One of the joys of Dickinson is when something true from this playful and winking retelling of Emily Dickinson’s young life leaps out of the story at us, announcing itself as an unlikely-but-fact-check-it-and-you’ll-see revelation: that Louisa May Alcott really liked to run, even in a corset (“That’s a true fact about me”), or that Lavinia really tied her hair around a suitor’s neck (weird but hot, IMO). But it’s also delicious to watch the show careen around its own imagination, filling in the blanks as best serves our story and characters. Which is what it looks like season two is going to be, as the season opener tells us up front: Records of everything from before this point were vivid and full of detail. But “over the next few years, just a handful of letters survive.” The richest primary-source material we’re going to get is Dickinson’s poetry, which this series continues to use in artful, unexpected ways. It is time to make like Hilaria Baldwin explaining her own biography and take some liberties!
Let’s check in on the Twitter of the day: the printing press, where the Springfield Republican, among a battery of other outlets, is cranked out each day. Along with her paper, Sue (now Mrs. Dickinson, married to Em’s brother, Austin) gets a basket full of original poetry. Em writes only to Sue. But she writes a lot. Poem after poem after poem piled up in that basket. Is her beloved/sister-in-law reading them? God, I hope so.
Apparently all this writing is messing with Em’s eyesight. Or she was just genetically predisposed to whatever is going on with her irises right now; hard to say, though this ophthalmologist is QUITE expensive, and Em’s dad is outraged about this whole situation — though he warms to the doctor’s advice that Em “might want to stop doing so much writing,” as that may be contributing to her myopia. She’s supposed to sit in dim rooms and avoid the sun. Em, on brand as ever: “I don’t need the sun. I still have the moon.”
Em returns home from this stay at the doctor by way of the train. Her dad complains that three days at the doctor cost “the equivalent of a trip to Europe.” Too bad he dropped out of politics, because I’d love to have his voice behind the ahead-of-his-time cause of health-care reform! Thing is, Papa Dickinson is edgy about money because Austin and his new bride have been expensive, and, as you might expect if you remember Austin from last season — look, how many geniuses do you want in one family? — Austin isn’t exactly on top of his financial situation.
You may also recall at the end of last season a tacit understanding from Papa Dickinson about his daughter’s gifts. Here he is tentatively approving of her as she asks to be alone with her thoughts: “You really are a poet. You write all the time these days.” He asks about reading them, but she says he wouldn’t understand them, and he says that’s probably true. See, that’s why I don’t want my family members to follow me on social media. My content is for strangers, who get me.
While on the train, Em has a little hallucination, which is something the doctor warned about. Who is he? He’s … the start of what will become one of her most iconic poems: “I’m nobody. Who are you?”
Upon returning home, Em’s mom swiftly makes this all about her — “Why is this [Em’s possible blindness] happening to me????” — and Em rushes to her room to write. Sue asked Austin to ask Em to come to a party they’re throwing tonight, but Em has poetry to attend to. Vinnie, however, wouldn’t miss it, because Sue is a certified influencer now. Her salons are “the talk of the season,” according to the Springfield Republican, whose editor-in-chief will be at the party tonight! Em isn’t interested, and the idea of voluntarily staying in instead of going to a party is painful for me at this stage of the pandemic.
Also at the Dickinson compound — remember Austin and Sue’s new digs, paid for and built by Papa Dickinson, are just next door to Em’s family home — Austin, with great hair and a fabulous hat, greets Henry, whom you may recall as Em’s only Black friend/acquaintance whom she roped into playing Othello in Shakespeare club … not her wokest moment. Henry asks if the barn is free tonight, and while it sounds like this is for a hot tryst, it turns out Henry is holding meetings with the other Black residents of Amherst for a paper called the Constellation “about a new America.” Excited to see how this plays out and what sparks when Papa Dickinson — noted moderate re: abolition and slavery — finds out Austin has been allowing the barn daddy paid for to be used for such insubordinate and radical purposes.
Mama Dickinson (sorry, but everyone has the same names! She is also Emily) complains that her husband is so frugal that they have to take on a boarder. Fortunately, she found someone who is cute and isn’t a rando — it’s someone Vinnie (MVP, IMO) used to hook up with! Unfortunately for my work as a recapper trying to keep everybody straight, the Dickinson casting department has a type, and all of these boys look the same. Like this guy looks a lot like Austin, no? Sort of Shawn Mendes–y.
Alone in her room with the boarder, Henry Shipley, Vinnie demands to know what’s what, and he tells her: He came here for her! His description of her reveals that he knows nothing about her: He likes her “submissiveness, chastity, and willingness to do household chores.” He points out that she has tea parties for her cats, but she says she’s changed and then proves it by shoving him onto her bed. Live your best life, Vinnie! (“Shouldn’t we wait until marriage?” Shut UP, Henry!)
At the party, Sue is wearing a dress that is quite the upgrade from her plain black attire from season one, this off-the-shoulder Champagne-colored number that makes me ask myself, Wait, how long has it been since last season? Isn’t she supposed to be pregnant? But soon enough, we will learn that she miscarried and never told Austin that she was pregnant or that she lost the baby — the only one who knows is Em. Anyway, as she tells her admirers, her dress is from New York, though “the original design is from Vienna.”
Shipley arrives with Vinnie in tow and tells everyone that they are “engaged to be engaged.” Vinnie is underwhelmed. He talks about how cheap tobacco is in New Orleans, and she’s like, “That’s because of slavery.” Catching up with the rest of our cast: Jane, the cool mean girl from last season, is in a black veil because she is a widow now. She also has a baby. Upon learning the origin of Sue’s dress, Jane promptly faints (from shock and/or for the attention).
At home, Em spills ink and … discovers finger-painting? She smears ink all over her face somehow and then decides, Okay, time to make a cameo at this party. Interesting choices as always, Em! Sue pulls her into a side room to get all the shmutz off her face, but all Em wants to know is: Did Sue read the poems, and what did she think?? Sue says, with so much sincerity it could break your fragile heart, that she loved them. The new ones are “beyond. Reading them, it’s like my heart almost explodes.” In fact, they are almost too much, capable of stirring intense and painful feelings Sue doesn’t want to invite in. At this, Em and Sue make that classic, intense nose-to-nose, forehead-to-forehead contact that platonic sisters-in-law are wont to do. Sue tells Em that Sam Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, was invited here for Em: “He loves to publish women.” Sue cannot bear to be Em’s only reader anymore. I respect that she is pushing her friend forward professionally, though Em, and the show, has a complicated relationship with fame and attention — sometimes it seems almost puritanical, as if the idea of Em being alive while anybody reads her work somehow undermines her and its artistic merit. Would attention really be so wrong?
In walks Sam Bowles. He is scruffy, with that same longish brown hair as all the other young men we’ve met. Like I said: The casting department has a type. Em looks totally deranged for this meeting (underdressed, ink on her face), but I think it’s working for her. “You’re interesting,” he asserts. “I’m interested.” Sam is the bold thinker who made his paper a daily when it was once a weekly. “Move fast and break stuff,” he says. Then Sue goes a little overboard and insists Em recite a poem right this second, which Em cannot do — though she does hallucinate her Nobody again, and the poem continues to dictate itself to her. Fun fact: That’s actually how I write these recaps!
“Typical Emily Dickinson,” says Jane. Toshiaki, one of the Jane sycophants, sums up the whole series: “She’s a lot.”