For Papa Dickinson, all that matters is that today is Election Day. But to Em and Vinnie, who cannot vote and are therefore hard-pressed to feel all that invested in the democratic process, the real news of the moment is that the circus is coming to town. Not that they can go: Father says the circus is “DEPRAVED and full of thieves and huxters and gypsies and so-called acrobats.” Anyway, he is distracted by the rise of the Know-Nothing party.
The Know-Nothings, for the uninitiated, are like MAGA dudes of yore: xenophobic and racist, they blamed our nation’s problems on immigrants, Roman Catholics, and other assorted outsiders. The Whigs — Papa Dickinson’s party — have made their whole identity about what they are for and not who their enemy is, which, he says now, does seem like an oversight. Papa Dickinson claims to believe that the good guys always win in America by throwing their arms open for immigrants, but I guess not for escaped slaves? Assuming he’s still a hard no on the whole abolition thing. Maggie the maid’s brothers got a real beating from some Know-Nothings down at the polls, and she is hopeful that Dickinson will prevail to fight for honor and decency. Though by the end of the day, she is not going to be so convinced that he is honorable or decent in his personal life.
As Em mopes about not being able to attend the circus — “Who cares if I never see an elephant? I saw a cloud that looked like an elephant once” — she and Ben continue to bond, and he suggests she enter a newspaper’s poetry contest. He thinks she’s a lyrical genius! Em is not allowed to enter and she is pushed on, yet again, by a man who adores her yet underestimates the consequences Em, and Em alone, is going to face if she goes against her dad’s orders. Still, Em obviously can’t say no to the opportunity to get her work out there: She finds a suitable scrap from her drawer and convinces Austin to enter under his name. Where did she find Austin? Oh, just hanging by a cemetery, raging against a dead baby whose burial plot is where Sue’s, one day, ought to be. The Beechers moved back to England so the Beecher baby can be moved without inciting their wrath. So Austin will have it done! Cool, not weird at all, go for it. Ghosts LOVE to be disturbed.
Back at the homefront, Mama Dickinson is thrilled that Sue is here and knows her way around a turkey. As it seems she is contractually obligated to do, Sue announces yet again her lonely status — literally her first line of dialogue in this episode is, “Since I was orphaned.” We know she’s an orphan! So does everyone in her life! For whom exactly are these constant reminders intended? Orphandom does not a personality make! Anyway, since Em is a lost cause, Sue is the recipient of her new mother-in-law’s copy of The Frugal American Housewife. Em gently teases Sue for this literary selection and Sue replies, “Eat shit, Emily.” Okay, so, that relationship has really taken a turn.
That night, as Papa Dickinson laments the “inane chatter” from upstairs keeping him from his silent contemplation about the fate of the country, Vinnie and her friends are having vigorous and informed debate about politics. “Jane, you’re like, so woke,” Vinnie approves, later saying she’s a Republican, obviously, because they’re “the only ones that explicitly stand against slavery.” Em pops in with the upbeat news that there is definitely going to be a war, “and a million men will die, and then a million snowflakes will fall on their graves.”
At breakfast, Papa Dickinson dodges the question about whether he’d abolish slavery, and Austin announces to Sue that he’s “digging up a dead baby so you can be buried next to me.” She looks appropriately disgusted by this gesture. Later they will watch this grave-digging together, Sue looking sick and Austin looking oblivious. How optimistic is everyone feeling about this couple?
But first: The newspaper is here, and Em-as-Austin won the poetry contest! He reads it out loud; Papa Dickinson knows, immediately, what is really going on. (I love that Austin gave it a title — “To Mrs. Blank, with a rose” — and Em gets so sick at this bad edit she excuses herself to vomit.)
Em’s victory makes Ben happy and sad at the same time, just like in the Kacey Musgraves song. They both are self-declared “freaks”: She’s a writer who doesn’t think she wants to have a husband or children, and he is a man of a certain age who, too, is avoiding the whole institution of marriage. VERY adorable hand-holding and whatever you call it when you’re playing footsie but with your hands commences.
Papa Dickinson enters Em’s room without knocking — already an ominous sign, especially coupled with the insistence that “I don’t need to knock.” He is enraged, beyond livid, that Em entered this contest and thought she could pull one over on the whole world, including him. “So now everyone’s a fool,” he taunts her. “Everyone but you.” His insecurity that the election he thought was a given could be taken away from him is oozing into everything, stopping him from seeing clearly and leaving him, much like the political party he claims to abhor, looking for someone to blame for a situation he brought on himself. So now he is furious at Em, who will apparently humiliate him with this poetry gambit and cost him in the election. Em, correctly, snaps that it is not her fault he lost; Papa Dickinson responds by smacking her across the face.
So Em hallucinates the circus, where she is a freak among freaks: A female poet, with butterflies painted on her skin, in a surreal but vibrant and captivating place. Ben is in clown makeup and, at one point, kisses another man. The music rises and rises until Sue shakes her out of it.
Papa Dickinson comes downstairs to discover that, by a narrow margin, he won — and he has no one to celebrate with, since no one is actually happy about this except for him. Maggie, who overheard his argument with Em, can barely hide her sarcasm when she replies to his declaration that “a man of honor and decency has prevailed.” “Well,” she says dryly, “that’s a relief.”