Em is obsessed with death, the way you can be obsessed with something dark you don’t fully understand because you’ve never really experienced it, or anything close to it. Death is a thought experiment for her; a salacious hallucination, an imaginary friend. But given the scene in 1860-whatever — everybody gets yellow fever, Sue’s entire family is dead, medicine is barely better than a game of Operation, etc. — it was only a matter of time before Em had to face death for real.
I feel like foreshadowing is too soft a word for what this episode does, which is open with a pastor talking about “practicing the art of dying” while Em daydreams, as if in a sad montage for an experience that’s already over, about all the good times she’s had with Ben. Also a fly is buzzing very loudly right by the window, as flies buzz around corpses and in one of Em’s best-known poems. Honestly, it was so on the nose that I thought at first we were at Ben’s funeral and this whole episode would unfold as a flashback. But Ben is alive for (slight spoiler alert) the next 28 minutes. At least he lives long enough to see an eclipse!
Vinnie is living her best life, making out with Joseph and giving him the 19th-century equivalent of a naked selfie. She’s really grown as an artist! It looks just like her. She gives it to him with pretty clear instructions: “You’re the only man I ever want to gaze upon my body.” Does it shock you to learn that Joe shows this picture to everyone in Amherst? Sigh. Later, Vinnie overcomes what I assume is one of the earliest instances of revenge porn in American history by sharing a bunch of her nude sketches and taking ownership of her body and her artistic gifts in one smooth fuck-you to everyone who judged and teased her. Point: Vinnie.
Ben has been holed up all day, coughing in that ominous way of people who are going to be dead soon. (Also all of Maggie’s husbands are dead, and she won’t even tell us how many of them there were!) Em and Ben are both very committed to seeing the eclipse despite his obviously dwindling health, so into the cold they go.
Thanks to Ben, Em is all about William Blake now, and she has memorized one of his poems because this is the kind of thing people’s brains used to be available to do before we fried our minds with the internet. They run into George, who is with Ellen Grout (?) “of the Princeton Grouts.” How impressive. George mansplains eclipses and is generally a sourpuss about the whole thing. Em and Ben mock his broken heart and then talk about how they’d like to be not married — together in their own way — forever. And Em “unproposes” to him, and he gives her his dad’s wedding band (which is going to be very hard to square with his fake wife, no?) and then they both tell each other “I love you,” sigh.
The eclipse comes and with it this sense of doom followed by euphoria — that’s a real phenomenon, by the way! Unlike the president, no one looks directly at it because even almost 200 years ago people knew you shouldn’t look straight at an eclipse. Ben then kills the mood by coughing up blood. He takes to bed, and we get a flash of Hailee-as-pop-star, while he manages to get out, between coughs, “You’re going to be a great poet. You’re a true genius. You’re going to write things that the world will never forget. I only wish I could live to see it.” Mama Dickinson is appalled that Em “brought death into this house,” and for once I agree with her, but Em won’t hear of sending Ben out and her truly vicious retort is “What difference does it make to you? You’re dead inside already.”
Maggie is praying in the barn. Em explains that prayer isn’t really her thing, ever since a traumatizing experience at seminary school, where her failure to pretend to catch the Holy Spirit resulted in the headmistress calling her “HOPELESS” in front of the entire class. But Maggie says no one is hopeless in God’s eyes. I told you guys I liked Maggie, didn’t I?
Readers of my other recaps will know about the Inviolable Rules of Television Health and Medicine, which decree, among other things, that any girl over the age of 14 who vomits must be pregnant. Another of these sacred rules is that any woman who has made it very, very clear that she does not want to get pregnant will get pregnant the very first time she has sex with a man. And so we find Sue’s wedding dress is a little snug because she’s been “eating too much” at dinner. Betty thinks they are in on an elaborate bit together, and I can’t tell if Sue knows Betty knows or if Sue thinks she’s getting away with it.
Sue then sees Henry and Betty tend to their daughter, who got a perfectly timed knee scrape, and seeing this couple be adorable with their child for .05 seconds undoes all of Sue’s deeply held and totally valid beliefs about pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Ooook.
In the morning, Ben is feeling better. Or so he says. But he also says he sees flies that aren’t there. As Em’s fake illness did, Ben’s actual sickness has reached his brain. And Em briefly sees what he feels too, that flies are swarming his face. It is grotesque, and she knows what it means: Death is here. And if she didn’t know that for sure, her swift wardrobe change is a … dead giveaway. (I’m sorry.)
“Haven’t done this in a while,” Death says, while Em pleads for Ben’s life. She thinks Death is jealous that she loves Ben more than him, and she flings herself across the carriage to take off Death’s clothes, thinking that’s what he wants. He swats her away. “I don’t love you. You’re not special,” Death says. “You don’t bargain with me, Emily Dickinson. I’m everything. I’m everywhere. No one escapes me, and nobody understands me, not even you. Now get out.”
When Em gets back to Ben’s door, she is still in her death dress and flies are still buzzing and his door is locked. For whatever it’s worth, she clasps her hands together and prays.