Mama Dickinson forces Em out of bed as our heroine wails “I HATE MY LIFE AND I TRULY WANNA DIE.” I don’t know what the vibes are going to be like when this recap runs, but from where I am writing it (mid-January; here’s a refresher in case that already feels like eight thousand forevers ago) all I can think is: relatable. Mama Dickinson says this is exactly why they need a spa day. Yes, it’s time for a trip to an old-timey wellness retreat, a 19th-century Goop-style getaway that is probably, in terms of substance and efficacy, not all that different from a 21st-century Goop-style getaway.
As is his standard practice, Papa Dickinson can’t believe the women in his family are indulging in something so expensive which he says they cannot afford. Sue is tagging along because according to a book on etiquette, “If your mother-in-law invites you to the water cure, you must accept the invite.” Sue has this fantasy of relaxing at the spa but she and Em haven’t seen each other since the opera and Em says THEY NEED TO TALK. I say: Em looks great with the high bun and I wish she’d wear it that way more often, anachronism be damned! (Why didn’t more women wear high buns in the olden times? Was it about fitting hair under a bonnet? Can someone please illuminate this issue for me in the comments?) Vinnie is also coming even though she’s distraught over not being able to locate her most powerful crystal (“Obviously, it’s an obsidian”). Fortunately her namesake, Aunt Lavinia, has a spare. And we’re off!
First up: Mud baths. Next: A sauna. Throughout: Dismissive attitudes about what doctors have to say about health care. The goal: For Em to no longer be sick and melancholy. “What if that’s my brand?” Em asks which makes me actually laugh out loud. Hailee Steinfeld’s delivery! So good! I also appreciate here that everyone’s hair and headbands are styled in slightly different ways. Like they’re all in some kind of sauna-based girl group.
Em and Sue peel off under the guise of visiting a moon-oriented body healer. During said healing, Em catches Sue up on what went down with Sam at the opera. Em fears she has ruined everything. Sue swears it isn’t so: Sam will publish everything Em writes. She assures Em that her anxiety is totally natural and anyway having your emotions stirred is good for your art, no? UGH. As a writer (my recaps are my poetry) I feel for Em in this moment because it is SO annoying when you are going through some supremely shitty thing and a well-intentioned person is like, “well, at least you can write about it!”
Em confesses that the problem is she no longer believes in herself. For this, she blames Sue, because Sue is the one who introduced her to Sam. Interesting logic that, even a Sue skeptic like me, cannot support. Em says her flow is gone because all she cares about is Sam’s opinion. “It’s like he INVADED me.” Sue tells Em to relax. Wow, thank you for that insight Sue!!
This is a mini-spoiler about the end of this episode but I really like that Em sort of works her way up through her community here, to the one person who she least expects to understand and give her good counsel: her mom. And then it turns out her mom is the only person who can really say what Em needs to hear! I mean, I think what she hears along the way helps build her up and give her these pieces of what she needs but the fact that it’s her mom who really comes through in the end — I thought that was a lovely and grounded moment. Moving but not cheesy and sweet but still believable in the context of their dynamic in this show. But we will get to that later!
Now we are doing… yoga? It’s yoga-esque. Meanwhile, Mama Dickinson is being thwacked with branches. Then we are squatting in these stone toilets that are also baths? Not sure what that’s supposed to do but sure! It is in this room Em comes up with the line that serves as this episode’s title: “Forever - is composed of nows.” (You can read that poem here.) This is such a cutting sentiment that I think about whenever I accidentally lose hours of my life to social media scrolls. My forever is just… other people’s content? Like, mostly mediocre content. Shudder.
Anyway Vinnie scooches over to Em to hear her sister make the very out-of-character claim that “a MAN is ruining my LIFE.” Vinnie is floored that her sister could be so thrown by some guy. Not the same Emily Dickinson who turned down marriage proposals! In this stretch of self-doubt Em wonders if she made a terrible mistake, if her married life would have been simpler. Vinnie refutes this immediately and tells her sister, so sincerely it nearly wrecked me, “Emily, you’re my hero.” Am I just more vulnerable to these displays of familial intimacy because it’s a pandemic and it’s very hard to see and hug people we love?? Maybe, I don’t know, this isn’t about me!
