The story of the HBO limited series Sharp Objects ostensibly follows troubled journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) as she investigates a string of murders in her small hometown. But underneath, it's really a story about the complicated family dynamics between Camille; her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson); and Camille's half-sister and Adora's youngest daughter, the teenage Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
As the Emmy-nominated series progresses — Sharp Objects is up for outstanding limited series, while Adams and Clarkson are nominated in the lead and supporting actress categories, respectively — more about their troubled family past emerges, revealing some emotional scars that span generations.
As Clarkson explained to The Hollywood Reporter last summer,"I think it's just a generational rage that was probably [passed down] from my mother to me to [Camille] to [youngest daughter Amma]. It is a cyclical, generational torment that's deep within and unending. It's a powerful thing to put that on display in all of its terror and all of its brutality. It's generational torment."
That torment manifests itself within Adora as Munchausen syndrome by proxy — a disease in which a caregiver intentionally makes their charge ill — which, as it is revealed in later episodes, is what killed Camille and Amma's middle sister, Marian (Lulu Wilson).
But that was Adora's form of showing love to her children — "It's the only form of love they know. It is this repeating and unquenchable desire and want for this child to need you physically and emotionally," Clarkson told THR — and because Camille is fiercely independent, it's why she'll never obey Adora enough to be dependent on her in the same way as Marian and Amma.
The emotional torment between the two comes through in both Clarkson's and Adams' performances, and both women said they made sure to leave that struggle on set and not take it home with them at the end of the day. Clarkson "never ever" brought Adora into her New York apartment. Adams reflected on her own experience, saying, "whether it was a glass of wine, going for a run or going out to dinner, I had to do something meaningful to let go of Camille and get back into myself."
In THR's cover story about Sharp Objects' journey to the screen— the series was based on executive producer and co-writer Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name — Adams said her scenes with Clarkson were the most challenging to perform because of the tense relationship between Camille and Adora, and executive producer Marti Noxon added that they were the hardest to watch. In myriad occasions throughout the eight-episode drama, it was that tension that forced each actress to delve deep as they sought to convey the complexities of their respective roles.
The women’s first on screen meeting comes a third of the way through the first episode, when Camille shows up on her mother’s doorstep. Their strained relationship is immediately apparent, as Adora treats Camille as a houseguest — “The house is not up to par for visitors, I’m afraid,” she says, before ultimately inviting her daughter in and allowing her to stay there while she’s in town working on her story.
But it’s the fifth episode, “Closer,” when the tension between the women comes to a head. While shopping for a dress to wear to a town celebration, Adora forces Camille to come out of the dressing room, knowing full well Amma will learn about the self-harm scars Camille has been hiding under her baggy, long-sleeved clothes, forcing Camille to implode.
The episode crescendoes in a chilling heart-to-heart in which Adora says, “I never loved you,” offering an olive branch to explain her icy behavior, and perhaps provide insight into Camille's. “You were born to it, that cold nature. I hope that's some comfort to you.”
Though those words are anything but the warm dialogue one would expect between two family members, both Adams and Clarkson agreed that the most important part of inhabiting these women and their fraught relationship was not to judge them.
"Whenever I am playing a troubled character, I don't want them to present themselves as victims," Adams said. "That's one of the things I loved about Camille: Even though she was victimized by her past, and by her mother, and by herself to some degree, she always had hope. She kept going. So I try not to judge my characters. And I try not to let them be victims."