Sharp Objects: A Deep Dive Into Character Psychology

Sharp Objects amy adams
Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects just concluded a fantastic eight episode run this past weekend, one made especially compelling by how thoroughly it relies on the psychology of its characters — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — to explain the twists and turns of the plot. Midway through the series, Sharp Objects had posed a number of clues about the dual mysteries at its center, the murdered teens in Wind Gap, Missouri, and Camille’s trauma over the death of her sister Marian (see my previous piece on the series for a review of the first four episodes).

The series finale resolves these mysteries and then some, providing not just one resolution for each, but three resolutions, including two conflicting resolutions to the mystery of the murdered teens. Amazingly, all of them work, each one linked to the other, and each providing a challenging, but ultimately rich and rewarding psychology of the series’ characters.

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The puzzle pieces start fitting together in episode seven. Given the many times Camille floats the hypothesis that the teens’ killer is a woman, and given that the show’s most significant relationships are between its female characters, it seemed likely that the murderer would turn out to be a woman. Camille points the finger at Adora once she discovers that Adora suffers from a psychological disorder called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a diagnosis that serves as the lynchpin for unraveling all of the show’s mysteries.

As the nurse who regularly treated Marian explains, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, or MSP, is when a caregiver inflicts harm on their patient or manufactures illness in order to continue the patient’s dependency on the caregiver, allowing the caregiver to continue to administer care, and to garner sympathy and attention in the process. This diagnosis fits Adora perfectly, and does wonders to explain not only her narcissism and perpetual victimhood, but also her hostility toward Camille, as well as Camille’s trauma.

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As the flashbacks have revealed, Camille was a very independent child, needing little coddling or caretaking. We see this explicitly in a pair of intercut, paralleled scenes at the start of episode seven, where Camille refuses Adora’s care both in the present and in flashback. It’s easy to infer that Camille’s resistance made Adora turn to Marian to satisfy her caretaking needs. Bearing the full weight of Adora’s MSP, which was perhaps intensified by Camille’s refusal to play along, Adora’s disorder ended up killing Marian.

While it’s unclear exactly how much teenage Camille knew or suspected about what Adora was doing to Marian, her swatting away Adora’s medicine in the flashback suggests Camille knew it was bad for her. Thus Camille’s trauma is rooted in the guilt she feels over her inability to save her sister from their mother. Some part of her knew Adora was responsible for Marian’s frailty, and even though Camille was just a teenager, she blames herself for not doing enough to stop it.

Understanding this trauma explains a lot of Camille’s behavior. Take her cutting, for instance. Episode six reveals that some (perhaps most) of the words she carved into her flesh are words spoken by Adora. In a flashback, teenage Camille shows off her new cheerleading uniform to her family, and Adora coldly states that she looks like “a plump, juicy cherry.” In reacting to this memory, adult Camille realizes with disgust that this was a snide comment about teenage Camille’s virginity, but later we also learn that “cherry” is one of the first words Camille cut into her skin after Marian’s death. If Camille’s trauma is a product of her guilt over not protecting Marian from Adora, then cutting Adora’s words into her skin becomes a symbolic way for Camille to act on that guilt, atoning for what she sees as her irresponsibility by accepting, belatedly, some form of Adora’s harm onto her own body.

Likewise, Camille’s reaction to Alice’s suicide makes even more sense if Camille suspected Adora was hurting Marian. More than just a surrogate sister, Alice was also a surrogate unhealthy person, albeit in need of psychological rather than physical care. In attempting to administer some of that care and inadvertently contributing to Alice’s suicide, Camille suddenly became her own mother, inflicting harm through her care. Thus Camille immediately attempts suicide upon discovering Alice’s body – becoming a facsimile of the person she blames for her real sister’s death is too much to bear.

sharp objects amy adams

Of course, a question raised by Adora’s MSP is the extent to which she should be considered a villain. Evidently opinions differ about the motivations of people diagnosed with MSP, which can change on a case-by-case basis, ranging from intentional maliciousness, where the caregiver selfishly prioritizes their own need to help their patient over the patient’s wellbeing, to unintentional abuse, where the caregiver is unaware of their disorder and unconsciously harms those in their care to satisfy their need.