Back at the homefront, Jane sees Austin because she wants help writing her will. You know, now that she’s a hot widow with a baby and all. I love that what started out this season as a recurring joke is getting the heft it’s due here — that Jane is actually grappling with what it could mean to die young, and with the loneliness of her circumstances. Austin, too, can’t believe what he used to worry about when he was young. “Now we’re in our mid-twenties!” (One of the only off-note lines of the episode, for me, is Jane’s reply: “Adulting is hard.” Are we still saying adulting? It’s so 2017.) Austin is overjoyed at the opportunity to hold Jane’s baby. He’s such a natural! Also he does a GREAT horsey sound. Very realistic neighing. I’m also intrigued not just by their kiss — which was sweet! Despite it not being allowed, sorry — but also by their immediate contrition. Jane showing some surprising maturity that I don’t think we would’ve seen from her last season, saying they need to commit to the decisions they made; Austin gracefully agreeing with her and stepping back. Because (this is a spoiler if you don’t know the history) Austin DID have a longtime mistress and she wound up editing a lot of Emily’s poetry before it was published. Her name wasn’t Jane. But I wonder if the show is setting up this relationship to serve that purpose.
Speaking of kids: Henry has one! Did we know that? He keeps missing dinner because he is working on the revolution. As you can imagine his wife is pretty upset about both the missing-dinner thing and the part where they are getting death threats that endanger the life of this cute daughter we are just now meeting. Henry holds fast: His daughter’s life will be more dangerous if they don’t fight the good fight.
We return to the spa in time to see Em run into an old friend/ex: George. He’s just “getting in a shvitz” and has come back to the east coast because he never actually made it to California. As many a millennial can attest, the Oregon Trail is not easy. (Though he adds, “Weirdly, it was fun!”) His wife Ellen got dysentery and while she did survive she was also… gross… so they’re just taking some space. Cool, cool. George wants to hear all about Em’s writing because in spite of his flaws, which I do think were ratcheted up near the end to get us rooting for his departure, one of his good traits is that he always supported Em’s writing. He can’t believe this editor hasn’t already run her work. He’d have her on the front page pronto, baby. They’re able to have one of those “it’s good to see you” ex conversations that most of us only dream about.
Mama Dickinson shows up with a VERY red face. While everyone else is lying on hot coals, she and Em are doing the cocoon rebirth, which essentially means they are straight-jacketed into sheets and made to be very cold until somehow they are very hot. This causes Mama Dickinson to have a panic attack. They flop around awkwardly and the physical comedy here is just aces! And Mama Dickinson admits: she hates it here!
Their hysterical laughter takes a turn because Em is crying all of a sudden. She tells her mom, “I think I’ve fallen in love. I’ve been completely overtaken by someone… I don’t know what else it could BE, Mom!” And like those (aprocraphyl, I think?) stories of moms lifting cars off their babies, Mama Dickinson finds the strength to free herself from her cocoon so she can wrap her arms around her child.
And you know what? She’s had some misses in the past, this one, but here she totally delivers with solid romantic counsel: “Someone worthy of you shouldn’t make you feel sick.” Her marriage, she says, isn’t perfect, but she knows that Papa Dickinson wants what’s best for her and would care for her if she were in need. Em says, “Nothing about this place has made me feel better except for what you just said.” My heart!!
Time for one last treatment — big stretches, orgasm sounds — and then we’re back to regular life, with the low bun and the center part (boooo) but oh well, at least Em is feeling more like herself. She opens her front door to find Sam talking to Papa Dickinson, imploring him to invest in the newspaper. (“This is print journalism; there’s no way it can fail.”) Here I write in my notes: Was Sam just stringing Em along to get her dad to invest in his paper?? But then just as Em says it’s obvious Sam won’t publish her “and I’ve made peace with it,” he says, oh it’s going to be on the front page tomorrow. OH IS IT NOW SAMUEL. WHERE WAS THIS INFORMATION A WEEK AGO. THIS POOR FREELANCER HAS BEEN BESIDE HERSELF, UNABLE TO COMPOSE A SINGLE LINE EXCEPT THAT ONE WEIRD LETTER TO YOUR WIFE. WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?
Well. He was just “waiting for the right moment.” That moment is tomorrow. Em responds to this news by giving him… literally all of her poems?!? Emily I hope you made copies! Does Sue have backups? Also Emily did you learn NOTHING from your time with the financially savvy Louisa May Alcott last season? You need to negotiate a rate before you give all your work away! Someone please get this girl an agent I am losing my mind. Now I am the one with the brain on fire.