For all our thrilling field trips into spirituality and mystery and even magical realism, I appreciate how grounded the relationships in this show are proving to be. Papa Dickinson has evolved from season one, when he was such a hardass he was almost unbearable, especially in his dealings with Em — but just as he’s softened, somewhat, on her ambition and creative pursuits, he hasn’t completely changed. He is still someone who wants to be in control of all his family affairs. And unfortunately he can’t know some of the crucial ways in which Austin is proving himself to be an admirable young man (his support of the Constellation being a secret and his other attributes being the kind of thing his dad probably ignores or doesn’t value, e.g. his sensitivity, kindness, big-heartedness). What started the season as a light joke about Austin’s financial cluelessness is turning out to have some real consequences for this father-son “partnership,” which is really more of a “dad is in charge and the son is just a partner so as not to humiliate the family,” which is … news to Austin!
I always think it’s interesting when this kind of thing comes up: Papa Dickinson is disappointed and infuriated by the man his son seems to be turning out to be. But like … whose fault is that? How much of that is Papa Dickinson’s failure as a father? Versus Austin’s personal shortcomings? This comes to a head when Austin, coming over in a tizzy wearing a dressing robe I honestly would love to have (where can I get one?), wails that he’s throwing that college reunion he talked about at the opera but Sue is out of town and he can’t host all by himself. Mama Dickinson is overjoyed to be put to domestic use, even though she’s already committed to hosting an event for Papa Dickinson: a board meeting that Austin, what with being on the board and all, is miffed he is only just learning about now. (Oh, and where’s Em? Mama Dickinson says she’s “hiding like a madwoman in the attic … I do hope it’s just a phase.” Austin pretends he didn’t actually see her yesterday.)
Papa Dickinson is parroting Sam: “Print journalism is the future.” Austin can’t believe his father would financially invest in the paper that published Em’s poem, considering how Papa is supposedly very anti-Em-getting-published. Papa Dickinson essentially says it was a financially savvy decision, and Austin — fresh off the scandal that his painting was a fake, his whole life feels like a fraud, etc. — can’t believe that money rules the day over principles. When he insists he should have been consulted as a partner, his father just decimates him: “You are a child … You’ve accomplished nothing.” No failure has escaped his dad’s notice; he even knows about the forged painting.
Sam arrives to report that there’s “crazy news coming out of Virginia right now about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.” Austin listens, horrified, as his dad (a moderate who doesn’t mind slavery all that much) and Sam (an opportunist with no apparent moral compass) play at predicting whether John Brown will become a celebrity and if there’s going to be a civil war. Of course Papa Dickinson thinks “cooler heads will prevail.” Sam spends the rest of his time on screen fulfilling the message of Michelle Wolf’s WHCD speech: He doesn’t really care what happens, because war sells papers, and he can find a way to appease both sides so everyone still subscribes to his publication.
Austin is horrified that they’re calling John Brown a failure, and by the idea that anyone stands to profit from war. He splits as his dad gets one last insult in about his tea party, running to the barn to find Henry. “This country is going to have to be destroyed before it can be healed,” Henry says, before telling Austin that he needs to flee with his family and can’t say where he’ll be going. Goodbye forever! Austin coming face-to-face with the human consequences of what his dad and Sam were just debating as a distant thought experiment rattles him, and he heads back to his party in a very not-partying mood.
All the boys are together — except for Frazier, a late arrival but the guy from the opera who inspired this whole gathering — while Mama Dickinson sets up the most elaborate and beautiful tea party, feeling fulfilled as ever. She is so appreciated by this batch of boys whose tea orders she has memorized exactly. Interesting that Ship is still on good terms with these guys even though Vinnie dumped him yesterday. Austin is doing a sad Chalamet stare into the fireplace. All these guys have such great hair and such gorgeous outfits. We get a very wow it’s just like 2021 conversation about whether or not there’s going to be war based on what polling says (“polls say no one wants war, and polls are never wrong”) as Austin spins out thinking about how maybe what they all thought was fine was actually never really fine. A keyboard plinks in the background as these gents invent the podcast (“we could do advertisements for aprons — blue aprons!”). Does anyone realize, Austin asks, that thousands of real people will die in a war? Apparently not!
