The Dickinsons are going to the opera and I, for one, am stoked, because if my close readings of Edith Wharton classics have taught me anything it’s that the opera is where you go for DRAMA and not just of the onstage variety. Opera is where you can sit in someone’s box (ahem) and if you just, like, lean a little a certain way and someone from all the way across the room sees you doing this lean through their little binoculars, you can find yourself smack in the center of the hottest gossip of the night. Also, everyone gets dressed to the nines and all the Dickinsons are looking wonderful. Em in particular is having a spectacular hair night and looks A++ in that blue velvet. And I love everyone’s gloves! The last movie I saw in theaters in the Before was Emma. (yes, it’s stylized with the period and no, I don’t like it either but let’s keep things moving here) and everyone in it wore these fantastic-looking gloves, and now with Bridgerton and our worldwide concern about germ-spreading and hand-sanitation I put a plea out to the sartorial gods: Can we bring back gloves??
Vinnie — a culture obsessive who would 1,000 percent be a Vulture reader in our times — has devoured the reviews and knows that the soprano, Adelaide May, is the greatest vocalist on the planet. Sue concurs: “She once shattered a reviewer’s monocle with a high C.” Ship, who as we already know is hardly on Vinnie’s intellectual level, is bored on arrival and wishes there was popcorn. Mama Dickinson sings a little “we’re HEEERE” which is a great use of Jane Krakowski, and I point this out only because this show has often struggled with how exactly to put the great Jane Krakowski to use but this was a nice little moment!
Addressing some of our season-long concerns here: Papa Dickinson makes a snarky remark about Sue and Austin staying at a lavish hotel, which Sue says was only “good enough for a night or two.” Honestly, speaking of concerns I am still feeling adrift about who Sue is: Not that it is at all required for a character to be “likable” but she is so DIS-likable this season, and I can’t tell if that is … intentional? Or just the actress not really making the material work? Because we’re supposed to believe in Em’s enduring love for Sue, are we not? So we need to see Sue as someone worthy of that unyielding affection or we need to see that Em is making a huge miscalculation, that her heart is being wasted on someone who doesn’t deserve her love. And I don’t really think either of those ideas is coming through; instead we are in this murky middle, where most (but not all!) of the things Sue says and does are extremely off-putting and sometimes even cruel or self-serving to the point of ignoring her friend’s long-expressed needs (e.g. Sue pushing for Em’s publication so that she, Sue, can be the one who made a “great literary partnership” between Em and Sam), but Em doesn’t ever seem to register it that way and so her devotion is unwavering.
As Sam approaches the group, Em’s world slows down. What a COINCIDENCE that Sam’s wife Mary could not attend! She is yet again not feeling well. IMAGINE THAT. Sue insists Em take Mary’s seat so she can see the opera from the box. Again I am so confused by Sue! Why is she always acting so flirty with Sam if they aren’t actually supposed to be hooking up? Why is she always nudging Em in Sam’s direction if she’s so loyal to her childhood friend Mary?
Up in the box, Sam says he can’t wait to hear Adelaide sing because his whole shtick is recruiting female talent. He’s supposed to interview Adelaide May after the show. So everyone should be in high spirits, no? Apparently not: Sam, we discover, is furious with Em because Em sent quite the letter to Mary — basically a love letter about Sam to his wife?! EMILY. WHY. No!! And it upset her so much that Sam claims it is the reason she would not attend the opera. Frankly this is absurd because Mary never attends anything so if it hadn’t been for Em’s letter it probably would’ve been for some other made-up reason; if anything I bet she is grateful for Em’s inappropriate correspondence and its timely arrival.
Here Sam finally acknowledges the rumors: “Every time I choose to support a female voice, all the gossips on the East Coast think I have ulterior motives.” Okay, yes, valid, but also: Clearly he has been very flirtatious! “Meet me in the library” is a very flirtatious thing to say to someone in the context in which he said it to her that time and it’s not just because it makes me think about that scene from Atonement. Sam swears he’d never betray his wife and I write in my notes okay but you do spend a lot of nights “crashing” at Sue and Austin’s!!! Just saying. “Look I know it’s romantic to have your poem get published,” he says to her. “But you have to remember: the romance, it’s between you and yourself.”
