Em is living bravely: mixing patterns, rocking a deep center part, reading alone beneath a tree in a world that refuses to allow a woman to commune with nature without being bothered by male suitors, surveyors, and family members. In this episode, Em will learn two very important lessons: that you should never meet your heroes, and that Thoreau’s mom did his laundry. But the Em we meet at the beginning of this episode is still swooning over her copy of Walden, insisting that the trustworthy wilderness is where she belongs, far from human interference. Speaking of interference: Hello, George.
“Please go away,” Em says politely. George does not leave. By the end of the episode, I believe we are supposed to be rooting for George and his growing closeness with Em, which is deeply annoying considering he ignores literally every request she makes, including the most important one, which is to leave her alone.
I have mixed feelings about this episode and, I must admit, about our series thus far. Because while there is plenty to like and even love here — Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful, John Mulaney is a welcome guest star, and while Em might not care about dresses and suits coming in from New York, I for one can’t wait to see how the already excellent fashion on this show levels up when that railroad comes through — there is also an awful lot that feels unrealized and a little … flat. And it’s not like Apple didn’t have the time or the money to figure this stuff out! For instance: A show that was marketed as being “Emily Dickinson, but sexy and cool” is neither especially sexy nor cool at this particular juncture. Does anyone in this universe have real sexual chemistry? Save for Austin jerking off to a locket pic of Sue, nothing that happened in this episode would be out of place on Freeform. Honestly I saw racier, edgier content on Pretty Little Liars on the regular. Which is fine and all, but it feels like this show wants us to see it as being daring and a little bit shocking — modern slang from such old-fashioned people! — but instead it feels like it’s playing it super safe.
Also, not that I don’t support, in theory, a more episodic approach, but it’s still not entirely clear what this season is about or building toward, or if much of what happens has any meaningful consequences. Em’s poem got published, and I thought that constituted some major line-crossing by our heroine. But that all seems forgotten now. Did anyone even read it? When Thoreau asked her if her work had been published, she said no — which makes no sense, considering the risk she took (and shit she got) for that poem to be published not three episodes ago.
Look, the stakes of this episode are: Can Emily save a tree? Not to be a dick about trees; I am extremely pro-tree. But is that really the stuff binge-worthy TV is made of?
Em learns that a railroad line is cutting through her private property. She barges into her dad’s office to insist he protect her oak tree. He is team efficiency; she believes in the woods. (“Do your daughters speak to you like this?” Papa Dickinson asks a surveyor, who replies, helplessly: “Most of the time.”) Interesting that Em’s dad is so adamant about not standing in the way of progress yet does not believe in abolition or his daughter’s right to attend lectures and/or publish poetry! To spite his willful daughter — and, inadvertently, humiliate his beloved son — Mr. Dickinson asks Austin to write an original poem for tomorrow’s ribbon-cutting.
Em decides the only solution is to go to Concord, which is actually kind of difficult — if only there were a railroad! — and convince Thoreau to come to her aid. George insists on coming with her because women aren’t allowed to travel without chaperones. Then he takes forever to buy snacks, forcing them to miss an early carriage; then he spends the entire train ride interrupting Em’s thoughts and writing, which she has EXPLICITLY STATED are very precious to her. She explains, in pretty persuasive terms, why marriage does not appeal to her but would if she were a man; George’s counterargument is that marriage is “cozy.” Wow, thank you, George!!
Em is crushed that Sue is returning Austin’s letters but not hers. She hopes Austin and Sue don’t get married. Not sure that Em appreciates Sue’s extreme poverty and how she is going to have to marry someone in order to not starve to death. (See now that is a decent argument in favor of getting married, in this extremely specific scenario.)
Upon arrival, Em is disturbed to see that Walden is already a hot tourist destination. She and George meet Thoreau’s mother who, of course, is headed to his cabin anyway to get his laundry, and escorts them to his door. John Mulaney is magnificent as this insecure blowhard who conducts this whole conversation wearing no shirt (his mom took it away with the laundry) with suspenders and trousers and a ridiculous, tufty beard, crafting his little influencer-style quotes from the comforts of family-owned real estate just a mile away from his sister, who regularly brings him cookies. (To his sister, who is NOT getting the hint that he’s performing his extreme solitude for his guests: “YOUR HOME IS FAR AWAY! GOOD LUCK ON YOUR ARDUOUS SLOG BACK TO CIVILIZATION.”)
Em makes her plea for his help: Can he write a letter to save her tree? He says, in so many words, that he doesn’t give a fuck about her tree, or really anyone else’s trees. The conversation reaches its inevitable conclusion, with Em declaring “you’re a dick” before storming out of the cabin. On the train ride home, she rests her head on George’s shoulder, because I guess we’re not past the trope of the supposedly “nice” guy who disregards every articulated desire and boundary of his crush still winning her over because deep, deep down she kind of secretly likes him and his persistence will be rewarded? Sigh.
At the end of this jaunt, Em returns to watch her brother fall on his face by failing to become a poet overnight (“the wheels of destiny have run their course / Amherst is getting the iron horse”). But then she has a sweet, tender moment with Papa Dickinson, who says the train tracks will take a slightly less efficient route — I guess this is the origin story of the Northeast Regional, not the Acela — so as to preserve her sacred tree. I write it’s probably still gonna be so noisy, though, but in the meantime Em seems appeased, happy to speak about root systems and tree secrets. Also, I wish Em knew that in the distant future, one of the only places in this chaotic world where a woman can reliably be left alone to her thoughts and men who try to engage her will be shushed by everyone around him … is in the quiet car.
In a strange little side plot, Vinnie tries to get abducted by Indians so Joseph, who is ignoring her, will care about her again, or so she can get married off and become an “Indian princess.” Her mother’s reply: “What makes you think the Indians would want you?” I like Vinnie! I do think it’s a weird choice to make HER so weird, since one of Em’s defining traits is that she is supposedly far weirder than all the other girls in the neighborhood. Right now she doesn’t even seem like the weirdest girl in her own family.