Monday, August 27, 2018

"Sharp Objects" Goes Dull

HBO's Sharp Objects ended last night. Unfortunately, this beautifully acted, well written and well directed show fell apart at the end. If you have not seen the show and do not want to know how it ends, cease reading this post… right now.

Among the reviews I have seen, Emily Yahr’s in the Washington Post comes closest to my view.

In principle, the show is a detective story. Based on a Gillian Flynn novel, it shows cub reporter Camille Preaker returning to her hometown of Wind Gap in order to learn who killed two teenage girls, Ann Nash and Natalie Keene.

We meet Camille’s mother, Adora Crellin, her new husband, Alan Crellin and Camille’s half sister, Amma Crellin. For the record, I like the names that Flynn chose… and am happy to note that Amma is an anagram for Mama. In the end, Mama Crellin will be exposed as a murderer and will be blamed for killing the girls. She will also be exposed for having murdered her third daughter Marian.

In truth, we discover in the last frame, the real killer is Amma herself. The teenager did it.

Detective fiction is formula fiction. Whether Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin, Miss Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot or Endeavour Morse, the characters are all the same. They are portrayed as disembodied minds, great machines for cerebration who lack anything resembling a normal life or normal appetites. Holmes numbs his body with cocaine. Camille Preaker disembodies herself by cutting herself up, by inscribing words in her flesh.

Aside from the fact that glamorizing cutters is very likely to encourage more of the same among young females, the literary trope only works up to a point. If Camille were a great thinker, if she manifested a clear ability to analyze the situation and to find the killer, it would all make some sense. If she were shut down and shut off from human relationships, and especially sexual contact, it would make some sense.

It doesn’t. In the story, Camille is a dunce. And she yearns for intimacy. She manages to make love with a detective and one of the suspects. And then, when she discovers that her mother most likely poisoned her late sister, Marian, Camille goes back to her mother’s house and puts herself in her mother’s care. Whatever potion Adora is offering, Camilly happily takes it. She asks for more. This does not make her a great thinker. It makes her look like an incompetent fool.

By the story’s terms, Camille is not really doing any serious detecting. She is blossoming forth as a great writer. In the third-to-last scene her editor exclaims that her writing is wondrously beautiful. The problem is, Holmes did not write his own stories. Dr. Watson did it for him. You can be a detective or you can be a writer. It is difficult, if not impossible and incoherent, to pretend to be doing both.

Not to put too find a point on it, but great storytellers are not necessarily great at writing great sentences. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle were great storytellers. They did not write great sentences. Supposedly Camille Preaker writes great sentences. But, she cannot tell a great story... nor for that matter can Flynn.

Camille knows that her mother Adora poisons her children. And yet, she lets herself be poisoned. She is saved at the last minute by her newspaper editor boss, Curry, who happens to show up, police in hand. In literature, this is called a deus ex machina, a character who is introduced, seemingly at random, because the author cannot figure out how to save the heroine otherwise. Camille did tell her sister Amma to go find a detective, but Amma did not do it.

But, when it comes to the crime itself, the murder of the two girls, Amma did do it. And she did it with some help from her two best friends.

Unfortunately, we cannot buy it. One suspects that the author wanted to keep it all in the Crellin-Preaker family, but making a teenage girl into a serial killer is a step into incoherence. More so because we have been told that the killer extracted all of each victim’s teeth… a process that requires considerable upper body strength. Do you really believe that Amma could have done that? And do you really believe, as the story shows, that Amma would have left the blood stained pliers lying around the house? Huh. Moreover, do you think that three high school girls could have kept this secret to themselves?

In the last flash scene we see Amma strangling her friend Mae. Again, it takes considerable strength to strangle someone. Is Amma that much stronger than her peer Mae?

Emily Yahr notes:

How did Amma involve her friends in the murders? How did she pry out the teeth, when the show made sure to emphasize that it would take a very strong person to do so? Is the assumption that Amma killed Mae, as well? Most importantly: Why did she kill them?!

One might say that she is a sadist. One might say that she is Mama’s little girl. Or, one might say that Flynn did not know how to end her book. Some critics believe that she was making a point about female sadism or about family trauma. In truth, the story was structured like detective fiction…. On those terms, for all its excellence, it fell apart at the end.

[Also worthy of your attention is Sonia Saraiya's commentary in Vanity Fair:

But it’s hard to tell if Sharp Objects concludes, or simply just stops; its ending is interesting, but definitively unsatisfying. And considering all the subtext and trauma that this story has dredged up and dealt with, leaving this revelation unaddressed reads as if the show has given up on making sense of its own plot.

Sharp Objects led its audience straight into the dark maw of intimate violence and hurt disguised as love. But with its conclusion, the show does not offer a way out of the abyss.]


Sam L. said...

I don't watch HBO, and this show strikes me as unwatchable. Mostly, I watch TCM. YMMV.

trigger warning said...

Going dull seems a symptom of success. Consider "Breaking Bad". Started as a fantastic TV series, one of the best I've seen. Ended with robotic machine guns popping out of car trunks. Puhleeze. TV writers should know when to quit.

Having said that, I confess that it would take bamboo splinters under my fingernails to convince me to pay for HBO.

Walt said...

Never saw it. But all long-running series eventually jump the shark. However: Hammett was both a detective (Pinkerton) and a writer. And the Holmes/Christie whodunit is only a sub-genre of dick-fic, and one I've usually found contrived and inane. Chandler wrote sentences you could frame and wrote about a plausibly realistic world, and his famous essay "The Simple Art of Murder" shreds the Christie school. Then there are the real-world police procedurals, including some by Elmore Leonard whose prose could wake the dead and make them grin, and noirs, and action-adventure detective stories. (Just to defend the genre--mine, as it happens--from the charge of categorical one-dimensional contrivance.)