As I assume all of us have been doing during quarantine, and at least some of us have done in the past before those things called “parties” that we used to attend with some regularity, Em is talking to herself in the mirror. Hyping herself up. Practicing introducing herself by her full name and responding with feigned humility to questions about her work with a blushing “Yes, I’m getting published.” I LOVE this bordeaux color on her. Also her hair looks fantastic. Later, Mama Dickinson will say she looks “ravishing,” which is quite a charged word for a mom to throw at her daughter. But as we know, Mama Dickinson has been thinking a lot about how badly she’d like to be ravished, so it does track.
I couldn’t tell at first if Sam was really in the room or if Em was just imagining him there watching her. (Foreshadowing!) Hallucination Sam tells her she looks like someone who should be on the front page. I think Sam gives off strong fuckboy energy even if/when he is being sincere, and the rumors that Em will hear about him as this night unfolds only add to those suspicions on my end. It’s telling, though, that even before Em is told of Sam’s reported pastime of bedding every woman he publishes, she is thinking about him in this not unflirtatious manner. The other Dickinsons, including Vinnie and her betrothed, will not be attending because Dickinsons stay home and sit quietly with their thoughts. “Novels and chill,” Shipley says, as Vinnie burns silently beside him. I do love that Mama Dickinson isn’t above wanting all the hot gossip from the party and that she makes these snide remarks about Sue’s lavish gatherings. That is NOT how Sue or Austin was raised!
Meanwhile, Sue is getting dressed in an outfit that says, as she puts it, “I was too busy reading, thinking profound intellectual thoughts, to even CONSIDER getting dressed up.” Hattie says if that’s what she’s going for, she nailed it. Sue has perfect vision, but she’s throwing on spectacles to make herself look smart for the night. It will be Sam and Em’s first public appearance together, and Sue is thrilled that people will be talking about how this all happened at HER salon. She wants credit for having matchmade “one of the great literary partnerships in history.” I’m very intrigued by how Sue is so into fame when Em is so wary of it. It’s of a piece with Sue taking so swiftly to her new, lush circumstances — how calmly she spends buckets of money, how she disdains the prospect of wearing the same dress twice. Was she always like this underneath her sort of non-personality in season one? (I feel like her whole identity last season was just “girl related to a bunch of people who died” and “girl Em is in love with,” defined mostly by her relationships to everyone around her with very little of a self for us to see.)
The salon is just BUZZING with the news about Em’s impending publication. Jane’s little flock is already trying to cozy up to Em (“We’re best friends, I’ve always been such a fan”). This is when Em learns that Sam Bowles sleeps with all the women he publishes. Em is scandalized and points out that he’s married, and the crowd is like, Yeah, ummm, but have you ever seen his wife??? No, because she is literally never here … think about it. Em correctly points out that if men never publish women, women can’t ever get published, so what options does anyone have in this garbage world!? At this moment, Sam swoops in to brazenly flirt with Em in front of her “best friends,” lol. Sam again lords his power over Em’s creative fortunes by saying he hasn’t decided when her poem will be coming out. Sue shows up, looking very silly to me, in her sort of Victorian-librarian cosplay to demand that Em’s voice be heard as soon as possible. Again, I ask, are Sam … and Sue …?!? Or does Sue just wish they were? There is some energy there. I can FEEL it.
Sam and Em do a lap, on which they cross paths with Sanford Gifford of Hudson River School fame. (“He’s a great painter,” Sam says. “Total asshole.”) Sanford snidely refers to Em as Sam’s “flavor of the month” and tells her, “You seem like just his type.” Em is very unsettled by all of this. I am too, but also I love how Sanford is shown as having this cavalier attitude about his paintings — basically, that rich people pay boatloads (river pun!) of money for his work “as soon as they hear it’s ‘about the light.’”
Pretty much everyone at the party is trying to warn Em that Sam is a certified scumbag, so Em takes her concerns to Sue, whose reaction is very hmm to me. Like, she says all the right and true things — Em is a genius, Sam thinks she’s brilliant, etc. — but either Ella Hunt is botching it or Sue is not actually surprised by any of this information re: Sam’s rumored infidelity. Sue says, in this very loaded way, that Mary is “special” (they grew up together), so I wrote in my notes, Oh, maybe Mary is into women? And then she says that Mary “doesn’t like to leave the house.” It’s also weird to me when Sue says, “It’s just not fair what happens to women the minute we get a little bit of fame or the slightest amount of ambition … We get these targets on our backs.” I mean, how would Sue know any of that? Does Sue have ambition? She seems to really want to be the talk of the town and thus is seeking fame as an end unto itself, but does she in fact have a target on her back? Can she actually relate to what Em is going through, or is she just doing the bad-friend thing of making this all about her?
Sue is also still being quite inhospitable to her new cousin and nieces, much to Austin’s horror. She wants them to work at the party; Austin wants them to enjoy it, and he finally blurts out that their inheritance is paying for their house. Sue’s response is that Austin is taking advantage of them. So just a very happy marriage, and everything is working out great over here. But Austin has other concerns: He’s helping Henry with the delivery of a printing press! Austin! An ally for the ages! Probably hard to have a sibling who’s a genius, but Austin is doing his best, no? He just wants to make a difference and wear cute hats. I really hope the bratty teens don’t barge into the barn and ruin this for everyone.
Sue’s big headliner is Henry Brown, who apparently has been making the salon rounds, so Sam has already seen him. The other guests are enraptured by Henry’s tale of escaping bondage (exaggerated for dramatic effect). Also, sidebar: I love that Hattie is just dragging Henry for his antics, making it harder for people to escape. “You know they check the boxes now?”
Sam pulls Em aside for a little one-on-one in the library. He shows her where she’ll go on the shelf, then says she’ll need a shelf all her own. This is either a lovely gesture or he is seducing her, or both?? Sue walks in just as things are getting a little too cozy for comfort. She’s obviously feeling rattled by the whole thing. Sam swears he’ll still do a write-up of her salon, and he calls her Suzie and tosses off that he’ll be “crashing here” tonight since there’s no room at the inn. He excuses himself to send Mary, his wife, a telegram, and Em says she’d love to meet her. Sam is all, “My wife would LOVE you,” and I am getting a real doth-protest-too-much sense about all of this. Then he says he won’t be able to sleep because he’ll be “so close to your incredible talent”!??! I MEAN.
Back at home, Vinnie bursts in on Shipley, who is trying to get into The Scarlet Letter. (Shipley: not so smart, can’t pronounce bodice, definitely can’t keep up with Vinnie.) She announces that she’s NOT going to be this tame, obedient housewife: “I am not the boring Dickinson sister. People don’t even realize this, but I am a lot like Emily! I’m wild and creative, and the truth is I am even more outrageous than Lola Montez.” Okay, I have been SAYING this! Vinnie needs more from her married life than quiet nights in. Vinnie needs … Scarlet Letter role play? Sure! Whatever works for you two crazy kids, assuming you have to get married, which I guess they do.
Em, still in her party dress, is at home fulfilling Sam’s instruction that she write something tonight, but what she is writing is a letter to Mary (!). And then she has a VERY vivid fantasy about Sam … ravishing her (sorry, I had to). Good idea? Terrible idea? WHAT ARE SAM’S INTENTIONS? I also like the question, Is he into her because he thinks she’s hot, and he doesn’t care about her poetry, OR is he attracted to her because she’s a genius and he knows it, and, if the latter, is it more or less or equally creepy for him to be so flirty with her? I am VERY stressed and intrigued by all of this. And again, I’m into the not-so-literal use of a Dickinson poem, this time “Forbidden fruit a flavor has.”