story followed a conventional arc: the creepy younger half-sister who probably just needed to be loved right, just like Camille.
This is probably the best argument for telling this story as a series and not as a singular film, something I heard from several viewers in my immediate internet bubble voiced. This time gave us the chance to explore these characters and gain a sense of history with them. The more we spent in this incredibly still town, the more it became difficult to separate objective truth from subjective history.
Valleé used these episodes to flatten time, blending past and present together to the point that, despite the obvious overtones of subjectivity, we were lulled into the stillness of the town. As we saw the timeline from above, we began to think that we had outside perspective on this story.
The twist in the 7th episode, where we discover that Marian’s illness was her mother Adora’s (Munchausen by Proxy) felt so monumental and pitch perfect as all great twists do. It was something we had never considered as an audience but once it was suggested, it made almost too much sense. Of course, I thought, of course, how could I have not seen it? Every flashback seemed to have pointed to this revelation, the one Camille should have seen all those years ago if only she had known to look.
But again, that stylistic flourish by Vallee was as much a misdirection as anything else. He perfectly sets up Camille opposite Adora through her living memories so that we are more than ready to accept her as the villain, that these are a devil and angel fighting for an innocent soul in Amma. All the while we forget that the entire show is about how rotten this town is underneath it all — something we should have known the second they performed a play celebrating a child bride’s sexual assault in defense of the Confederacy.
We move on as soon as a juicier suspect comes along, and Valleé is more than willing to play off of that. So once we learn of Adora’s sickness inside, we relax. Camille finally has made amends with losing her sister Marian and has saved her fill-in Amma. She takes her out of the rotten town that corrupts everything it touches only to find out that she’s just as rotten as the rest. In fact, the clues were so obvious that once Amma utters those three words, Valleé edits together an extremely quick-cutting montage that ties her back to every detail (the teeth, the bike, the woman in white) in a tidy 20 seconds or less.
This twist adds a completely new aspect of tragic irony to Sharp Objects. Camille went through hell to defeat the ultimate villain of her life, only to discover she had saved one even more monstrous. Yes, we should have seen Amma as the killer from the beginning, and I’m sure many considered her at one moment or another. But, the brilliance of the series is in how it seduced us, appearing normal before realizing how far the disease had really spread.