Okay, so it turns out I was just a little bit early on the whole anti-George thing, because it appears the show is right there with me, thinking he is out of line with his attitudes re: women, slavery, Em in particular, marriage, romance, and pretty much all the most important matters of the day.
We begin with Em and her dad playing Old Maid, which, now that I’m being called upon to think about it in this recap, is such a rude name for a game and I can’t believe I never made a thing of it before. (This will shock you but making a thing out of things like that is kind of … my thing.) Papa Dickinson, who we know has already implored his daughter to never get married and leave him, is loudly dropping hints that spinsterhood is better than marriage because it affords a woman greater independence. In the background, Mama Dickinson has a tiny aneurysm.
In case you’re still unclear about how this show wants you to feel about George, when faced with the moral quandary of “slavery: bad?” he comes down on the side of “some of my best friends are Southerners.” Ladies: That’s a dealbreaker.
Slavery has come up in fair Amherst because a fugitive slave is apparently in town and citizens are divided on whether or not, per Dred Scott rules, they should send this person back into bondage. Em and Austin agree that slavery is “disgusting.” But George has more pressing matters to attend to: those of the HEART. Without even running it by Em, George asks Papa Dickinson for Em’s hand in marriage. Papa’s reply: He’ll think about it. (a.k.a., no.)
Em and Austin debate what play they should do for Shakespeare club. I LOVE that they take this so seriously. Does it kind of raise questions about how Jane didn’t know Em lived in her own house at the party, if Jane is also always coming by for Shakespeare club? Technically yes, but let’s not dwell on these technicalities. After a brief chat with Maggie the maid and Henry, a black servant who would like to avoid the main strip downtown until the coast is clear re: kidnappers looking for a fugitive slave, Em and Austin agree on Othello. Henry offers to tune the piano but looks extremely edgy at the prospect of playing the lead role in Shakespeare hour.
In Boston, Sue is being creeped on by the man of the house where she’s governess-ing. As you might have guessed from the title, this episode finds our main characters trapped in bodies that leave them vulnerable to the violence, cruelty, or carelessness of the world. Even Austin manages to get out of his own skin by playing Desdemona, and can I just say this is the most I have liked Austin all season? “Just as a general thing, while I’m in costume, can everyone call me by my character’s name? It’s kind of crucial to my process.” The commitment! You love to see it!
George, who has been set up to fail in his pursuit of Em by Papa Dickinson’s deliberately bad advice to rein in her wild instincts, plays Captain Buzzkill, whining that Shakespeare isn’t appropriate for ladies and asking “but would your dad approve???” approximately every 15 seconds. Em casts herself as Iago. Everyone giggles excessively at lines about “the beast with two backs.” Henry arrives just as Em is pointing out that Othello is black. Jane pipes in: “I disagree.” Thank you, Jane! Em bulldozes Henry’s obvious and repeated discomfort with participating in these theatrics and convinces him to play Othello, partly by saying it will keep him out of danger. Em, who hates so much to be told that her femininity necessarily limits and dictates her movements and opportunities, does not seem to see anything at all gross about leveraging the imminent threat to Henry’s life and freedom in the interest of diversifying her Shakespeare club. Later, when Em laments to him that “life shouldn’t be like this,” he asks her, “what should it be like?” and points out that her life is, grading on a curve, awfully comfortable. Echoing Em’s earlier remark about how slavery separates families, Henry adds, “You’ll always have your father to keep you safe.”
But before that heart-to-heart, Henry nails his performance, of course, and George is appalled, double of course, and after some light racism, gets tossed out of the house by Em. He leaves his book behind (on purpose, Cinderella-style?) and Em brings it out to him so they can fight about what is REALLY going on, which is George wanting to marry her. Em, correctly, reams George out: If he really loved her, he would listen to her, and clearly he isn’t really doing that and maybe never has. “It’s not up to my father to decide my fate and it’s not up to you. I don’t belong to him and I will never belong to you.”
Mama Dickinson, who previously accused her husband of being so against his daughter’s only marital prospect that “it’s like you want to marry her yourself,” is crushed. Her husband looks unperturbed. Up in Boston, the orphaned Sue’s boss walks into her room and locks the door behind him.