Em has mail from Higginson, and she is ecstatic. He says her poetry is “wholly new and original.” I love Hailee Steinfeld’s squeal that her poetry is “alive.” And I love the fashion in this episode, especially here. Everybody got a little more done-up than usual for the Quilting Bazaar and Sanitary Fair, which means a great jacket-and-belt situation for Em along with this half-French-braid-into-low-ponytail look, which I’m really feeling. It looks like something I would’ve tried to copy out of Klutz’s Braids & Bows as a kid. (Real ones know!)
So Em starts our episode flush with the joy that, now validated by a real activist, her poetry is not some self-indulgent scribbling but does have the power to matter to people. Vinnie would be more effusive about the whole thing, but she took a vow of silence in solidarity with the troops. At the fair, Betty’s quilts have secret messages in them; another person points out that “America’s been a country for less than 100 years and thinks it invented quilting? Go off, I guess.” (I also want to note how much I love the auctioneer in this scene and her delivery of, “That’s literally how auctions work.”)
Mama and Papa Dickinson approach the quilting fair, and people are staring at them, and not in a good way. We soon learn this is because Papa Dickinson made the very interesting choice of doing the 1800s equivalent of signing that Harper’s Letter, some open plea for sympathizing with the Confederates. The man who proposed to Em provides some useful background for the rest of us: Papa Dickinson voted in support of the Fugitive Slave Act (!) before penning “this tone-deaf equivocating plea for civility asking us to listen to both sides.” Wow, no thank you! Papa Dickinson says living in Georgia doesn’t make his brother an enemy, and the auctioneer helpfully steps in to say, “That’s literally how civil wars work,” lmao. Em’s dad’s refusal to choose a side will jeopardize his standing in the community, his title as college treasurer, and who knows what else. Oh also, it’s his birthday. Woof.
Em’s takeaway from this interaction is that they can’t let her dad be sad on his birthday, which is certainly … one way of approaching things! She suggests a classic Dickinson family singalong — Vinnie can lip-sync, which mom, hilariously, says is “probably for the best.” Mama Dickinson is willing to put her anger at Sue aside (because “family matters”), despite Sue still not letting her hold the baby. I’m interested in how the women in the family are letting their grudges go to preserve relationships that are both vital (family!) and maybe actually bad for everyone involved (also sometimes family). It’s only Austin who thinks there’s a way out of these dynamics that are making him miserable and holding him back.
Em goes over to Sue’s place, where she’s dealing with classic new-mom shit: lots of crying, no sleeping. Gee, Sue, if only you had a mother-in-law who was desperate to watch your kid for an hour! Nah, better to leave him with those little pyromaniacs. Em makes a very sweet proclamation of love “from my dirty little heart,” and Sue sounds genuinely happy at the prospect of the family singalong. She says she can convince Austin to go because husbands have to listen to their wives. I mean … is that how her marriage has gone so far? Do she and Austin listen to each other at all? When Austin gets home (wearing a long quilted robe that I also love; everyone’s style is really on point this episode) and Sue tells him they’re expected at their father’s, Austin tells her, for the ten millionth time, he will not see his father. He wants one-on-one time with his son. Sue is mystified by this, which honestly does not make sense to me — fine that she doesn’t trust her drunk husband alone with an infant, but why is she so appalled by his desire to bond with his kid when she’s out here trying to get him to make amends with his own father? Then she straight-up tells him she wishes he would go to war. It’s very Joan Holloway “I can’t wait until you’re all in Vietnam.” Sue seethes that maybe if Austin went into combat, “your father might actually be proud of you.” Low blow, Sue!
Down in South Carolina, Henry runs school. We meet his students, who are fantastic, including Everett (“I have perfect taste in interior design”), Erasmus (“I occasionally do take the shape of a spider”), and Michael Jordan, who Erasmus predicts will one day draw people to stadiums to watch him dominate. All the students want guns. Henry says Higginson says it’s “in process” because the troop won’t be officially authorized until Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, which Erasmus (and we) know will be a while. Henry inspires them to embark on learning the alphabet with a rousing speech about how America is a paradox. It’s very compelling, I have to say, and his charges agree.
Over at the Dickinson household, the women nearly give their dad a heart attack by assaulting him with a rendition of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as soon as he walks in the door. But then he gets into the spirit, and the whole sequence is very cute, not to mention a great use of Jane Krakowski. The family reminisces about how Mom and Dad met and fell in love. (At a chemistry lecture, but don’t worry, Mama Dickinson “intended to go home before the science started.”) I really love these dips into her trauma over her sister’s death and these glimpses of how trapped she is in her life — how her sister Lavinia spent the whole day of her wedding panicked and crying; how she never saw her mother again because by the time she could get back home she’d “wasted away to nothing from yellow fever.” Even the old joke about how she could still fit into her wedding dress burns with some violence — “I’m not the child bride your father ripped from the bosom of her family anymore” — before she caves in to her grief and cries that she misses her sister.
Em respects the mood with a song (I think a variation on this one?), and Austin shows up to harmonize perfectly. He’s too calm and everyone should spot it, but Em is too happy to see him to notice. It takes Austin spelling it out: His unhappiness, his life is shaking out in a way he can’t stand. So he has some news: First of all, he’s leaving his father’s law office to start his own firm. Naturally, his father doesn’t think he’s ready for that, but he thinks everyone is too hard on the Confederacy, so is he really the best judge of things? Besides, Austin will have an edge because he’s specializing in a new area of law that is about to be very near and dear to his heart: Divorce, with a particular interest in “irreconcilable differences.” Austin intends to divorce Sue, he says, and take full custody of their child. Sue’s response is to coolly say that Austin “won’t even remember this in the morning.”
Again Em is appalled by this in a way that I think undermines her intelligence, maturity, and inside knowledge — it’s not like she doesn’t know his marriage is a fraud!! When their father yells at him, Austin demands Papa Dickinson “hit me like you used to hit her,” gesturing at Em. “We all knew. We just pretended not to.” Em tells Austin on his way out that she is choosing their father over him. Which … has the series led us to believe that this is what this character would do? Hasn’t her relationship with Austin grown deeper and more adult while her connection with her father has been strained and distant of late? Vinnie breaks her vow of silence to say, “This family is absolutely insane.”
Em goes upstairs to find Sue in her room at her desk, not wanting to be touched. Earlier, Sue told Em she had “thoughts” about her poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” which Em has already sent to Higginson. (She really did send this to him!) Now Sue is crushed that Em shared this poem with someone else. Yet again, I am confused and frustrated by the characterization of Sue. Did Sue not spend the entirety of last season begging Em to send her poetry to other people? Did she not literally say that it was too much to be Em’s only reader? And now she feels betrayed that Em did … exactly what Sue has been telling her to do for years? Sue is mad that Em’s letter “doesn’t even mention [her].” I mean, how would the letter mention you? “Dear stranger activist-writer who I admire greatly: Please find the enclosed poems, which I actually wrote for my sister-in-law, with whom I am deeply and profoundly in love and whom I sometimes do kiss, on the mouth, as sisters do. Umm. If you could just keep that between us, though, I’d appreciate it. Anyway, here’s ‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.’”
Sue yells that Em is just like Austin. “You think you’re fighting for something, but really you’re just running away.” I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of what’s going on here! But then again, Sue’s had a rough night. And I have a feeling she’ll remember it all in the morning.