Praise to the poetry gods: We have our first five-star episode! This episode has so many things I thoroughly enjoy and hope you do too: elaborate trickery, honest-to-goodness character and plot development, the arrival of a cute new potential love interest, sexual chemistry that I believe one is required to refer to as “palpable,” the introduction of an especially iconic Emily Dickinson verse, improbably cute hair whilst “bedridden” from a mystery non-illness, semi-spontaneous near-skinny dipping under the moonlight — I MEAN. Let’s make like Em trying on fake yellow fever for size and commit fully to this story.
Because we are in the past and Em has been pretending to be vaguely ill — a headache like “thunder,” clammy skin à la Ferris Bueller, zero appetite — for a week, everyone in the house is genuinely concerned that she’s going to die. Em can’t think about the emotional hell she’s putting her entire household through because she has created, through a dramatic effort that puts Shakespeare club to shame, a real room of her own in which to write undisturbed for days on end. If she gets one solid poem out of the effort, she decides, it will be worth it. AND YET: Material she needs is missing. She craves a specific book that is in her dad’s office.
In sneaking downstairs to get to Papa Dickinson’s study, Em runs into Ben from Worcester, her father’s new law clerk. OKAY, BEN. It’s all very “Timothée, meet Armie Hammer, my research assistant he’ll be staying with us for the summer looking at old skulls and eye-fucking you across the dinner table.” If you’re thinking, “Wait, didn’t I already have a crush on this guy once?” that is because he is Luke from Friday Night Lights. These kids really do meet-cute, as in, it is ADORABLE. Em’s performative fake cough! Their chemistry! He is barely taller than she is so it’s not immediately clear why he can reach a book that she can’t but WHO CARES. They both love spooky poems more than love poems! Em defines poetry as “if I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire could warm me, then I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, then I know that is poetry.” Oh OKAY, EM, GO OFF. But then she catches sight of a wedding band and that kind of kills the mood. His answer about where his wife is: evasive. I write in my notes, maybe she is fake or dead??
On the subject of fakery, Em fesses up that she is pretending to be sick because she wants to write. She tells him she’s a poet and he wants to read her poems and !!! Look, I know that in real life, Sue and Em have a lifelong, very intense thing. But Sue does not actually have chemistry with any of the people around her! I feel like this show does the thing of just putting hot people next to each other and assuming that will be enough. It is not enough. Also, beyond her orphandom, we haven’t really gotten a whole lot of information about who Sue is and what makes her so special, besides everyone around her saying she is special. (I call this Bella Swan Syndrome: When a show or movie or whatever wants you to believe that everyone around an individual is obsessing and fighting over said individual, while giving that person in the middle of all the fuss barely any discernible personality traits worth the aforementioned obsessing and fighting.) All of which is to say: I am rooting for Ben and Em for now.
The doctor comes by to do whatever doctors used to do at the time, like ask her questions about pooping and see if she’s hallucinating. Em sees death and comes up with a great idea for a poem: Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. The doctor concludes that she must be dying. Yellow fever is so hot right now. Leeches will not save her. Ben slides a note under her door because they have an inside joke about dirges now, but everyone else, as you might expect, is losing it.
One by one, everyone but Vinnie makes a pilgrimage to Em’s bedside to unload some deep, dark secrets. Papa Dickinson admits to a Dionysian night at Yale where he “succumbed” to the temptation of an older maid, while he was already engaged to Em’s mom. Mama Dickinson admits that she never really wanted children and to have them is “pure agony.” The opium bumblebee buzzes in to question Em’s strategy, but she persists. Eventually, Austin makes a cameo, too, and Em determines that his love for Sue is the genuine article: She only wrote to him once, and it’s wrecking him. He loves that he doesn’t understand her.
But more importantly (to me): Ben throws rocks at her window (this is so cute, is it basic to think this is so cute?) and summons her outside for a midnight hang. He gives her his copy of Emerson’s essays with his underlines already in there, Jess Mariano–style. Just as I write please explain the deal with your wife so I can feel good about shipping this he says that the ring is actually his dad’s, which he wears in his memory and also to fend off the pushy matchmaking of the Mama Dickinsons of the world. “A wedding ring as freedom,” Em says. “That’s a new one.” Ben also thinks the wedding vows are so old-fashioned because they sound like a man is imprisoning a woman AND he doesn’t want kids because “if I had my own, I won’t have any time to read.” Em’s eyes turn into little hearts, like the emoji, when he asks if he’s struck a chord. “The whole piano.” THIS GIRL. They swim in the freezing lake because Em is already pretend dying so nothing matters.
The next day, Em performs her miraculous recovery (her mother, upon first seeing her: “It’s a ghost!”) and delivers a poem to Ben. As she is stressing out over whether or not he likes what is going to be one of her most famous poems ever, who returns but Sue. Sue, who is stunned and not a little pissed off to discover that her friend is not dying and is claiming she just meant dying as a metaphor. Because thus far Sue’s entire personality is that everyone in her family is dead, she is forced to remind Em that “death isn’t a metaphor to me.” Em handles this by assuring Sue that Austin really loves her. I love that Em has had a crush on another person for all of 24 hours and she’s already down with Sue, her once and future OTP, marrying her brother. When Austin shows up and asks who Sue really came home for, she begins her journey as his wife in the only appropriate manner: by lying, and saying it was for him.
Oh, and Ben tells Em he loves her poem because OF COURSE HE DOES. And now I am worried that because our theme here is the truth with a twist, Ben really does have a wife out there somewhere who will ruin this burgeoning romance.
Elsewhere on the ranch, Vinnie wants to have her portrait taken by the hottest portraitist in town. It’s all very Undine Spragg of her, and I admire her insistence on continuing her life in spite of the fact that her only sister is (presumably) upstairs dying. Mama Dickinson is appalled by her daughter’s vanity but I have a feeling she is as responsible for encouraging it and its ultimate use — procuring a husband — as anybody else in the Dickinson household. Dressed like a deranged Belle (while her sister is supposedly dying of yellow fever, the CHUTZPAH!), Vinnie poses and hopes to look plumper in pictures than she does in life, as is the fashion of the day. She is dismayed with the results, which look exactly like her. She learns a valuable lesson: If you want a thing done the way you want it, you have to do it yourself. She takes yet another step on her journey to being the Amy March to Em’s Jo and combines her built-in narcissism with her drawing skills.