Christmas at the Dickinson household is — as I believe the kids still say — lit. We have: sexual escapades at the dinner table! Drunk Jane Krakowski singing Christmas carols! A cool aunt who got “widow’s euphoria” and took her husband’s death as an opportunity to clean up on a cruise to Spain with ham-eating gentlemen! Zosia Mamet as Louisa May Alcott! Hair so tightly curled you could tug it at the bottom and it would BOING back into place! Everybody binge-reading Bleak House like it’s the streaming sensation of the day! It is the most wonderful time of the year.
Unfortunately for Papa Dickinson, he has to miss all of these festivities because he has to go to Washington and insist upon the rule of law, decency, and the ongoing tolerance of slavery. He and Em have not made up. When he finds her inside refusing to bid him farewell at the curb, she threatens to be gone when he gets back. In a tender, patronizing voice, he replies, “Where would you go?”
Their relationship is one of the most intriguing of the show. His love for her is inextricable from his total control over her life. Every freedom she enjoys that most women of her station do not — to read and write (in private), to defy the pressures to get married and have children — are indulgences he is granting her and, at any moment, could rescind, and the only things he really lets her do are the things that align with his own interests. It’s his fear of having to live without her, not his respect for her desire for a life free from the drudgery of housewifery, that drives him to let her stay single forever. And he gets to let her have her “independence” because he knows there’s no real independence without financial independence, which she doesn’t have and never will. But also, he does love her and probably is a little bit in awe of her and her talents — so much so that he is terrified at the idea of the world finding out what a wonder she is.
Mama Dickinson is so distraught at her husband’s departure that she takes herself to bed. But Christmas will go on, and Ben MUST stay, and Em, who has previously feigned an allergy to the fabric that makes aprons, will oversee the goose roasting and other such things. This allows her to flirt with Ben in the kitchen and cosplay as a housewife for a hot second because she is feeling, in her bones, the need to get out of her father’s house. Of course her only way out of one man’s house is into another’s, but at least Ben sees her as a peer and doesn’t hit her in the face when he’s feeling emasculated. Slim pickings in the mid-1800s!
Aunt Lavinia, Vinnie’s namesake, is here to talk about how invigorating it is to be around handsome ham-eating men in Europe. The Humphreys brought their friend from Concord: Louisa May Alcott, who just made $35 for her first book and will not not talk about the money, because that’s the whole reason she’s in this business. God bless her. On a pre-dinner run (“I love to run, that’s like an actual fact about me”), Ms. Alcott gives Em some no-bullshit talk about the publishing industry and working as a professional writer. This brings us the absolutely perfect line, “Hawthorne can eat a dick, am I right?” Yes, you ARE right! This will be my go-to response if and when it comes up that I never got around to reading The Scarlet Letter even though it was assigned to me twice. I should’ve been allowed to read The Handmaid’s Tale instead! The syllabus was totally sexist.
So, Louisa tells Em to not be so precious and to write what sells. Sponcon is fine. Don’t worry about the disapproval of your family who may never speak to you again. “So what? You’ll be out there making a living on your own.” Her number-one piece of advice: Never get married. “In the time it takes you to raise one baby, you can write four or five novels and you can sell those novels.” (Em points out that she is a poet, not a novelist. LMA’s reply: Ah, that’s another problem.)
Mama Dickinson rallies in time for dinner. She is sloshed. Christmas! Joseph is here and Vinnie, encouraged by her namesake’s declaration that “if you want something in life you have to reach out and GRAB IT,” takes Joe’s hand and pulls it up her skirt so she can have some hilariously timed orgasms at the dinner table. Louisa comes up with the idea for Little Women and considers, but drops, Moby Dick: “Like a dude chasing a whale? Nah, that’s fucking boring.” THAT IS TRUE. That is another book I did not finish. See above, re: sexist syllabus. Why didn’t I have to read any books by women in my senior year of high school? That’s RUDE is what it is.
Jane casually drops that she’s engaged to William Wilkinson, which makes Mama Dickinson lament that her daughter Em is “being left behind.” “Of course,” she drunkenly slurs on, “Getting married is no guarantee that you won’t be lonely.” Yikes, but also, show me the lie.
As Mama Dickinson leads a round of carols, Sue, who is so jealous, tells Em to stop “throwing herself” at a married man. Em has not yet told Sue that this wife does not exist but I hope she does soon, because Sue is really bringing me down. Em puts her mother to bed, who in turn tells her daughter that it’s actually fine if she doesn’t get married because she can just stay here and take care of her parents forever! Em’s face pales.
Back in her room, she and Sue are sharing a bed again. (Guess Austin got over that whole thing?) She puts it together that Ben isn’t really married, thank goodness, and she also is honest about her envy and how selfish it was of her to expect Em to just hang around and be available to her “like a pet.” I am impressed by this level of introspection. Em describes how she feels with Ben, how fully understood she feels by him, and Sue’s jealousy returns — since, you know, Austin barely understands her at all.
Happy Christmas morning! Vinnie tears into all the gifts before anyone else comes downstairs. There’s just one thing for Em that she left untouched: Plans for a conservatory, a gift from their dad. Supposedly this is so Em can “have roses all the time” but she sees it for what it really is: a bright and flower-filled prison, built and owned by her father, from which she will never escape.
Sue’s Christmas gift to Austin is a very real hug and a loaded question: Can they be really honest with each other? She admits that she is afraid of having children because her mother died in childbirth. Austin says they don’t have to have kids, which is pretty progressive for a man of his day, but then they immediately have unprotected sex right there in the living room, so, we’ll see how that shakes out.
Ben wakes up with this gross cough. Em walks him home and kisses him anyway because she doesn’t know about germ theory. (It wouldn’t be proven by Louis Pasteur for about 30 more years, which is bad news for everybody in range of that extremely contagious-sounding throat situation.) While this is all very sweet — Ben says he doesn’t want to get her sick, and Em says, “I’ve never felt better in my life” — I am very worried about his health, especially because Death’s carriage is riding along nearby.