[This story contains spoilers for episode seven of HBO’s Sharp Objects.]
The town of Wind Gap, Missouri, is obsessed with appearances, Sharp Objects author and executive producer Gillian Flynn told The Hollywood Reporter early in the run of HBO’s miniseries adaptation of the novel. But no character is more concerned with propriety than town doyenne Adora Crellin, played by Patricia Clarkson.
But in the series’ penultimate episode, Adora’s daughter Camille (Amy Adams) discovered the truth about her mother that had been gnawing at her since the death of her younger sister Marian in childhood: Adora suffers from Munchausen by proxy. Camille’s hookup Richard (Chris Messina), the out-of-towner investigating the murders of two teen girls in the small town, finally provided Camille with proof of her mother’s disease via her younger sister’s medical records — and proved that it was her mother who was responsible for Marian’s death.
So while Adora might look the part of the town matriarch with her perfect hair, nails, shoes, makeup and an extensive collection of peignoirs — “Everything was very carefully chosen, as she would have done so,” Clarkson tells THR — she is masking deep psychological issues.
“She doesn’t realize, of course, that she’s ill,” Clarkson said. “This illness, as you learn in age, [relates to] the abuse she suffered. This is cyclical, it’s generational. It’s never-ending abuse, and neglect, and trauma that has just been perpetuated for generations. I think she’s just lived in this darkness and fraughtness, and I don’t think she’s ever had unconditional love. I don’t think she’s ever truly had real happiness.”
Is she a good or a bad person? That’s impossible to answer, said Clarkson: “She considers herself a good person in other ways — service to the community, having a perfect life, always looking glamorous and glorious, and she wants her daughters to be that. And this very handsome husband, and this gorgeous three-tiered house. She maintains a very, very, very, well-manicured and well-looked-after facade. Which is exhausting for her, and of course all starts to break down eventually.”
Before the series premiered, Flynn, showrunner Marti Noxon and star and executive producer Adams discussed how the series shines a light on female rage. Clarkson isn’t sure that rage is necessarily gender-specific, but “I guess our DNA and our hormones dictate a certain kind of rage,” she said. “I think people who have suffered trauma, torment [and] have never really found solace in life; have had to fight for life — clearly, [Camille’s] father left [Adora] high and dry. I think this is a woman who has clawed and scraped herself to a certain place. And she’s not going to give up on that easily, and sadly, I think the illness probably came forth through a rage — a certain lack of power she always had in her situations with her mother and then first husband.
“I think it’s just a generational rage that was probably [passed down] from my mother to me to [Camille] to [youngest daughter Amma],” the actress continued. “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.”
Interestingly, Clarkson didn’t have to do much research on Munchausen by proxy because it’s a topic that she’d investigated in the past, thanks to a case involving a mother and child who’d visited the White House with then-first lady Hillary Clinton.
“About a year later, it all came out that woman was suffering from Munchausen by proxy. The child was perfect. This is what started my fascination,” Clarkson said. “I remember seeing this woman and seeing that child. What is wrong with her? It’s fascinating to me. It can either be done publicly or privately. And many people, often family members, are unaware many times. That is not uncommon. They sense maybe something is wrong there.”
But for the person suffering from the disease, “It’s their form of love. 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,” said Clarkson. “And that’s why it’s [typically done with] poisoning. They never want to kill. It’s not about killing the child. Sometimes it goes along with it. It is often just about making them sick enough to be, of course, alive but yet have to depend on you.”
That is part of the reason why Adora asked Camille to leave — she’ll never obey Adora enough to depend on her in that way. There’s also the fact that she can tell Camille is getting closer to remembering her past.
“[Camille] will never really be the daughter I want her to be. Adora is very smart and I think she knows when to hold and when to fold,” Clarkson said. “She is cunning, Adora. It’s how she has maintained this life for years. That is also not unusual in Munchausen. And then they’re actors within their lives, so they are playing a role that they create. It’s so complicated.”
Whether Adora regrets or even acknowledges what happened to Marian is something Clarkson prefers not to share.
“I know how I really feel about that. I think the whole [situation] was tragic,” she said. “But what I think really happened just stays with me.”
Adora as a character, however, resonates far beyond the effect she’s had on Clarkson. “Somebody joked to me the other day, ‘Hey, do you realize how many people are going to be dressed as Adora at Halloween?’ I was like, ‘Great! Good,'” said the actress.
Clarkson also is aware of the Adora GIFs populating Twitter. “All of that is fun and great,” she said. “But I do think, in the end, she is incredibly complicated, multilayered, terrifying. You know, a friend of mine said, ‘Patti, you instill terror and empathy in equal parts,’ and I don’t know how to wrestle that. I said, ‘Okay.’ But that’s the part. It was written. It’s Gillian and these great writers. You know, that’s what the part is. And I had to rise to the occasion.”
Sharp Objects airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.