A train ride away, Sue is visiting her friend: Mary! Sam’s Mary! Wow that is a BOLD move for a woman who was screwing Sam last night. Their conversation has a real edge to it. I think Mary knows what’s up, don’t you? She reveals that she knows her husband isn’t faithful and she has to suspect Sue at the very least. Mary tells Sue that she had a miscarriage, which gives Sue the space to confess that she did, too, and to sob about it.
Across the way from Austin’s, Mama Dickinson is serving tea to a very douchey gathering of men who are strategizing how to appeal to all audiences without taking a stand in the war that Sam is sure will come. Mama Dickinson gets exiled from the room of Serious Men Talking Seriously About Serious Politics. In the kitchen she runs into Shipley, who is looking for Vinnie so he can attempt to reunite with her — thinking about dying in a war has made him, I guess, forget every valid reason for their breakup. Besides, if Mama Dickinson is the perfect hostess and housewife, how bad could Vinnie be? (Did anyone else think maybe he was going to just hook up with Mama Dickinson in this scene?)
Ship barges in while Vinnie works on her art. She correctly says he will never love the real her and he says: Let me prove it to you! I’ve enjoyed the recurring Lola Montez bit all season — it goes better with Kathryn VanArandonk’s explainer on the real woman who was Lola and the layers of appropriation going on here — but I think its invocation here just falls flat. Vinnie and Ship worked out their sexual chemistry pretty early on! I don’t think his willingness to have sex with her after watching her cosplay as a hot, sexy dancer, even one who reminds him of a woman who could never be a wife, is a particularly meaningful way of determining their compatibility. What about all the extremely good and valid reasons they had for breaking up? None of them have changed!
Down the hall, Em is still on the floor. She takes herself over to Austin’s. She is clearly not okay and he invites her to join the guys, which I think is so nice! I really like the development of the sibling relationships this season. I wonder if she will still be invisible but George, with whom she is now on good terms, springs up to hug her. Em is doing her thing, saying she feels like her brain is SPLIT and does anyone know how that FEELS, and then she starts composing poetry into the fire. And then someone is at the door.
And it is NOBODY. NOBODY IS FRAZIER! Frazier and Em have met at a couple of house parties, but they didn’t have a real relationship that was anything close to as intense as what Em has had with Nobody, so she keeps saying the (rude-sounding) truth to him: You’re Nobody, this is Nobody. Em visualizes Frazier being shot in the chest and then blurts out that he’s going to die. “The bullet, it hits you like a bird!” she cries, sounding totally deranged. Honestly Frazier takes the whole thing in stride for a guy whose death on the Civil War battlefield was just prophesied by his friend’s sister.
Em goes on to have a very chill psychotic break. “It’s all real,” she says, realizing everything she saw yesterday — including Sue and Sam’s tryst — is real, or will be real, somehow. She tells Austin that his wife is cheating on him with Sam, and Austin replies: “I know about that already.” He’s known for weeks! INTERESTING. I think that totally tracks with his behavior and with how brazen Sue and Sam have been. But Em then accidentally lets it slip that he must also know “about the baby,” which he… did not know. So Em tells him about Sue’s miscarriage, and after Austin smashes a vase against the wall and shouts that his dad was right, he is “an utter failure, a joke” they cry in each other’s arms. This is the moment that inspires Em to write the poem of the episode’s title: I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.
Em tells Austin quite emphatically that he is NOT a fraud. “You are the most genuine person I know.” Then she apologizes to Frazier who, in addition to being, again, very cool about the whole thing, tells her he read her poem (!) in the paper (!!) and would love to read more (!!!). She says she gave them all to an editor, the biggest mistake of her life. She knows fame is not for her. Frazier’s reply: You better get your poems back then. Is our season finale going to be a heist?