Also: Do you think Em and Sam have chemistry? I have long struggled with the fact that I don’t buy Em and Sue’s chemistry — again, feels like a casting issue! You can’t just put hot people next to each other and expect us to believe they have feelings — and here, too, though Hailee is selling it I am just not buying it.
Meanwhile Sue and Austin continue to have marital woes: Austin misses his friends and the “good times” he had before he and Sue wed; Sue finds this offensive, which I get, but also … is she having a good time with him? Or is she just having a good time spending his money (that he doesn’t even really have)? And way in the back of the theater, Ship is still feeling insecure about his brilliant bride-to-be while Mama and Papa Dickinson admit to each other that they’d rather be seeing vaudeville. They end up slipping out early in the show, which is a very sweet moment and for Mama Dickinson’s sake I hope a sign that things are looking up at home. By the end of the show, it’s only the Dickinson kids — Austin, Vinnie, and Em — who seem to have been profoundly moved by the opera. Oh, and at the end of the night, Austin goes to get a drink with his friend and tells Sue she can do whatever with whoever she pleases. Ooof.
When Adelaide sings, Em is transfixed. She is still saying shit like, “My heart feels like it could split right open” while squeezing Sam’s hand, which sounds like someone who is NOT taking the note, so Sam bolts. He refuses to take the other thing she wrote him. Sue is either watching this OR watching the opera; with those tiny binoculars it could go either way. Em looks at her poem — the one which gives this episode its title — and is crestfallen.
Then she starts to hear her poem to the music. At first I think, is this Hailee “Love Myself” Steinfeld singing rn? But when she looks up it is SUE. Sue as Adelaide. But it’s a regular pop star voice and no longer an opera voice. I wonder about this choice because … clearly they HAD an opera voice for Adelaide and could’ve used it for this purpose. Readers of my Sabrina recaps know how I feel about this sort of thing (having a cast member who isn’t really a singer just sing and be auto-tuned and sound … fine?). I do think because it’s this hallucination/dream sequence it sort of works — at least as a concept, but it’s distracting to hear this mediocre very 2020-sounding singing alongside the actual opera we were just listening to! Am I alone here? I’m sorry to everyone who loves Sue … probably you will all be mad at me by the end of this recap.
Sam left his backstage pass behind and an enterprising Em swipes it. Clever girl. She is enchanted by the whole setup backstage and pretends to be a reporter, which amazes the cast: A GIRL reporter! Wowee! Adelaide May doesn’t give interviews, they tell her. I thought maybe Em would walk in on Adelaide and Sam making out but no, it’s just Adelaide, who is NOT in the mood to be bombarded by fans. Em fesses up immediately: She is the fan who Adelaide was hoping to not have to talk to tonight.
They have this very long conversation about how Adelaide doesn’t really have to go to a deep emotional place whenever she performs. How so many people fall in love with her voice that Adelaide has simply lost track. How Adelaide is just a stage name. And though Adelaide emphatically did NOT want to be bothered, she is eventually moved enough by Em’s intensity to tell her that she can see the stage.
Well. WELL. Being on stage takes our Em’s breath away. She imagines a full house, a standing ovation. She blurts out, suddenly, “I want to be famous.” She tells Adelaide it isn’t enough to stick all her poems in a drawer; she needs them to be seen. Showbiz-hardened Adelaide disagrees: Critics will sour on you and wreck your life and it’s better to sit alone with no one watching. I don’t think Adelaide really thinks this!
Em imagines Sue in Adelaide’s place. Sue/Adelaide tells Em that what Em really craves is love. Then they start making out, and I can’t tell like… does this mean that she kisses Adelaide? Or that she kissed no one and just had an elaborate fantasy all by herself? Wasn’t expecting to have to think about this on a Mr. Robot level of “okay but wait WHAT is real and WHAT is in her head,” but here we are. The next moment we see Em is alone onstage, twirling in her fantasies, until a janitor tells her to get lost.