Amma is a would-be Machiavelli. But is she a sociopath?
One reason you can be sure HBO’s Sharp Objects is a true Southern Gothic is that when its debutante gloves finally unpeel, you don’t just get an effusion of secrets and darkness and a lot of deep-buried social dysfunction. In episode six, “Cherry,” once the passive-aggressive politeness starts to give away to truth-telling, you also get some unhinged wildness: ear-biting, some light incest, some heavy sociopathy, and a literal shit pit.
Yes, the intensity and the memories are ramping up for Camille as she revisits her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. But in “Cherry,” there are also some significant developments in the case, in case you were so distracted by all the sociopathy and incest you forgot there were murders to solve.
Granted, we don’t learn much about the murders. But what we do learn is weighty.
The tangled family ties between Amma and Camille get even knottier
Like every episode before it, “Cherry” stints on procedural case-file crime-solving and delivers juicy drama, reams of gossip, and subtext thicker than summer heat in a tent revival. In this go-round, director Jean-Marc Vallée puts the focus back on Amma’s relationship with Camille, as our favorite teen fatale lures her older sister through a typical suburban house party, where Amma gets into a brief fight with John Keene (the brother of murder victim No. 2, Natalie) and his girlfriend Ashley over their mutual suspicions of each other.
We get a brief sis-on-sis kiss, then a rare moment of sisterly bonding that doesn’t feel entirely manipulative on Amma’s part — at least until she asks Camille to take her back to St. Louis with her.
It’s a revealing moment for both sisters. Amma, who admits openly that none of her friends like her, but she knows how to control them, calls Camille her “soulmate,” then laughs, saying that maybe this is what a bond of sisterhood feels like. Camille, drugged out and feeling pretty great about it, keeps having flashbacks to all the dead girls she’s loved before — her dead younger sister, Marianne, and her dead hospital roommate — but she lets herself give in to Amma anyway.
Meanwhile, Camille’s threadbare relationship with her mother is almost worn through; after last week’s ice-cold declaration from Adora that she never loved her daughter, this week mom wants daughter out of the house. Camille is dragging her feet, though, in part because new facts about the crime are emerging, and in part because of her developing feelings for Detective Willis, who’s doing a little investigation into Camille’s ill-fated stint in the hospital where her roommate died by suicide. And probably there’s plenty of reluctant love there for Amma, too.
And we also get some major murder clues! Camille notices that someone appears to have bitten off a huge chunk of Ashley’s ear, which is about as disturbing to look at in the episode as it is to write out. When Camille confronts her about this, asking if Natalie might have done it when she was being murdered, Ashley hisses that if Camille wants to know about Natalie, she should ask the girl’s mother.
And speaking of another dead girl, we still don’t know how Camille’s sister Marianne died, though in this episode someone finally asks if anyone ever conducted an autopsy. “Of course not,” Adora’s best friend Jackie tells Detective Willis; Adora wouldn’t allow her to be “carved up.” (At this point I think we can probably go ahead and put “best friend” in irony quotes, yikes, Jacks.)
Finally, the biggest clue: workers at Adora’s pig farm pull the bike of Ann Nash, the first victim — which she was riding when she disappeared — out of a sludge pond. Later, one of the workers claims he saw John Keene bury it there. Naturally, this doesn’t look good for John. For one thing, there’s Bob Nash’s cut-off assertion from an earlier episode that he saw John up to suspicious behavior while working at the pig farm; and there’s Adora’s quick-firing of him from the farm for unknown reasons.
But we also know one other suspect who’s fond of hanging around the slaughterhouse: Amma. And given that Sharp Objects has leaned very hard into signaling that the murderer is a woman, it’s probably high time we look at the evidence for and against our favorite burgeoning Machiavellian.
It’s probably not Amma!
I’m going to split with my colleague Alex Abad-Santos here and say that I don’t think it’s Amma — though I agree it’s highly telling that no one has suspected her (except John Keene, who clearly thinks she’s a criminal).
For one thing, since she’s the only current suspect we know who was super-friendly with the murder victims, she’s the too-obvious frontrunner. But more importantly, I don’t believe that the tools in Amma’s toolbox — weaponized femininity, emotional manipulation, and secret knowledge — are really joined with sociopathy.
True, we’ve seen her manipulate and cajole Camille and her friends throughout the series, and we’ve seen her manipulate and lie to her mother while effectively creating a double life for herself. And she does apparently read Machiavelli, which, okay, Amma, you do you, girl.
But her manipulation of her mother has, so far, been about creating that double life, and gaining some unhealthy recreational escapism, all because she’s bored. That’s pretty typical teenage fare.
And while her ugliest moments — the lollipop in Camille’s hair, her forcing Camille to reveal her body in the previous episode, and her choice to create a giant drama by running into the woods on Calhoun Day — have all been very ugly, indeed, they’ve also revolved around her need for love and attention from Camille. She puts the used lollipop in Camille’s hair after seeing her with Detective Willis and reacting out of jealousy; she runs into the woods after realizing that Camille’s not paying any attention to her performance because she’s chatting with Willis instead of watching her. She steals Camille’s clothes in the dressing room out of anger that Camille didn’t share her article with her before she published it for the whole town.
Though we have zero reason to believe Amma’s actually sexually attracted to her older sister (except that it wouldn’t be Gothic without a little incest), she’s clearly gotten possessive of her, fast. This makes sense, because up until now she’s been living a doll’s life for a terrifying mother, among shallow friends who don’t understand her. She clearly wants Camille to idolize her as much as she idolizes Camille. But is that sociopathy or just loneliness? My money’s on loneliness.
But that doesn’t mean Amma’s not dangerous
I also think that Sharp Objects has been trying to present a clear distinction between the kinds of weapons that give a woman power in a town like Wind Gap and the kind that don’t. Amma’s weapons (her femininity, a growing cache of secrets) give her power over the people around her, and they render her dangerous — as well as vulnerable to anyone who might know more than she does.
But we’ve also seen the kind of weapons that don’t work. Ashley’s attempt to manipulate the narrative of the murders on John’s behalf fails because she doesn’t know enough; she tells Camille they won’t be “outcasts” but ends up getting jeered out of the house party by teens. And Camille’s internalization of the trauma and abuse she’s suffered is literally written all over her, but her turning inward and retreating from Wind Gap has only made her a target for gossip and judgment upon her return home. Trying to make a power move too early in the game of secrets won’t help you win — but concealing what you know forever only leaves you vulnerable.
It’s significant, then, that Sharp Objects jettisons the completely linear, bird’s-eye-view viewpoint we saw last episode on Calhoun Day to put us deeper than ever into Camille’s masterfully edited, jittery, deteriorating mental state. As Camille’s relationships unravel, so does her memory; when Amma’s history teacher — who’s also one of the football players who gang-raped Camille years earlier — tries to apologize to her, she reacts, to his horror, as though she barely remembers what he’s talking about.
When she hangs out with her old cheerleading friends, now all mainly settled conservative suburbanites, she tries to apologize to the team’s sole black cheerleader for how they all treated her, only to be blown off in turn. Memory is another deceptive weapon that Camille is still learning to wield; without it, she can’t control her narrative. And it’s clear at this point that Camille’s narrative is tied to Ann and Natalie’s murders — and to Marianne’s.
Is Camille repressing knowledge of her sister’s murder? Does Adora want her to scram because she’s digging too deep and getting too close? Does Amma want to be more than just sisters?
I’m guessing (hoping?) the answer to all these questions is yes, and with just two episodes to go, I can’t wait to see how Sharp Objects delivers.