In Wind Gap, poison is poured down the throats of unsuspecting children. Baby teeth are pried from little girls’ gums and skin is sliced until it scars. Yet the most transgressive act of violence in town is the low, almost-whispered delivery of four small words. Over a drink, by candlelight, a mother tells her daughter: “I never loved you.”
There’s no shortage of cruelty in “Sharp Objects,” the eight-part HBO miniseries based on Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, whose women pass trauma from generation to generation like a haunted heirloom. But no one cuts quite like Adora, played by Patricia Clarkson. She’s a matriarch and a murderer — well, manslaughterer — who coolly tells her wayward eldest daughter, Camille (Amy Adams), that she feels nothing for her, save for disappointment and disgust.
Clarkson, the 58-year-old New Orleanian actress who sees glimmers of her own grandmother in the best parts of Adora, knows these scenes appear brutal. “But I think why they have the impact they do is that I don’t think Adora ever thinks of them as brutal,” she said by phone from her apartment in New York. “I think that was what was essential. When I tell her I never loved her, I think it’s just Adora feeling connected to her for a moment to be as honest as she can be. . . Sometimes she was just openly cruel. But other times, I think, when she speaks, she’s actually revealing the truth.”
“This is the most violent line in the series,” said director Jean-Marc Vallée. “It’s not something you say to your child. . . You just destroyed her! And she’s not realizing that. Or maybe she does, and she’s that cruel, that evil. But we’re not sure. And that’s what’s great about the character: that you try to understand, and you’re not sure.”
As Camille eventually discovers, Adora has Munchausen by proxy, an illness that warps a mother’s love into something grotesque, even fatal. Adora sickens her daughters so she can play the martyr, nursing them back to health. Years earlier, she mixed a touch too much rat poison into her homemade cough syrup, killing Camille’s sister, Marian (Lulu Wilson). She’s trying to be more careful with Camille’s half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen), a duplicitous teenager who loves roller skating, underage boozing and (spoiler alert!) murdering her peers.
When Clarkson first read the “Sharp Objects” scripts, she was struck by the “immediate challenge” Adora presented for her as an actor. “What drew me to this was, of course, exactly who she was: a very complex woman,” Clarkson said. “And we always want that, especially in this industry. I’ve done so much work, and I always want the part that’s going to destroy me.”
“To prepare, it was a very deep internal search I had to do,” she added. “But I needed the exterior almost as much as the interior. . . That created the much-needed facade, in order for this storm to rage within.”
Adora’s lipstick never smudges; her manicures don’t chip. She glides through her home in peignoirs and stilettos. Southern humidity has everybody sweating through their shirts, but no perspiration musses Adora’s Veronica Lake waves. Even her floors are pristine.
“It becomes destruction, when you’re aiming at that kind of perfection,” Vallée said.
The character is spitting distance from caricature, and a less meticulous performer might flatten Adora’s complexity into camp. But Clarkson is seductive, charming and absolutely terrifying. She’s playful, too, lacing a dry wit through even her iciest lines.
“There’s such a beautiful Hitchcockian quality to Adora that she brought,” Vallée said. “This character becomes enjoyable, and still believable. Hitchcock was saying, the more successful the villain is, the more successful is your film. And it feels like she brought that to that series.”
“She’s doing something so layered and really, what I believe, is iconic with Adora,” said co-star Chris Messina. “The pain and the layers that Patti has brought to this really has been astonishing to watch. . . Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something like this on television before.”
Messina’s appraisal is not entirely accurate. We have seen something like this on television before. It’s just that we’ve mostly seen it from men.
For at least a decade, prestige TV was centered on the male antihero. Conflicted and flawed, but brilliant and charismatic, he adhered to rigid notions of masculinity, almost to the point of parody. Walter White, megalomaniacal drug lord. Tony Soprano, tortured Mafioso. Don Draper, handsome philanderer. In the first years of the Golden Age of Television, there were growly-voiced, volatile geniuses on every channel, shoving their morals aside so they could shoot people, win fights and do dramaticstuff with money.
As for women, these men were generally flanked by put-upon wives, girlfriends, daughters and mistresses, who were tasked with begging their show’s stars to stop it with the homicide and the drug-dealing and the cheating on them with secretaries.
But lately our screens have seen a rise in powerful, complicated women — who survive and inflict pain, who kill it at their jobs (sometimes literally) — and the hapless men who can’t keep up with them.
On “Killing Eve,” both professional assassin Villanelle and Eve, the agent on her tail, leave bewildered men in their wake. Even before Kevin Spacey got written off “House of Cards,” it was clear that Claire Underwood could outfox her husband. Of the spies on “The Americans,” it’s Elizabeth, not soft-hearted Philip, who is ready to swallow cyanide for the cause. None of the men on “The Handmaid’s Tale” is half as scary as Aunt Lydia. Adora is right at home on this female murderers’ row.
As “Gone Girl” fans already know, Flynn writes women who know how society perceives them — the perfect wife, the doting mother, the cool girl — and delight in subverting those expectations. What Flynn hopes now is that “Sharp Objects” viewers and critics don’t mistake femininity for frivolity, that audiences’ tastes aren’t restricted by dated, sexist ideas about what constitutes Serious Drama.
“The final scenes between [Patricia] and Amy are some of the most harrowing two pieces of acting that are going to go down this year,” Flynn said. “And what I want to fight for is, if these were two men — if this were Pacino and f-ing DeNiro talking to each other over a diner table — people would be like, ‘My God!’ And the one thing I want to make sure is, remember: These are two great actresses doing some freaking amazing acting, and I don’t want it to get lost in the fact that it’s a domestic situation.”
“It’s dark and nasty and twisted and beautiful, what she does with Adora there,” Flynn went on. “That desperate, unbridled, unfailed need. I think everyone knows those rapacious people who have that hole in the middle of their soul and no matter how much you feed them of yourself they will gobble down more, and finally you are seeing that completely unveiled. And it chills me to bone.”
Adora is a woman who will do anything for attention, even kill her own kid. She’s the embodiment of an insecure man’s paranoia: The woman who can’t be trusted because she will say or do whatever it takes to get people to notice her. She acts fragile and weak but it’s just that — an act. And she’s totally sleeping with the sheriff.
“When I read this, I said, ‘Oooh, they’re going there,’” said co-star Elizabeth Perkins. “And I did think there was going to be a little pushback, that this is not empowering. [But] I think the deeper we dive into the female psyche, the better it is for all of us.”
After all, equality in entertainment isn’t just about showing female characters who are valiant and admirable. It’s about affording those characters the full spectrum of humanity, allowing women to be on television everything they are in life.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘It’s so dark, it’s so depressing.’ But that’s human!” Perkins said. “I don’t think we need to show women being 100% strong in order to show the journey toward empowerment. It’s only through having these flaws that you can kind of rise above them and become the people we want to be.”
Clarkson has steadily found her way to tricky, thorny roles: a heroin-addicted ex-model in “High Art”; a sardonic, sick mother in “Pieces of April”; an insecure artist on “Six Feet Under.” She wants to see more parts like these, and not just in supporting roles, but as the focal point of the narrative.
“I’ve often said, I love Wonder Woman. We all love wonderful, heroic, poetic women, women who are do-gooders,” Clarkson said. “We love women who are great historical figures through time. But I think what is best is that, when you have women at the center of a huge series, on HBO, we’re winning. That’s what we need. That’s what we want.”
And, she pointed out, it’s what audiences want, too. “This series has huge ratings. We can deliver. People like it. But we also have to have great writing. We can’t just be at the center of something. The writing has to demand great things of us.”