Sharp Objects suggests Adora’s case is more of the latter than the former, and that her pathology was instilled in her by her own abusive mother, Joya, who intentionally imperiled Adora as a child and seemed not to have loved her. Adora muses to Camille that Joya must have had her reasons, but this abuse led Adora to unintentionally overcompensate in her treatment of her own children. Adora can only express her love by showing her children that she’s the opposite of Joya and is there to take care of them. Thus, Adora needs her children to need her, so she ensures that they will by (unconsciously) making them sick.

Much like how Adora’s MSP explains Camille’s trauma, it also explains a lot of Adora’s otherwise enigmatic or cruel behavior. Adora’s incredibly cruel claim to have never loved Camille, for instance, is a symptom of her MSP. Camille would not let Adora care for her the way Adora cared for Marian – thus we have Adora’s resentment and hostility toward Camille, for whom love equaled caretaking. Likewise, MSP explains Adora throwing a fit when she tried to deliver flowers to Camille in rehab: Adora was frustrated over Camille checking herself into a clinic rather than letting Adora care for her when Camille actually needed it. For Adora, Camille’s stint in rehab was the equivalent of yet another rejection of Adora’s love.

Finally, Adora’s MSP also explains Camille’s conviction that Adora murdered the teens in Wind Gap, as well as Camille’s decision to sacrifice herself to save Amma, whom Adora is treating in the final two episodes after Amma wakes up with a hangover. In the course of conducting interviews with people surrounding the murdered teens, Camille learns that Adora was close with both of the victims, and that she tried to care for them as well. When Camille learns of Adora’s MSP, she links Marian’s death to the death of the teens, seeing their murder as an extension of what Adora did to Marian, what she tried to do to Camille, and what she is currently doing to Amma.

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Thus Camille returns home, feigns illness, and allows Adora to treat her in order to take Adora’s attention away from Amma. Camille has been haunted by her failure to save Marian, thus she seizes the opportunity to save Amma when the opportunity presents itself. What follows is a nice suspense sequence complete with a last minute rescue and Adora’s arrest, along with the discovery of a pair of pliers that seem to have been used to remove the teeth of the murdered teens.

Accordingly, Adora’s MSP seems like a satisfying solution to all of the show’s mysteries, one that allows for a moving and beautiful epilogue in which Camille heals her trauma through her relationship with Amma, who moves in with Camille in St. Louis. As the conclusion to Camille’s final article about Wind Gap describes, being a sister to Amma and taking care of her allows Camille to forgive herself for what happened to Marian. Likewise, Camille acts as a surrogate mother for Amma, even though Amma still loves Adora, which we see not only through Amma visiting Adora in prison, but also through her keeping a framed photo of the two of them in her room, and by her bringing her dollhouse replica of the Crellin mansion with her to St. Louis.

However, the satisfaction of this resolution dissipates upon the realization that the murder and mutilation of the Wind Gap teens doesn’t really jive with Adora’s MSP being unintentional. Poisoning your daughters (surrogate or otherwise) in order to take care of them is one thing, but mutilating your victims by pulling out their teeth is something else. Camille notices the discrepancy as well, but attributes it to Adora’s tendency to deny the existence of things that upset her, an excuse that viewers are likely to accept as well, lacking other plausible alternatives.

Thus the power of the surprise at the very end of Sharp Objects, where Camille discovers a human tooth in Amma’s dollhouse, along with filed human teeth lining the floor of dollhouse’s version of Adora’s bedroom (which, in the real house, is tiled with ivory). Suddenly, another resolution to the mystery of the murdered teens snaps into focus: Amma killed them, jealous over the attention Adora was paying to them. We see as much in a mid-credits montage, where Amma murders not only the Wind Gap teens, but also her new St. Louis friend Mae, whom Amma became jealous of earlier in the epilogue when she thinks Mae is trying to win Camille’s affection.

