You all know by now that I think Dickinson is at its strongest when it gets as weird as it possibly can, so I was absolutely thrilled by this week’s development, wherein the gazebo got struck by magic lightning that spun Em and Vinnie a century into the future so they could shoot the shit with Sylvia Plath at a mid-century sad-girl summit. I’d say the only downside of this is that the journey the Dickinson sisters go on is so compelling and fun that I feel a little let down every time we abandon them to head back to one of our other plotlines — I wish we could spend more time on this lovely and bizarre adventure.
But first, a reminder of where we left our Dickinsons: Sue and Em haven’t spoken in weeks. Mama Dickinson has taken to bed, because she is depressed but also brilliant; Vinnie and Em are now forced to fetch water on Maggie’s weeks off, among other unpleasant pre–indoor-plumbing chores. Higginson is writing to Em, imploring her to come down to Boston (even though he is in Beaufort? But I guess he’s planning a field trip) because he is enchanted by the “strange power” of her poetry. Austin just received his draft letter. Betty is still awaiting correspondence from Henry. Okay, I think that gets us up to speed. Onward!
Speaking of Betty, she’s still hanging with Sojourner Truth (hello, Ziwe, co-writer of this episode!), who continues to spout wisdom about how there is no bad time to date, even in the middle of a war. She’s not convinced Henry is Missing In Action so much as missing in action, if you get what I mean: “A man is only led by one thing, and it’s not his compass.” This is how Betty winds up on a date with Freddy, the mailman. Honestly, their date is pretty unremarkable except that Freddy gets to make some jokes about the postal service — through hail and sleet and supply chain delays and blah, blah whatever — and confirm Henry’s whereabouts, along with the news that Henry is unlikely to survive. (I did laugh out loud at Sojourner’s response to Freddy’s offer that Betty join him on his deliveries: “That’s not a date, that’s a job! Take her on a picnic or something.”)
Sue and Em finally talk. Yet again, I am extremely frustrated by Sue’s behavior — I’m sorry! I know there are Sue stans among you! But look: Sue is all, Why haven’t you come to see me? And Em says, Um … you were angry? And didn’t want to see me? Sue: “I was angry. That’s why you should have come.” SUE. If that’s what you want, you have to USE YOUR WORDS. Em, correctly, says Sue has no right to be mad about Em showing her poetry to other people; Em does not remind Sue, but I will remind you that Sue is the one who has been saying SINCE THE DAWN OF THIS FAIR SERIES that Emily’s poetry needs to be seen by the whole world, that the burden of being Em’s only reader is crushing Sue’s spirit and heart, etc., etc., etc. And now that it’s actually happening, she’s all jealous and insecure. Also, I go insane every time Sue says her dream is for Em to live in her house with her and raise this baby. I can root for the romance, but EM DOES NOT WANT TO BE A MOM. She has made this inescapably clear! Many times!! Honestly, the kicker for me is Sue talking about Austin getting drafted like the most important aspect of that shattering idea is the notion that Austin’s absence will open up a space in her house for Em. Like … Sue. Austin. Is. Em’s. BROTHER. She doesn’t want him to get drafted and go to the war where he can die!! I know I am to believe this is a love for the ages, but I swear Sue is so insensitive when it comes to shit like this.
Em leaves this infuriating conversation to find Vinnie sobbing in the gazebo, lamenting that she is doing menial household labor for her mother when she WANTS to be doing menial household labor for her “gorgeous, emotionally unavailable husband.” Em, too, yearns to skip ahead to the future. Lightning strikes and the gazebo twirls like a little dreidel, and then BAM. Car-horn sounds! Cars everywhere! It’s 1955, baby!!
Even though it’s a small moment, I appreciate the realism in Vinnie’s shock and horror that being in the future is a kind of a tragedy because it means their whole family is dead. Just as this is sinking in, a guest star ambles by: Hello, Chloe Fineman! Apparently, it’s Smith College Mountain Day, which means Em and Vinnie just look like undergrads engaging in some very Method acting–style hazing ritual. Em is dazzled by the idea of an all-female college. The girls are told that they’re on the steps of the home of “the great American poet Emily Dickinson,” which: !!!! Our new friend tells us she’s a poet too, although sometimes when she reaches into her imagination, it’s just this black void (maybe the electroshock ruined her brain?). “I’m Sylvia Plath.” I know this isn’t usually the response people have to Sylvia, but: Fun!!
