In season one, all our episodes were built as sort-of origin stories for some of Em’s most iconic poems. This was a neat storytelling device, but I can see it getting a little bit tired, and I’m excited to see that this season is going into a looser, more experimental place. We’ve got “Nobody” (maybe her most famous poem? At least top five?) presenting as a hallucination, and now we have “The Daisy follows soft the Sun” not materializing in its eventual poem form but brewing in Em’s consciousness as more of a concept, a way of seeing herself, which is sometimes — as is the case with Sam here — the opposite of how the people around her see her.
I’m also really into the parallels we’re getting with Em and Vinnie. For all their differences, they have this shared instinct to push back against the roles their society has assigned them — and, at every turn, they deal with men who insist they only want to help but do so at the expense of actually listening to what these Dickinson women are saying they desire most. (We even see this a bit in Mama Dickinson’s story, though it still feels a little removed from everything else that’s happening here — interesting and refreshing as it is to see a story line about a woman’s sexual appetites outstripping her husband’s.)
When this episode starts, Em is rising with the sun, wrapping herself in her writing shawl. (I STILL don’t have one! Do I need one? Where can I get one? Please advise in the comments … remember I, like Em at this juncture, and am still waiting for fame to find me; I am on a budget, TY in advance.) Just as I am thinking that her dedication to her craft is really putting me to shame, I watch her do … nothing! Sharpen pencils. Chew on the pencils. Twirl paper around. Stare into space. Of course, we all know that NOT writing is a crucial part of the writing process, but Em is gutted: Waiting around for Sam’s approval or rejection of her poem has sapped her of all her creative spirit. Hours pass, and all she has to show for it are two words: “The Sun.” She has writer’s block. Her moans of frustration are so loud they even garner her mother’s attention.
“Submission,” Em wails about the whole process. “Isn’t that an awful word? Like he controls me?” Maggie the maid, an MVP: “Some people get a kick out of that sort of thing.” Em’s insecurity is devouring her, and it is so human and wretched to see. Emily Dickinson, doubting her undeniable talents, just because of some guy she didn’t even know about a month ago! And what has SAM ever written, hmm?? We don’t know. Probably nothing! Maggie assures Em that Sam probably hasn’t read it yet. By the time he does, Em sighs, “I’ll have shriveled up and died.”
Meanwhile, the teens have been up to no good digging a giant hole in the yard. Mama Dickinson, again, pleads with her husband to get these girls OUT of their house. (“They’re from Brooklyn,” he says. “That’s no excuse,” she replies.) Papa Dickinson evades this conversation by going birding, and Em tags along. She defies doctor’s orders by staring at the sun to look for birds. She and her dad have a sweet conversation about her creative vision in which he confesses he wishes he could help her, but “I’ve never had a vision like yours.”
Back at the ranch, Vinnie is getting off on the idea that her parents might know she’s breaking the rules by fooling around with Shipley in nothing but her petticoats. Shipley, as you might expect, has the opposite reaction to this — it is “totally improper,” he says, which turns him off as fast as it turns Vinnie on. Shipley feels like Vinnie is only interested in him for sex. “I’m starting to feel kind of used,” he says … just like how he used to feel with LOLA. Vinnie wants more intel, but he can’t bear to talk about it. He continues to ignore her as she tells him they are not engaged. Shipley has an idea. I am nervous.
While out birding, Em and her dad run into Austin, who is showing around Frederick Law Olmstead (played by the always-welcome Timothy Simons, a.k.a. Jonah Ryan, vice-president of the United States!). FLO’s process is to allow the place to speak to him. It’s all about listening. Austin gushes that FLO is a major genius, and Em decides to ditch her dad and follow FLO around instead. Dismayed by his failure to aid his daughter, Papa Dickinson tells Austin he feels “useless as a father,” accurately pointing out that all his children are hanging by a thread. Austin steps in to say he can solve at least one problem: He and Sue shall adopt the troublesome teens! In my notes I write TALK TO YOUR WIFE BEFORE MAKING THIS DECISION YOU HANDSOME DOPE.
