Em and Vinnie slumber party after the big family fight, which is very sweet. Em is determined to fix what she sees as the problem: Austin made dad so upset he had a heart attack. Therefore, Austin must apologize. And then, poof! Problem solved. It’s interesting that Em, who is usually so clear-eyed about the darkest parts of life, is so deluded about her own family. Though I guess a lot of us have blind spots in that department. It’s Vinnie who suggests, well, maybe Austin was telling the truth?! Vinnie laments that she, like Jo March, is so lonely; all her ex-boyfriends are dead (or will be soon … sorry if that’s a spoiler, but FYI a lot of people have yet to die at this point in the Civil War). She held out for a promising future that hasn’t materialized and probably never will. Em tells Vinnie that she’s not alone because Em is still here. In my notes, I write: okay, but like … you’re not going to have sex with her … I appreciate the gesture, but sisterhood is not really the kind of love Vinnie was talking about having to go without for the rest of her lonely days!!!
Across the way, Sue is just vibing, devouring food like she didn’t just watch her in-laws implode and her father-in-law nearly die over his only son estranging himself from their clan. Sue’s characterization has always baffled me a bit, and here we get this very odd mix of Sue being self-absorbed and juvenile — from the bows in her little girl hair to her petulant disappointment that Em has come over not for her but to find Austin — juxtaposed with her very adult assessment of Em’s family situation: The Dickinsons obviously have problems and Em’s parents have treated her like a misfit when they should celebrate her as a prodigy. Sue swears she will love her baby the way she loves Em, and again I am forced to write in my notes: Okay, so the baby is NOT someone you will love the way you love someone you want to have sex with … do I need to sit the ENTIRE FAMILY down for a talk about this??
Also, Sue yet again says she wants to run away with Em and raise this baby. Has Sue listened to a word Em has ever said? EMILY DOES NOT WANT CHILDREN. Also, Em is very close with her (flawed, fine, whatever) family! She loves her brother and sister! SHE WOULD MISS THEM. I would keep yelling at Sue, but she is going into labor so, let’s just put a pin in that. Em sprints back home for backup, where Mama Dickinson revels at the thought of being needed, remembering how she and her sister brought little farm animals into this world when they were young. Vinnie will stay behind to tend to her bedridden father. “I mean, it might be slightly awkward since I’m kind of in the process of reevaluating our entire relationship,” Vinnie says, but she consents.
While Queen Victoria swears by chloroform, Mama Dickinson insists Sue needs no drugs. “Pain is how you know you’re still alive,” she says, which is as good a time as any for Em to remind her that Sue’s mom died in childbirth. (I’m surprised that moment comes and goes so quickly, given that Sue’s prior reluctance even to attempt having children was rooted in that trauma and fear.) Sue has a brief freakout, and Mama Dickinson SLAPS HER (very satisfying, tbh) as she gathers up her farm equipment. Em is required to stay and let Sue squeeze her hand until her fingers break.
Where is the father-to-be? Out in the woods with the gang, throwing Frazar Stearn’s going away party and tapping maple trees. Autumn in New England, how picturesque! Austin is asked why he isn’t enlisting, and he says the army wouldn’t want him; Jane reminds him, for the hundredth time, “yes, also, you are having a baby.” Jane is a great supporting character — she started out as someone sort of lightweight and has really grown up! When she breaks up with Austin to live in Vietnam with that French rice-plantation-owner she’s never met because she knows she cannot “live in shame” even though Austin says he’ll provide for his godson’s education … that was very moving to me! Great breakup scene, 10/10. Her mittens in his face really got me. (Also, Austin tells Jane, just as Sue told Em, that having a baby “won’t change anything.” I, for one, am a little nervous about how these two will adjust to parenthood, having not managed their expectations at all.)
Frazar arrives in uniform. He is already describing this gathering as a “one last time” because he takes Em’s premonition seriously and also because he has read a newspaper. None of his friends seem to be treating this with the gravity that it deserves, so he bails to find Em, who is also in need of a breather; she’s been scribbling some poetry while Sue takes a break from screaming to wail about being nauseous. Only three hours to go!
I really like this scene with Em and Frazar. He is looking for the truth the only place he knows he can find it, and Em is finally forced to acknowledge some of the reality she’s been dodging since her aunt’s funeral. He calls her out immediately on her faux-self-effacing claim that she’s merely “a weirdo” whose “whole vision thing” should be ignored. He will not accept false hope from her. Which isn’t to say he is anti-hope. But, as he puts it, “Sometimes the most hopeful thing you can do is look directly at the darkness.” This is how he knows Em is a great writer: She doesn’t flinch at the truth. He asks her for a poem that he can carry with him to war — in the pocket over his heart, which really gets at MY heart! — and she gives him her latest, the poem of the episode’s title: “It feels a shame to be Alive.” He asks her who she wrote it for; she says, “I wrote it for nobody,” but really we know that is a Capital-N-Nobody, which is just perfect.
Meanwhile, back at the Dickinson household, Vinnie reads the news and is like, “great, 2,000 more guys I could have married are dead.” It turns out Papa Dickinson has a brother fighting for the Confederacy, yikes. He’s disappointed their names aren’t in the paper because he thinks that’s dehumanizing. Interesting that we have never heard him use the word “dehumanizing” re: slavery! Anyway, Vinnie is glad her dad is alive because what with the tragic demise of all her potential soulmates she’d be in a REAL downward spiral, emotionally, if her dad died, too.
The baby is born while Austin is outside, peeing in the yard. Em finds him to tell him the news, and Austin is suddenly enraged: No one came to find him, and no, he will not be apologizing to his father; he won’t be speaking to his father, in fact, ever again. “This is a house divided, Emily,” says Austin. “And sooner or later, you’re gonna have to pick sides.”