In this era of Peak TV™, any new entry has to prove that it’s giving us something that we just can’t get from any other show, and this is extra true for any Apple TV+ offering, which has to inspire viewers who’ve already shelled out precious cash for several other streaming services to add one more to the pile. I assume that it was in this spirit that the writers of Dickinson decided to build an entire episode around the idea of Emily Dickinson having her first orgasm, which — say what you will about the volcano-eruption-as-metaphor — is certainly something you won’t find anywhere else.
Em and Sue are now snuggling in bed together, as future sisters-in-law are wont to do. Em laments that she can’t marry Sue, even though Sue says Em would be a terrible husband (no practical skills, too small to scare enemies). On cue, Austin pops in, clueless: “I don’t know how the two of you fit in such a tiny bed.” Again, the tone of this show is in such an odd place that I’m not sure if we are supposed to be genuinely concerned for the emotional mindfuck it would be for Austin if (when?) he finds out that his sister is hooking up with his wife-to-be, or just laugh at how obtuse he is about the whole thing.
Downstairs, it’s time to meet my new favorite character: Maggie the maid. Em explains that Maggie is here so Em can be free “to take dictation from God,” and Maggie reports that she, too, is a poet. “The limerick scene in Dublin is wild.” Mama Dickinson feels totally displaced by this maid, even though it seems like there’s definitely more than enough work to go around. This fear of her impending obsolescence will haunt her for the rest of this episode and maybe the entire season.
The fashion on these men of Amherst is A++. I would 100 percent wear Austin’s robe. Meanwhile, Sue is still wearing her mourning dress. Or does she just wear black a lot? Does she have other clothes? Em reads in the newspaper that Professor Hitchcock is giving a lecture at the college about his lab on Mount Vesuvius, but Austin isn’t interested and Em isn’t allowed. Fortunately for Em, her father has written an essay on the proper place of women (don’t worry, she totally skimmed it) to clear up this confusing matter: Girls aren’t supposed to get education because they don’t need it for their lives of chicken-plucking and bonnet-tying or whatever the fuck. Austin tries to flirt with his betrothed by announcing that girls in school would be “too distracting.” Oh, Austin. He then says he and Sue have to go do this “little ritual” that he claims involves eating chestnuts at the Vesper Bell, and I write in my notes, Is that a euphemism for oral sex?
The girls head to the dressmakers. Vinnie wants one that will give her wide hips so she looks “really fertile.” Betty, the dressmaker, is here to abide, and to keep the secret of Sue and Austin’s engagement. Sue is supposed to go clean out the boarding-house lady’s dead husband’s clothes, since she can’t bear to touch them, and Em joins her for what turns into a flirtatious game of dress-up, to the tune of Lizzo’s “Boys.” Is this tailoring improbably impeccable, considering these are the borrowed clothes of a dead male stranger? Yes! Do we really care about that? Eh, not really. The clothes are fabulous. And while one would have to be stupid to fall for these “disguises,” Em is confident they won’t get busted because “boys are stupid.”
Naturally, they get made by George right away, but he does not blow their cover, even though they have not even prepared fake names. (Em introduces herself as Lysander Periwinkle, Sue as Tybalt Butterfly.) Inside, Professor Hitchcock talks about the lab as a paradoxically sexual place where the pressure is always building, building, BUILDING!!! To emphasize this inescapable point, George makes a model volcano. Imagine being so far in the past that a seventh-grade science-fair project could blow your mind. As this entire class of men learns about volcanoes-as-orgasms together, Em cannot contain herself and blurts out that upon eruption one “BECOMES A FIERY BEAST!” Her hat pops off and her hair pours out. Hitchcock is exceptionally cool about the whole thing and actually wants them to stay, but Sue and Em hightail it out of there, breathless with joy at their corset-free life.
At home everything is bad again (this, I assume, will be a recurring theme) because a man from Amherst came to narc on Em to her dad. (HOW DID THAT HAPPEN SO FAST.) Vinnie realizes she’s been knitting all day? I worry about her. Papa Dickinson demands Em cut out the antics and, perhaps the worst punishment of all, makes her read his essay for real this time. I imagine it’s like the worst of David Brooks, no? Em’s mom swings by to tell her daughter that her entire purpose in this pointless life is to make her father happy, and to want anything else makes her a bad person who is unworthy of all the material goods that surround her. (I mean, if Em were allowed to go to school and get a job and earn money she would be able to acquire her own pencils and bed frames and whatnot, and everyone would be free from this garbage arrangement, but this has clearly not occurred to Em’s mom, who is on the scene about a century too early to read The Feminine Mystique.)
Em asks Maggie to teach her how to make bread because this is her repentance, and I’m not 100 percent clear on what Em is sorry for. Going to school and defying her parents? Or just the fact that they are upset, even though she believes she was right to go to the lecture? Am I supposed to be nodding along as Em brings her apology bread to a dad who does not believe his brilliant and talented daughter should be able to go to school?
Time to unwind by playing footsie and snuggling with Sue, who is sure going to miss sleeping in Em’s bed. “I just can’t stop thinking about Pompei,” Em says, which reminds me of that part of Becoming when Michelle says Barack would stare at the ceiling with a pensive look on his face and, when asked what was on his mind, would sheepishly reply, “I was just thinking about income inequality.” The girls sleep in these sexy-prairie nightgowns that I think are like what Taylor Swift used to have her friends wear during slumber parties. Sue tells Em that she knows what a volcano feels like. DOES SHE EVER. And that is how they both fit in such a tiny bed.