But he does not, and so when he tells her, she is furious. That said, when he walks into her room, she is reading a letter from Sam about a lecture he attended, and again I wonder: Are Sue and Sam a thing?! Are these racy letters? I don’t trust him. Anyway, Austin spins the news as wonderful; Sue calls these orphans “living, breathing reminders of my terrible past.” Even though she is clearly in the right here, re: don’t adopt two teenagers without talking to your spouse first, she really comes off quite badly here, no? This whole season we are definitely seeing a different Sue. This doesn’t seem like the sort of person Em would be in love with, am I wrong?
In other unhappy couple news: Papa Dickinson falls into that hole, and when Mama Dickinson realizes he’s trapped there, she seizes her only opportunity to force him to talk to her about why they don’t have sex anymore and jumps into the hole with him. She tells him, in what strikes me as a very modern way considering everything, that she needs him to show her his affection more, that they need to rediscover their passion. Remember how they conceived Vinnie in the middle of the day?! GASP. Papa says it’s because they got old, but she doesn’t seem to be all that sold on that excuse.
FLO and Em bond while he explains that he sees “absolutely no difference” between her art and his. He has some great hypersensitive-to-the-elements moments as he decrees one rock is making “EXACTLY the right statement” while a rosebush is “a disaster.” I love that the show allows some of the men Em meets to not suck — that there are guys who show up, take her seriously, aren’t creeps or monsters, etc. etc. (Again really A-plus casting here, because Simons’s energy is so obviously menschy that at least I never worried, even when they got lost in the hedges, that this was going to take … a turn.)
Em tells FLO her about her creative block. What does he do when he doesn’t know what to do? He says he waits for as long as it takes. When you’re making art that will last for centuries, what’s a couple months, even years? “My parks could save democracy itself, so, can’t rush them.” I love his matter-of-fact ambition! Somehow it does not sound douchey or pretentious? Maybe because we already know he is correct about how great his parks will be? Anyway, he tells her that what she really needs to do is learn how to get lost — not by staring at blank paper while feeling like a failure, but REALLY lost, so she can get into that flow state. In order to achieve this aim, he abandons her in a hedge maze. Bold, but effective!
Before he leaves her, though, she explains the source of her plight: an editor. “I gave my poem to him.” she says. “And now it’s like I’m the daisy and he’s the sun, and without the warmth of his approval I can’t grow.” Ooof, been there. FLO tells her that opinion is “a hideous distraction from the beauty of your craft.” This leads Em to ruminate on the dangers of fame, and again, it’s hilarious just to think she will be famous because one poem gets published in one newspaper one time! FLO tells her to ignore the audience and to focus on the work itself, which is the gift. How does one do that? “Refuse to be the daisy. And start being the sun.” Is that a little corny? I GUESS, but I found it really lovely in this moment here! And I think the callback to Sam treating Em as a flower — that, earlier this season, he claimed to have plucked from oblivion — also works really well.
Because when Em finally gets out of the maze by finding Sam, he tells her he loved her poem and he’s going to publish it, but in doing so he refers to her as “my little daisy,” which — ahhh nooo! She tries to express how she felt about being lost and, as seems to be his standard practice, he totally misses the point. (Love that in an editor.) “Once you’re famous, you’ll never be able to get lost ever again,” he tells her, which he does not realize lands as a cold hard threat. Also, never a great sign when a man tells a woman, “you should be smiling.” I am blinded by the red flags as Em probably should be blinded by the sun she has been shouting at all afternoon.
She is not the only one who has been protesting a big life change to no avail! At home, Vinnie is peacefully knitting some enormous blanket on the porch, testing out how “Lola” works as a nickname for “Lavinia,” when Shipley has her kidnapped (!) for an ambush proposal she clearly does not want!! One that involved vandalizing her parents’ property AND spelling her name wrong! “I forgot that a girl needs to be fully blindsided by a wild prank” in order to get engaged, he tells her. She says, “Okay, but,” and he says “SHE SAID OKAY!” and kisses her deeply, and I think now she is engaged?!?? She tries telling her mom later that she wants out, but her mom is not having it … too long a day stuck in the hole.