I love how this sequence engages with popular misconceptions about Em from the 1950s (some of which endure) and future misconceptions about Em and Sylvia, who will one day be collapsed into some generic sad-girl poet by careless nonreaders and casual sexists alike. (For more on this phenomenon, I recommend showrunner Alena Smith’s preseason interview, in which she reveals that, when she’d tell people she was making a series about Emily Dickinson, they’d ask her, “When did she kill herself?”) Em gets a preview of what fame will be like (well, early fame; at this point, Em is more of a “local legend” than “poet who makes a cameo on every American student’s English curriculum.”) On the one hand, she sees she has achieved thrilling immortality — the way her face lights up when she sees her work! In hardcover volumes! And how she says to Vinnie, I told you to burn that and Vinnie’s like, Duh, of course I knew you didn’t mean it. My heart!
On the other hand: People’s perceptions of her don’t ring true to her experience. She watches her reality get distorted in real time. “She was a virgin, a miserable, dried-up, old spinster,” Sylvia reports. “Hardly even left her room. The only thing Emily Dickinson did was wear white and cry.”
Worst of all: Sylvia insists that Em had some unrequited feelings for a MAN. Except a book that came out a few years back, quite the scandal, alleged that Emily was a lesbian. (Vinnie: “No, she was an American.”) “Surely you must be familiar,” Sylvia says. “You do go to Smith College.” (Sidebar: I couldn’t find the specific book Sylvia refers to here, but it is mentioned in this article; does anybody know more? Share in the comments!) They have an intriguing back-and-forth about how relevant an artist’s private life is in the appreciation and analysis of their work. Sylvia composes “Mad Girl’s Love Song” before their eyes. I love that Em tells her, “Okay, your energy is so intense, and this is Emily Dickinson saying that.” Em and Vinnie can’t believe how limited this future is. Sylvia tells them this awful truth: “The future never comes for women.”
But meanwhile, Vinnie is having some realizations about her sister. As they head back to the time-travel gazebo, Em confesses that she loves Sue. Vinnie says she thinks she’s always known that. And then we get what I guess is our payoff for making so much of Vinnie’s arc this season about her loneliness and desperation for a husband: She tells Em that she is “so lucky” that she loves someone who loves her back, who is alive, who wants to spend her life with Em. If Vinnie had that, she would “run into their arms and never let go.” Even though Sue was deeply annoying at the top of this episode, I will give it to Vinnie: This is good and romantic advice.
With that, the gazebo whooshes them back to the past, where Vinnie has no recollection of the time travel but does remember the substance of their conversation. Em is like, well, that tracks, my imagination is OUT THERE. As they settle in, George approaches with bad news from the front: Frazar is dead. Em realizes that, her worst premonitions confirmed, she can see the future, which gives her recent hallucination/vision/thing a whole new gravity.
What did they miss while they were away? Well, their parents got stoned because Em has been growing cannabis in her greenhouse — intentionally? Or just because she liked the aesthetic and didn’t know you could smoke it? I’m going with the former, but here for all your takes. And Betty went on that date.
Over at the local bar, Austin considers his options and laments that he actually wants to spend time with his young son, and now he’s doomed to barely know the kid and possibly die young himself. His friend alerts him to America’s first law: Rich people can do whatever they want. Austin says he could never pay someone to go to battle in his stead … but could he?
Down in Beaufort, Henry calls Higginson out on his failure to arm these men, who will just serve as cannon fodder when the battle comes. When Higginson balks at the idea of defying Lincoln’s orders, Henry points out that Higginson is supposed to be a radical activist. And isn’t this exactly the sort of thing a radical activist would do? With that (correct) assessment in hand, Higginson tells Henry how a person hypothetically could intercept a delivery of rifles expected later today. Time to pick up a wagonful of guns, baby!