In the home stretch of episodes, Dickinson is really Going For It™, and I am thrilled to see it. We have GHOSTS. We have HELL that is also maybe DEATH that is also EM’S SUBCONSCIOUS FEARS AND FANTASIES. We have FAMILY DRAMA. Does it stick every landing? I have some qualms, but all from a place of joy that the show is taking big swings (yes, there are two baseball references in one paragraph. I’m an athlete). We will get into my one big hang-up later. But first, we have a funeral to attend: Frazar Stearns, as Em foretold, was killed in battle.
Em begs Austin to come with her to the service, but he refuses, saying he has no interest in watching their dad pretend to care about Frazar. It’s a very odd conversation because Em is obsessed with how the whole town will gossip about Austin if he doesn’t go, which is … extremely un-Em-like behavior, no? Okay, we got here sooner than I was expecting, but this is my real problem about this whole arc: It feels like Em is making this argument, expressing these priorities, and acting as she is because the plot needs her to do it, not because it’s what she would actually do. Since when does Em allow fears that small-minded locals would tarnish her reputation to affect what she does? Austin basically says as much, shouting that he doesn’t know what happened to her — she used to be so unconventional! And now she’s just like her dad. Correct assessment, Austin! Em’s swerve toward convention makes no sense to me, sorry, folks.
At the funeral, we see Papa Dickinson doing as Austin expected, dedicating a cannon to Frazar, which personally strikes me as an insensitive choice, considering his cause of death, but nobody else seems to have an issue with it. Em sees Frazar’s ghost at the funeral because of course she does. He tells her that in war, he found “the rawest, ugliest truth” that you are forced to face yourself. Em says, “You’re not the only one who has been at war,” which is an insensitive thing to say to the GHOST of a dude who just died in combat, but he lets this slide, v generous of him. She announces she has learned that her family is better off without Austin, to which I again say, what??? What is UP with her? Frazar astutely notes that Em’s hope about her new and improved family, free from pesky Austin, “rings false,” and I agree.
Em tells her dad she’s proud of him, and they stroll home together. (We also see Sue for a moment, who tells her friends, “We’ve officially dispensed with predetermined gender roles in our household” and that she wants to submit something to Drum Beat anonymously. An Em original, one assumes?) I love their adorable banter about talking to daffodils — they’re such good listeners! — but quickly they get down to more serious matters: Papa Dickinson wants Em to be the executor of his will. I guess this is the funereal equivalent of leaving a wedding and immediately plotting your own engagement. He keeps praising Em for her “loyalty” so aggressively that I was half-waiting for her to go, “… are you in the Mafia?” He’s all “nothing will ever divide us,” which has real Famous Last Words energy to it, and then he gets to the final clause: He will leave his family estate and all of his possessions to Austin. And if Austin dies, well, they’ll go to his son. His anonymous infant son. Chuckling, he says to a horrified Em, “Your little unnamed nephew could very well be your guardian one day.”
Em can’t believe it. Her father can’t believe that she can’t believe it. What was he supposed to do, leave everything to her? “The bank would tear the will right up! Women can’t own property because women are too emotional.” Anyway, these are the laws and life is easier without the burden of independence, isn’t it? Em stands up and finally lets her dad have it. She used to think he was incredible. But now she knows better. “You are nothing but a scared sheep. You have no power to change anything because you have no imagination.” There are tears! “And for that reason, no one will ever know or care who you were. I made a mistake. Austin was right about you. I was wrong.”
I will begin with praise: the delivery! HAILEE STEINFELD!!! Phenomenal. But (sorry! Sorry, but there’s a but) I have to say, I’ve had a hard time with the Em/Dad/Austin dynamic all season long. I feel like it does not track with the characters or their experiences up to this point. We spent so much of last season watching Em and Austin really connect — remember when her poem was published, and she became invisible to every single person in her life, except for him? — and seeing her work at individuating herself from her father, who in turn made some small steps (strides would be too strong a word) toward, I don’t know, a begrudging acceptance of Em’s individuality. And yet we are to believe that, when confronted with a choice between her brother — her peer who supports and understands her, not to mention someone she feels guilty for betraying re: her love for Sue — and her dad, who has mostly tolerated her and often shut her down and also is a moderate on the issue of slavery and the Civil War, she would choose … Papa Dickinson? It doesn’t add up.
