As our season reaches its halfway point, it is doing one of my favorite things: Showing us the wider world that Em lived in through its outstanding guest stars. Our popular conception of Em is that of a total shut-in who never so much as high-fived another soul; I love when our series shoves that aside, even if it isn’t exactly what happened. (I don’t think Dickinson and Whitman ever really met? But I could be wrong about that!) What a total joy to have Billy Eichner show up as Walt Whitman and do his phenomenal yet character-appropriate YELLING in the faces of the wounded and dying soldiers and also all over this spectacular gay bar! I feel as a recapper I am supposed to know for sure whether that was happening for real in the show or was just an extremely vivid fantasy of Em’s, but given the way it is framed, I am still genuinely uncertain, so I put it to all of you. But let’s take this one step at a time.
Em’s letter to Higginson does, in fact, make it to South Carolina — as did Henry! It turns out they were headed to the same place, how poetic. Henry is on hand for a job interview. His reputation has preceded him; Higginson has heard all about the Constellation (which, as you may recall, was run out of Austin’s barn last season). In real life, Higginson was putting together this federally unauthorized regiment of Black soldiers. I love the presentation of Henry as an annoyingly well-intentioned ally who says things like “there I go, centering whiteness again,” just constantly tripping over himself in an attempt to Be A Good Person. His task for Henry: Teach these Black soldiers to read and write while addressing the racism embedded within the language itself. (As Henry quickly learns, maybe it’s best to start with the ABCs.) “Until very recently this was an operation slave plantation,” Higginson allows. “But we are in a safe space.”
It’s also great to see how Henry, too, has a fumbling and awkward manner with this new group of people with whom he, on the one hand, has some very obvious shit in common — but rather than see him as someone who gets it, the Black soldiers down here see Henry as this “fancy cat” from Amherst who sits backwards on his chair like A. C. Slater. I lost it when their take on “Massachusetts” was “I definitely heard ‘massa.’ That’s offensive.” And I’m intrigued by the parallels here with Em’s internal struggle up North: As she asks herself what purpose poetry serves in war, these men are also asked to prioritize literacy when their material needs have yet to be met. Their “training” situation sounds a lot like Holes. They don’t have new clothes or weapons. They’re not being paid, which … yikes. And even when they do get paid, these promised payments are lower than what white soldiers are making. So even the progress around here is not particularly progressive.
Back home, Papa Dickinson has received a letter from his Confederate brother, Samuel, who writes that the Union army ransacked his plantation. It’s all very Gone with the Wind. Em cannot stay, she has a date with someone her mother would DEFINITELY not approve of, and that someone is: Walt Whitman! She disappears to her greenhouse — remember the gift of the greenhouse! A perfect place for this reading, not to mention a nice little wink at the modern millennial obsession with plants — to read Leaves of Grass. I cannot believe people used to wear dresses like that, fully buttoned up to the throat, to chill out and read a book.
So this is where we have a fun light break with reality — does Em only go to New York in her mind? The scene is framed with shots of her reading, which would suggest the whole thing is a very realistic hallucination. But I wonder how she would even know to dream some of what she’s dreaming, especially the scene at the bar.
We see Em roll through a hospital in New York, looking for Walt Whitman, who answers the call: “It’s not hard to find me. I am EVERYWHERE. I am EVERYTHING.” Walt is a lot so, this is perfect casting. “COSMOS, DEMOCRACY, MANHATTAN, I AM NEW YORK.” Everything Walt says is sexual even when he isn’t technically talking about sex; for instance, Em says she is a poet and Walt replies that she must know the “URGE.” Em is taking Betty’s criticism to heart: Can she be a poet of the world if she has not gone out into said world to confront its pain? Walt is delighted by these marching orders. “Let’s go hurt ourselves!”
All these men, he tells Em, are dying of multiple causes. A lot of dysentery going around. Really making this scene a party is the return of Zosia Mamet as Louisa May Alcott! Oh HI! She’s a Civil War nurse too — “yet another surprising but legitimate actual fact about me” — who finds the texture of the whole experience very useful for grounding her writing in real details. “Like how wounds actually smell bad,” she reports. “Facts are facts. Death sells.” Never change, LMA.
I honestly lost it every time Billy Eichner got right up in a dying dude’s face to ask him questions like, “Are you America?” or shout “I AM YOUR DADDY,” and then just hard mouth-kiss a man who is mid-mortal-coil-shedding. (To Louisa’s scandalized face: “Like you never saw two men embrace on your dad’s commune?” Her reaction! Perfection! Also, if you want to know more about that failed Alcott utopia, Fruitland, here’s some more material for you.)
Walt and Louisa take Em out to a bar: Pfaff’s beer cellar, the Bohemian literary hot spot of the 1850s; Walt was a regular at what would now be considered a gay bar. (This is where I feel like the idea of this as a fantasy for Em falls apart. But if it’s not a fantasy sequence, then the framing of it with her reading in the greenhouse, sliding off her shoes, and having a very intense reading experience, is unnecessarily confusing! Am I alone here?) Walt tells Em that to be a great poet you need to feel everything. Naturally, he gestures at the entire bar and says, “all this I swallowed,” LOL. In a very relatable sequence, Em throws back a beer and finally admits at the top of her lungs that SHE LOVES SUE. Who is Sue? Walt wants to know. “She’s sort of my friend, she’s sort of my sister, and she’s also sort of my —” “Lover?” “Yes.” “Ooh, fabulous!” So endorsed, Em follows a woman onto the dance floor and goes wild. Good for you, Em.
Speaking of Sue: Things with Austin are pretty terrible. Austin keeps talking and cooing over the sleeping baby, and Sue, understandably, is like, could you please shut the fuck up before you wake up our infant??? One interesting moment here is Sue’s offhand remark that in her experience, “good fathers just stay out of the way.” But when we met Sue, she was an orphan. So I don’t know that, through the show, we know a whole lot about how her dad behaved. We do know that Sue (again, understandably) is pissed that Austin is drunk all the time. Then again, I think she’s a little mean just considering she was so flagrantly cheating on him with Sam and that she is still totally trying to be cheating on him with his sister. They’re such a bad match. I feel like they’d both be happier if they cut their losses! Would divorce shame them both for all time?
In other home front news, Vinnie buried herself alive “to honor the fallen soldiers,” and, as a result of her dramatic choice to sleep in the barn, she infested the family home with fleas. Is this a metaphor or just a completely irrelevant C-plot? You tell me.