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Does this surprise ending square with Amma’s behavior throughout the series? I think so, more or less. It makes sense that Adora’s MSP could compromise more than just Amma’s body. Evidently, it also perverted her sense of what love means and how to express it. Amma being the murderer also helps to explain her sometimes possessive, sometimes resistant relationship with Adora, as well as how Amma could become close with Camille, whose fraught relationship with Adora provided no threat to Amma. Likewise, it explains why Amma can happily visit her mother in prison, even though Adora had been poisoning Amma for most of her life: now she has her mother all to herself. Finally, Amma being the killer also explains why Amma and her friends – who the mid-credits sequence suggests were her accomplices – were unafraid of becoming the killer’s next targets.

On the other hand, her friends being accomplices is a sticking point. What’s their motivation for murder? Even if they were just following Amma’s lead, murder is a pretty big step, and they don’t seem to be bothered by it at all over the course of the series. We don’t even see so much as a hint of tension between the three. I suppose one could simply write them off as psychopaths, but they feel like underdeveloped parts of the story. More plausible might have been for Amma to simply kill her victims on her own.

Regardless, the twist is worth it for the crestfallen look on Camille’s face when she confronts Amma about the tooth. Amy Adams is great here, her performance conveying how devastating this discovery is: not only has she lost yet another sister in this moment, but she’s also lost the progress she’s made in healing her childhood trauma. It’s a gut-wrenching ending to an excellent series.


Other thoughts

– Adora’s MSP and Camille’s reaction to realizing that Amma is in danger makes sense from both a psychological and dramatic standpoint, but I would have liked to have seen more groundwork laid for this diagnosis earlier in the season through Adora and Amma’s relationship. It’s not until penultimate episode that we learn Adora has treated Amma for non-existent illnesses (both in the case file Richard discovers, and in Adora’s treatment of Amma’s hangover). For instance, at no point do any of the Wind Gap locals refer to Amma as having sick spells, nor does Adora ever uses Amma’s health as a reason for Amma to obey Adora’s house rules.

– The excerpt that we hear of Camille’s final report on her return to Wind Gap is excellent. I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s book on which Sharp Objects is based, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was lifted verbatim from the novel.

– In episode six, Amma’s music teacher, Kirk, apologizes to Camille for raping her in the woods when they were teenagers, which clarifies his coldness toward Amma in an earlier episode: Amma probably reminds him of teenage Camille, and of his own guilt. The actors cast to play the teenage and adult versions of Kirk look so wildly different that it was difficult to tell they were supposed to be the same character. Also interesting here is how dismissive Camille is of Kirk’s apology – she’s haunted by far greater traumas, so it’s easy for her to be flippant in dismissing his guilt. She probably thinks it’s fitting for his grief to haunt him, just as she’s been haunted by her own.

– One could argue that the mid-credits montage of Amma killing her friends is simply Camille’s imagination, given that the series often freely mixed flashbacks, flashforwards, and Camille’s mental subjectivity. However, the point is moot, both because those are almost certainly the murdered teens’ teeth in the dollhouse, and because Amma reveals her culpability in her response to Camille’s look of despair: “Don’t tell mama.”

– Camille’s sacrifice to protect Amma is a suspenseful climax to the final episode, but I actually felt more suspense in episode seven, during the sex scene between Camille and John, the brother of one of the murdered teens. Police Chief Vickery suspects John is the murderer, has a warrant for his arrest, and knows where John is, but Camille finds him first, and the two bond over their shared trauma. Just when Camille is finally opening up to someone and allowing him to see her scars, I was terrified that the police were going to burst open their motel door and ruin an otherwise healthy moment for Camille. Of course, this is almost exactly what happens. While Camille is able to hide her scars, she can’t make Richard understand, and is perhaps even more devastated by his brutal rejection of her than she would have been had she been totally exposed when the police break down the door.

– Speaking of Camille sleeping with a source and potential murder suspect, Sophie Gilbert has a good piece in The Atlantic about how Sharp Objects contributes to the unhealthy convention of the unethical female journalist character type.

– Richard turns out to be a bit of creep, huh? He knows Camille has been traumatized, but rather than simply ask her about it, he uses his credentials to investigate her past. His invasion of her privacy could be flimsily motivated by his sensing a connection between the murders and Adora, but it’s clear Camille is his primarily interest. Plus he’s terrible to her when he discovers her in bed with John, weaponizing his knowledge of her trauma by suggesting she uses it to gain sympathy. At least he apologizes in his final exchange with Camille.

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