This episode is an interesting step, pacing-wise: After last week’s major family blowup, we get this sort of post-storm calm, where Sue and Austin are mostly MIA and are actually mending (sewing pun!) their little nuclear family while the Dickinsons across the way are just trying to move forward without them as best they can. It’s a fairly undramatic half-hour, which ordinarily wouldn’t bother me much — and it’s not like this is the type of show that is gunning toward some massive dramatic finale, necessarily; we all know “the ending,” so to speak — but this close to the end of the series, I was a little disappointed at how little really happened here. Em’s writing even gets sidelined. Instead, we get a family field trip to an asylum and a LOT of very on-the-nose remarks about sewing kits, housewifery, and phantom limbs.
As the Dickinson women make housewife kits for soldiers, Vinnie laments that she wishes she WERE a housewife. This bit is getting a little old. I keep waiting for it to get deeper, and it just skips along the surface: poor single Vinnie. But she’s come so far! I wish we were at least hearing her talk about how much she misses having great sex rather than how pathetic she feels for being unwed. We learn that Sue isn’t speaking to Em; Em is still in this (uncharacteristic, no?) chipper, look-on-the-bright-side tear, insisting the family accept the new situation “just like a soldier losing a leg.” I rolled my eyes at this, but I do love her outfit.
Papa Dickinson arrives to say the whole family is going to the lunatic asylum for women, which has offered him a trustee position (lmao forever and ever). He wants to cement his legacy; I think, hey, maybe if you’re so worried about your legacy, you could take a real stand against slavery??? Just a thought?!? But nobody suggests that, and it’s off to the asylum they go! Mama Dickinson fears her husband has planned out this whole thing just to lock her away in a madhouse. Em swears she won’t leave her behind, though eventually, Mama Dickinson will wish she had.
The head doctor greets them by telling Papa Dickinson he loved his essay on “the proper place of women,” which does ring a bell — did he publish that in season one? Was it like women shouldn’t vote but should keep baking bread? It seems like something he would say. (And not being able to vote but being very busy baking bread is strong 2020 energy … v prescient of him.) The question, of course, is this: Which of the Dickinson women will seem the most insane to the doctor who will surely demand he keep them? Em is the obvious choice, but we have some potential wild cards in the “I’m NOT crazy” Mama and Vinnie, whose father cannot remember her name.
The doctor explains that, at the asylum, they treat “all modern female illnesses: exhaustion, overeducation, menstruation, laziness, being unmarried.” (“Being unmarried is a real illness?” Vinnie asks. “That feels right.”) Papa Dickinson keeps inadvertently describing the women in his family as psychopaths. Em spots a door with a “do not enter” sign on it, so, duh, as soon as the men abscond to some private place to talk business, she enters, and we hear her compose the first line of the poem “a little Madness in the Spring.” While she goes into the dungeon/basement to discover the wretched conditions in which women are kept, Mama Dickinson peels off and finds out that a stay in the asylum is the only way for a woman of her age and station to get some much-needed R&R.
In the basement cage, Em finds Abby in a straitjacket; her husband threw her in there because she allegedly burned a flag at a local suffragette protest (a great callback to her “Votes for Women” quilt from the Bazaar!) and “he was not happy with my decisions and found me generally annoying. I’m making air quotes, but you can’t tell.” Here in the basement, she is not allowed to have her glasses (she’s a “danger to herself”), which means she can’t see. She’s also not allowed to read or write, but she DOES get to eat these little pills, which she is just LOVING. Em says it’s horrific and unsanitary, and it’s time to stage a revolution.
Meanwhile, Vinnie is bonding with a girl who got locked up for being sad that a guy she loved died in combat two months ago. The guy, we learn, is Joseph Lyman, who — the sobbing girl reports through tears — was never really emotionally available, for his heart belonged to “some nitwit from Amherst … Vinnie.” VINNIE VINDICATED. She cries over his death, too, but in a smug and satisfied way.
As you likely expected, the head doctor tells Papa Dickinson that his daughter, Emily, is a lunatic, making the whole family ill. He insists Em stay for some “treatments” once her father “signs her over to us.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but the tone of this episode is a little tricky for me … like Em is literally locked downstairs in a torture chamber and could be stuck there forever, but also, it’s supposed to be kind of light and breezy? Em leads the whole gang upstairs and says this is a PROTEST. The head doctor is horrified: “Protesting, demanding women’s rights, civil disobedience — these are textbook examples of mental illness.”
Papa Dickinson’s ultimatum is “give up your daughter forever” or “be a trustee of an asylum that we in the audience of this show didn’t even know about until 17 minutes ago,” so as you can imagine, lots of suspense there. The Dickinsons go home with Abby in tow, whom they return to the husband who locked her up in the first place, and we have no idea what happens to the girls whose breakout went as far as the top of the stairs. That whole bit just left me feeling … uneasy. Though I did like Mama Dickinson announcing she’d be going to bed until the war is over. (In real life, she suffered from a severe bout of depression in 1855.)
Down in South Carolina, Higginson has an assignment for Henry — “Do you have space for that, or are you at capacity?” — to get the soldiers’ uniforms up to snuff so they can pass inspection. Henry quickly learns that this is hardly the first time these men, who are unpaid and unarmed and basically had to swipe what little uniforms they had off corpses, are subject to a test they will inevitably fail. But Henry says he’s got a very fine housewife kit thanks to his very fine housewife, whom, by the way, he still hasn’t written to (!) because he does not expect ever to return home (!!) so better for them to just FORGET him (!!!). HENRY. Ghosting your wife is the fastest way to make sure she is obsessing over where you are and if you’re okay!! Good lord, just write the girl a breakup letter if that’s really what you want.
Am I underwhelmed by the extremely pointed metaphor about mending clothes and mending families and hearts and nations? Yes, but I do love a makeover sequence. The men emerge, looking sharp as hell. They pass inspection … but there is no real immediate reward for this because Higginson can’t do much besides write a strongly worded letter. Oh, and by the way, the war is coming to them, but they still won’t have any guns; Higginson says, “We might also engage in some productive dialogue,” but the soldiers aren’t thrilled to learn they will remain unarmed in the face of “a bunch of racists who suffer from economic anxiety.” Henry finally hears what these men have been saying this whole time. He’s decided to call Higginson on his bullshit. Whatever that will mean.
And over at Sue and Austin’s, Austin is setting up an office for his firm, named Panache. Which is … a choice. Sue, rather gently, suggests they could be nontraditional parents as well as a nontraditional couple, and if Austin wants to, you know, parent his own kid, she could work with that. The kid, by the way, that they still haven’t named! Maybe Sue should do that, just seeing Austin’s idea of a good name for a law firm. But just as things are possibly looking up over there, Austin gets a very disconcerting letter: He’s been drafted.