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'Sharp Objects' Episode 1 Recap: 'Vanish'

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“Sharp Objects” is a new HBO limited series that covers topics like trauma, self-harm and addiction. We’ll be reviewing each episode, and analyzing what it means for the mental health community.

Editor's Note

This post is a review of episode one of “Sharp Objects” and contains spoilers. If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

While “Sharp Objects” started slower than I thought it would, the first episode of the series did an amazing job weaving in themes I’m sure will come up as the story continues.

The first thing we see are shots from a small fictional town, Wind Gap, Missouri, where a young Camille Preaker, our protagonist, rollerblades down desolated streets with her sister, whom she appears to adore.

The young actress who plays Young Camille, Sophia Lillis, looks so much like Amy Adams, it’s unreal. Adams plays Camille as an adult, and we only see Young Camille in flashbacks, memories or in this case, a dream.

The two girls ditch their rollerblades and sneak across a field towards a beautiful, large Victorian house. They let themselves in, put their backpacks down, and slowly make their ways up the stars, avoiding both the woman and man who appear to live there.

The Victorian house subtly transforms to Camille’s house an adult, and the two girls find adult Camille lying in bed.

Young Camille unfurls a paper clip, takes adult Camille’s hand, and presses the sharp end into it.

Adult Camille flinches awake, and we realize it was just a dream. This is our first hint that self-harm may be something the series explores.

Camille is a reporter for the St. Louis Chronicle, and when she gets to work, the editor-in-chief (or at least, someone who is presumably Camille’s boss), calls her into his office and starts asking her questions about Wind Gap.

“What’s it like?” he asks her.

In a monotone voice, Camille starts rattling facts. It’s at the bottom of Missouri, spitting distance from Tennessee, population 2,000.

“I know where it is, I asked what it’s like,” he says.

Camille explains the main industry in the town is “hog butchering,” and that people are either old money or trash.

“Which one are you?” her boss asks.

“Trash… from old money,” she responds.

Now we know he’s asking her about her hometown, which she’s clearly not super psyched to talk about. He’s surprised to learn she hasn’t heard about the murder that happened there last August. A little girl got strangled — and another little girl is missing now.

He wants to assign her a story about what’s happening in the town, from the point of view of a local. He also mentions something about her “getting her back on her feet,” meaning while he’s her boss giving her an assignment, there might be more going on. She fights back, but ultimately the conversation ends with him saying, “I’m your boss, so goodbye,” and, “Get hell out of here.”

With a big sigh, she takes the assignment and leaves his office.

She starts to drive to Wind Gap, but not before taking a shot of vodka. She takes her phone out, which has a cracked screen and rubs her thumb over the glass. Besides the dream and her grumpy demeanor, this is our next clue that’s she’s battling something we can’t yet see.

During the drive to Wind Gap, she smokes cigarettes, drinks vodka, smokes cigarettes and drinks some more. She never goes without consuming something as she drives.

When she gets to her motel room, she immediately dumps out the contents of her backpack: cigarettes, bottles of alcohol, candy bars.

She sits in the bathroom drinking more, and as she runs the bath, we see flashes from her past. When she looks into the mirror, she sees someone who’s not her, but it quickly switches back. These flashes are so fast, it can be easy to miss them — but they reinforce that she’s haunted by something. The alcohol only takes her further away from reality.

Sitting in the bath, we see a longer flashback from her childhood. Young Camille is swimming in a lake, a young boy hunting points his rifle at her, smirks, then runs away. She looks at him, frozen.

After getting out of the lake, she gets on a bike and finds (or goes back to?) a small cabin in the woods, where there are pictures of men having sex with women on the wall. Some appear to be restrained or passed out. It’s disturbing, but when we come back to adult Camille, she appears to masturbate to this memory, until it goes dark and the next day begins.

The next day, driving through Wind Gap, she passes a memorial of the young girl who was strangled on her way to the police station. She’s there to talk to the police chief about the case.

While she’s waiting to talk to the police chief, she has a small exchange with the receptionist that hints at another theme we see later on in the episode: suppressing negative emotions.

Receptionist: It was Natalie’s favorite color.

[Referring to the purple ribbon on her shirt and the girl who is missing.]

Well actually, her folks said it was black, but that just seemed too grim.

Camille: So her second favorite.

This stuck out to me because it’s the first time we see how people in the town are reacting to what’s happened to the girls. After an unhelpful conversation with the police chief (he has no leads and isn’t happy to have a reporter in town), she goes to visit her mother, and we can see this denial of negative feelings in full force. Her mother (played by Patricia Clarkson) lives in the beautiful, Victorian house we saw in Camille’s dream, and is shocked when her daughter visits unannounced. The first thing she says to her is, “Is something the matter?” followed by, “I didn’t expect you. The house is not up to par for visitors I’m afraid.” Ouch. Not a happy mother-daughter reunion.

Soon after saying hello to her step-father Alan, she tells her mother she’s in town reporting on the murder and the missing girl. Her mother’s response to her daughter reporting on the murder stays consistent throughout the first episode — she doesn’t understand why she’s dwelling on such dark things. The exact quote: “Camille, I just don’t understand why a young woman like you would want to even dwell on such things.” She actually says she’s going to pretend Camille’s visiting on summer break, and doesn’t want to hear about anything Camille is working on.

Negative feelings and events are bad, better not to discuss them at all is her logic.

The rest of the episode focuses on Camille’s reporting, and we find out a little more about her past. We learn her sister, who seemed to be close in age to Camille, died. We learn her half-sister, Amma, smokes pot around town while pretending to be the perfect child at home. We meet Detective Richard Willis (played by Chris Messina) who’s just as happy as the police chief to have a reporter around, but ends up (kinda) flirting with Camille at a bar. (She won’t have it.) We get another hint that the editor from the St. Louis Chronicle sent Camille to her hometown for more than an assignment. After a phone call with Camille, his wife says to him, “You better be right, just because you’ve seen Dr. Phil doesn’t make you a real doctor.” Camille interviews the father of the young girl who was murdered. And around the corner from that young girl’s memorial, the body of the second girl is found while Camille is there. All the while Camille is drinking, and generally unhappy. Again and again, we see flashes from her past blend into reality.

I can’t lie, because (thankfully) knew I knew it was coming, I spent most of the second half of the episode waiting for them to reveal that Camille has a history of cutting. When the moment did happen, I found it anti-climactic — but in a good way. Maybe it didn’t shock me because I knew it was eventually coming, but I found the way they did eventually reveal her scars to be tasteful.

Of course, seeing her self-harm scars, which cover her entire body, is shocking. We see them as she gets into the bath (while drinking, of course) and among the lines of scars, there are actually words carved into her skin. We see on her arm, the word “vanish.” That’s where the episode leaves us, knowing that Camille’s struggles aren’t as hidden as we might have thought they were — they literally live on her skin.

Our rating: 

While I really enjoyed all the hidden messages we see as Camille flashes back and forth between reality and the past, this first episode was a little slow for me. Perhaps matching the sleepiness of her town, it didn’t necessarily leave me needing more. That being said, I was impressed with how the show handled Camille’s mental health issues. The “big reveal” of her self-harm scars could have been romanticized or overly-dramatic, but instead I actually found it to be quite safe. Just like the people in this small town, I feel like this first episode had a lot of suppressed tension. I hope to see more of it come out as the series continues.

Discussion Question:

Going home can be tough for a lot of people, and being back where we grew up can bring back memories we would rather forget. How does Camille’s experience going home relate to your own? If you have to face not-so-pleasant memories when you go home, how do you cope?

Originally published: July 13, 2018
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