I was excited about this episode from the jump based on the title alone. After teasing what this Nobody hallucination guy would be and mean to Em, tugging on this thread inside her brain, for almost the whole season, we are finally getting to the crux of the matter. This is, as we’ve talked about in these recaps before, arguably the most iconic of all of Dickinson’s poems, so I’m getting that feeling like when you’re at the concert and the lead singer sheepishly goes, “I think you, ahh, might’ve heard this one; sing it if you know it” and you know that we are PLAYING THE SINGLE, BABY!!
And friends: I was not disappointed. This is my favorite episode of the season and maybe even the series so far. It is so good! I’d give it a sixth star but our ratings system doesn’t allow for that sort of thing so I’m just going to do it here in the text: SIX STARS. (This way the stars can be divided evenly between this episode’s co-writers, showrunner Alena Smith and Ayo Edebiri, a.k.a. Hattie.) I feel like this episode has everything that makes the show such a joy: It’s thoughtful and funny and strange, true to the show so far while leveling everything up. It takes advantage of every corner of the world they’ve built down to all the clever details, and gives all our key players something interesting and meaningful to do. And — my favorite part — it is fully weird, taking big swings and making unconventional choices. AND DEATH RETURNS. But more on that later.
It is the big day for Em: Her poem is coming out on the front page. It’s “The May-Wine.” (True story: “The May-Wine” is the title that the real Springfield Daily Republican gave the poem when they ran the poem after Dickinson’s death; she didn’t title her poems in her lifetime but generally her poems are referred to by their first line so this one was “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed,” which I think is a more intriguing headline, but maybe they were tight on space.) Em bolts downstairs to see her name in print and says to herself: “Immortality! Holy shit!” Again, I love that she is so convinced that being in one newspaper once means everyone will remember her name for always! Guess someone hadn’t gotten around to reading “Ozymandias”? (I checked before making this reference and it was published before Em was born, so, no excuses!)
Over in the dining room, Vinnie is reading the poem aloud as Mama Dickinson and Shipley listen on. Shipley, of course, does not understand metaphor — Vinnie explains that the poem is “about the heady intoxication of nature itself” — and Ship is like YOU ARE GONNA HAVE TO ACCEPT ME FOR THE HAPLESS DUMB-DUMB THAT I AM (paraphrasing here) and I write in my notes Vinnie break up with him!!! What’s great is that everyone is ignoring Em in a way that is totally plausible just considering their dynamic — of course she would monologue, without waiting for anyone to interject, about how “this poem was a passion project for me, years in the making,” without realizing that no one was listening to her — and it takes her just a minute longer to realize: She’s … not there. Or she is there, but she’s invisible. Or she’s dreaming. Or she’s a ghost. AHHH!
Nobody can see Em. Not even Maggie the maid! This means Em is privy to some conversations she is definitely not supposed to have a front-row seat for, like — hell yes — Vinnie and Shipley’s breakup. Ship thinks he’s rehearsing in private (“even though you’re super hot and I love your pussy”) but he can be heard in the other room, where his betrothed is listening in. She breaks up with him before he gets the chance. I mean, the guy does not know how many hours there are in a day! You can’t build a life with a himbo like that! Ship just wanted a normal wife and Vinnie, proudly, tells him she is anything but normal: “I am a twisted, witchy, creative, horny woman and you can’t accept that.” I wonder if her parents are still listening to this? Gosh I hope not.
The only person who can see and hear Em is Nobody. Em, naturally, thinks she’s dead, but a quick visit to her room reveals there’s no corpse there so she’s “just a mystery.” She’s pretty crushed by this turn of events. She’s invisible on the one day she was anticipating being the center of attention. Nobody suggests Em use this to her advantage: Now she can hear what people really think of her poem. Oh, Em. I’m very concerned about what uncensored feedback will do to her delicate sense of self.
Down at the general store, she finds a sort of online-style type of dude fan. (“Let’s go to her house and jack off in the bushes, right on this poem!” …welcome to the comments section, girl.) Her friends start out plenty supportive but things take a turn pretty quick, with Em being dragged for rhyming (“which I find juvenile” “aren’t we all doing free verse now?”) and for being offensive (Hattie: “It’s not even SAYING anything offensive; that’s why it’s offensive”). Within 90 seconds, they’ve talked themselves into thinking Em’s poem is totally underwhelming. Jane and her clique drop their copy on the porch. Where it gets stepped on. Ooof.
Em sulks as she walks a quiet path with Nobody. “I don’t know what I expected, but this is worse,” she laments. “Everybody just gets to talk about me regardless of whether what they say is true.” Nobody says fame is like death — in that you can’t know what it’s like until it happens. (HOW DOES NOBODY KNOW WHAT DEATH IS LIKE? Adding a check to the “Nobody is a ghost” column.) He also tries to get her to look on the bright side of her invisibility, rather than ponder its source — think of all the great invisible things in the world, like air and love! (Okay, this moment is a little corny for my taste, like I see you A Walk to Remember, but I think it works because of the sheer strangeness of the context.)