So when we get to this big emotional climax — Em’s realization that her dad, despite her loyalty to him, is fundamentally incapable of meaningful change and will never see her as any man’s equal — I felt this vindication of, Oooh, of course, they reverse engineered this conflict to bring us to this moment. In order to have that punch really shock Em, we have to believe that she believes she and her dad are in a great place. But their intimacy this season at the expense of Em’s allegiance to her brother, while beautifully acted by Toby Huss and Steinfeld, has always felt forced — writing to serve a plot rather than a plot stemming from character. Did you all watch Mad Men? This whole sequence reminded me of Joan and the Jaguar deal, a real controversial choice that also prompted some viewers (including me!) to be like, Honestly, I don’t buy that Joan or Don or anyone involved would make these choices. It feels like the show started from the ending (Joan trades sex with the Jaguar guy for a promotion) and wrote backwards to make us believe that’s what would happen.
As Em storms out, she slams into Betty and begs to know how she keeps it all together. Betty does NOT have time for this shit. Betty had to find out about Henry’s situation from the mailman. Betty says that hope is a lie and that Em understands nothing, which is harsh but honestly fair. Em sprints through the trees as we see that, in the South, Henry’s troops are advancing. She finds Frazar again at the foot of what looks like an open grave that doubles as a path to hell. “Abandon all hope,” he says, and instead of following her down, he closes the lid behind her.
Now we are in some great, weird dream-sequence-y type stuff that I don’t want to overanalyze or explain at the risk of taking the fun out of your interpretation of what went down here. I would love to know how you all read into these scenes; share your theories in the comments!
Em is suddenly in a big white dress — bridal but also reminding me of Sylvia Plath’s insistence that the Emily Dickinson she’d learned about “only ever wore white” — with her curls everywhere, descending a spiral staircase flanked by family portraits. The vibes in the death nightclub are a little janky (it’s very Spirit Halloween, no offense — but also, c’mon Apple, splurge a little! I know you’re throwing $15 million an episode at The Morning Show). She finds Vinnie dressed as a maid, trying to keep all her husbands alive. “If I hadn’t spent my whole life listening to you preach about being a creative free spirit, I could’ve found love.” She pulls an Amy March and throws Em’s poems in the fire; Em flees deeper down the stairs, where she is grabbed by Austin, who lets her know that she is the reason his marriage is a disaster. Em thought Austin (dream Austin, at least) knew about her and Sue, and he’s like, Okay, I did NOT know that you LOOOOOVED her. And anyway, “You don’t love Sue. You love writing poems about loving Sue.”
Em is briefly locked in a room where her mom sits like a baby in a giant crib, wailing, “I’m alone and scared, and I lost my mommy,” while hysterically laugh-crying. Extremely spooky; great work, Jane Krakowski. Em goes farther down the seemingly endless staircase and winds up in her dad’s office, where he is a corpse collapsed atop his papers. Sue swoops in wearing a tux and a top hat, the groom to Em’s bride, and says, “Now we can be together,” which … yeah, I mean, that is one way to look at it. But Em is still sobbing over her dad. (Also, I apologize, but Sue’s “Rizzo from your high-school production of Grease” wig is killing me.)
Sue takes Em to — is this the Dickinson living room? But the hell/upside-down version? She says, “It’s just you and me now,” but in this context, that sounds awfully ominous. Time for a strange, sensual death dance! Sue is into it; Em is not, and she backs away from a kiss so quickly that Sue falls on her face. Em tries to follow her as she runs out, but instead she opens a door to a battlefield and finds herself dressed as a soldier, a rifle in hand, bodies strewn about. The ghost horses that pull Death’s carriage are there, but the carriage itself is crumpled. She watches the Black regiment march forward with Henry, but they can’t see or hear her. Still, she sees that they’re winning. She looks up and sees the bird — the hope bird from Aunt Lavinia’s funeral.
Then she is back in reality. In the forest, which looks quite glowy and beautiful. I love that twisted tree. And the bird is still there.