So we still don’t totally know what “Nobody” is — beyond an ocular hallucination, he’s someone Em is convinced she already knows from somewhere, though he has no gravestone and she can’t really place him. Nobody’s last memories sound very much like someone who died violently (young men screaming/smell of metal/blinding pain/etc.) and we do know that a war is on the horizon, so maybe there’s something there? But instead of trying to suss this out I’m just going to bask in the not-knowing. And then: He vanishes.
Em, still invisible and now flying solo, slips into a Constellation meeting in the barn. Earlier in the episode we got this great contrast of Em’s poem getting printed at the same time as the Constellation, which was then distributed in as sneaky a way as could be managed (hidden beneath a stack of produce). Henry has news: The money from the sales of the paper have reached John Brown! The room is feeling the optimism, and I am feeling like ohhh no what’s going to happen to all these guys when John Brown’s raid doesn’t turn out so hot?!! Henry, who does not know the future, says Brown and his men will attack and “American reality itself will be transformed!” Em is just soaking it all in, the idea of the world being changed by writing so thrilling to her that she does not seem to mind that her writing has nothing to do with this.
Hattie starts bickering with Henry Boggs, who you may recall as the guy who goes around to salons talking about how he escaped from slavery in a box. But then our Henry (sort of confusing because there are lots of Henrys — Shipley’s first name is also Henry; future television programs about our time will surely have the same laments about Katies and Emilys and such — but you guys know who I mean, yes?) steps in to say that they do not have the time for this kind of pettiness. The work they are doing here isn’t about ego or attention or (he says quite pointedly) “who gets to be on the front page.”
“What we are doing here is claiming for our right to exist,” he says, and Em is in awe. And rightly so! Everyone is moved. Even Hattie agrees not to fight anymore. She’d really rather dance, while wearing THE GOLD DRESS THAT SUE WOULD NOT DEIGN TO WEAR TWICE! Hattie stole it!!! GO HATTIE GO. A dude in the corner busts out a fiddle and now it’s a party!
Alas, Sue’s party is less of a blast and more of a bust: Her guests are bored as hell, since the woman of the hour — Em, published poet — is a no-show, for reasons unclear. That said, Sue looks fantastic. I love her sheer black fingerless gloves; I love that red on her. Sam is here but he hasn’t seen Em either. He tells Austin that the painting on his wall is just a replica, which Austin did not realize. He paid good money for it and is crushed to learn it’s a fake. (Sensing a theme here!) Sue (ugh, a little on the nose but I’ll allow it) says, “Who cares if it’s real as long as it looks good, right?” Austin bails to go find Em.
As Austin heads outside, the barn party is in full swing. It is so raucous and fun and the choreography is a blast. Em is invisible and just dancing her heart out to Lil Uzi Vert in the middle of the crowd that can’t see her. She keeps losing layers of her clothes. Austin peers through a crack in the door and … he sees Em! What do we think this means?
I like that we never get this spelled out for us in some straightforward manner (at least not yet; who knows what the next episode will bring?). But I have ideas anyway so let’s talk about them! One theory is that everyone else was too caught up in the drama and urgency of their own lives — Vinnie with her breakup, Mama and Papa Dickinson with What This Means For The Family, the Constellation staff and John Brown’s plans, etc — to acknowledge what was right in front of them. Or maybe it’s that Em wasn’t actually trying to be seen, really seen, by anybody, and that it’s just when she started being her true free self that she could at least be real to one other person — the other person in her life who is fed up with things that are all surface and no substance, who just wants to get at what’s true. (Later, some Constellation partiers see Austin and Em talking and think Austin is just talking to himself. )
Austin tells Em that she is the only thing in his life that he’s proud of right now. And at this moment: Death’s carriage pulls up. Em drunkenly bursts into the carriage wearing her sexy death attire — red satin dress, great tendrils in her face — and meets another passenger: Edgar Allan Poe played by Nick Kroll. OH HELLO. “Died in mysterious circumstances,” he tells her. “Very on brand.” Death (Wiz Khalfia, perfect as ever) corrects the record: Poe drank himself to death. Which is not not on brand.
Poe is bummed that Em isn’t a fan trying to have sex with him — she’s only read “The Raven,” and anyway, she’s really more a fan of Death. Can you blame her? Em announces that she’s famous now because she has been in one newspaper one time. Poe deflates that little fantasy, telling her he has no idea who she is. He loses it laughing at how she’s already “addicted” to fame. He knows it’ll never be enough. He sits back in his seat and muses, “I miss my cousin-slash-child-bride Virginia,” and now I’M dead.
Em rides around with Death a little longer so she can be fashionably late to her own party, then gets dropped off at Sue’s. She calls out that Sue was right about everything: “I want to be seen by people.” The only thing is: People still can’t see her. People like Sue. AND SAM. WHO ARE TOTALLY HOOKING UP!! I KNEW IT!!!! “Mary is a dear friend” and “I’m a married man” and “how come I’m not allowed to support female talent without everybody making such a thing out of it.” Bullshit! All of it! Whew, I feel vindicated even though Em probably feels a little traumatized. How long do you think she watched for?