Were you expecting to be spending so much time with Em’s spurned suitor, Ithamar Conkey? I appreciate how the show has put him to good use; proof that someone can be a man a generation older than Em and still have progressive views; a sign that Papa Dickinson’s choices aren’t just the inevitable result of his station, age, and gender. You may recall that at Frazar’s funeral, Ithamar was hyping Papa Dickinson’s return to politics. On this carriage ride to Boston, he reveals a twist: This isn’t just any old trip. The Massachusetts Republican Party will be on hand to nominate Mr. Dickinson for lieutenant governor! Papa Dickinson is appalled at the notion that he could ever leave behind his Whig ways, not to mention his family. Ithamar stops the carriage (!) and kicks Dickinson out into the street (!!), echoing Em’s allegations from the last episode: “You are a backwards-thinking, stuck-in-the-mud, stuffy old Whig. You simply cannot accept that the life of this country is moving on, so I suppose that means it will have to move on without you.” Okay, maybe I spoke too soon about this guy re: being a bad match for Em? (I kid, I kid.)
Back in Amherst, Em is gazing at sheep, possibly thinking of how she accused her dad of being one of these mammals not long ago. She has called a SIBLING SUMMIT, which I absolutely love. In fact, now is as good a time as any to say I think Dickinson does sibling relationships better than any other show on TV. So often TV siblings are either parodically intimate (the gothic near incest of You, sitcom sisters always telling each other everything) or barely there. But Dickinson treats all these relationships with nuance and realism; even in this summit, you can see how the callous things they’ve said to each other were laced with tenderness, how they can’t totally keep straight faces even for this very serious conversation. And, of course, we get a great parallel with Mama Dickinson, who spends much of the episode getting the space to articulate the grief she feels over losing her sister, a season-long arc that (unlike Vinnie’s dead ex-boyfriends/would-be-husbands bit) gains new depths as the season progresses and really pays off here.
But back to this generation of Dickinsons: After much preamble, Vinnie says, “Whatever you’re trying to say, can you say it like we’re not on trial for some very boring crime?” Em comes out with it: Austin was right; their dad sucks and is leaving everything to Austin, including his daughters. Though Em is still scandalized that her father views her as property, Vinnie is less shocked. Em’s apology is excellent, I must say. And then she extracts a promise from Austin that, if I were her, I’d want to get in writing: that he will forever respect her and Vinnie’s autonomy, independence, and freedom. I love that Austin’s one condition is that Vinnie gets rid of her cats. (“We spend $36 a week on milk and cream.”) All the chemistry here is top-notch and I’m very happy these kids made up even though, as you all know, I never completely bought into their rift in the first place.
Time to mend another broken heart: Em finds her mom still living that early quar life, dramatically fainting into the pillows and refusing to clean or get out of bed. The only person Mama Dickinson wants to talk to is her sister. Em tells her mother about the spirit of Lavinia, in the form of a bird, that she saw at the funeral. Mama Dickinson’s reply is that her sister hated birds, to which Em replies: Tell me more about her. It’s so lovely, this whole scene. I feel like people have no clue what to say to someone grieving when often all the grieving person wants is to be invited to talk about the person they miss. “No one loved her like I did,” Mama Dickinson says, adding that she is jealous that Em and Vinnie are “growing old together” (lmao, they’re like 27) under the same roof.
This sweet moment is interrupted by the sight of a MOUSE skittering about because even though Vinnie has like 500 cats, they are no match for the filth they’ve been living in since Mama Dickinson took to bed! At first, she is terrified, but then she remembers: Aunt Lavinia loved mice, kept them as pets, used them in pranks. THIS is the ghost of Aunt Lavinia. “I’d know the ghost of my sister anywhere,” she says. “That mouse has her exact vibe.” Ugh, perfect delivery by Jane Krakowski. Mama Dickinson talks to her mouse-sister, which I know sounds deeply weird but honestly is quite moving! It IS fucked up how having husbands and children can isolate women from one another. With the closure she gets from this inter-species confab, Mama Dickison rises from bed and announces her intentions to clean once again.
Sue has busted out the fancy tea service for George, who got his draft card and will join the same regiment as Frazar. Austin finally caves and admits that he paid someone to go in his place because he couldn’t bear to leave his son. Amazingly, George and Sue both understand instantly — a real pivot from Sue’s attitude about all of Austin’s decisions earlier this season! Remember when she told him she couldn’t wait for him to join the Army? Wow, people CAN change. George assures Austin that he doesn’t have to go to war to be a man, which is so true.
Speaking of men at war, we get a glimpse of the Black regiment basking in their victory, really feeling themselves, as they should! Higginson catches up with them with some big revelations: One, he’s lost his way, and it’s time for him to take a sabbatical. Two, he’s promoting Henry to sergeant and leaving him in charge. Three, he needs to swing by Amherst on his way home to meet the genius who has been sending him poetry — Emily Dickinson. And Henry is like, dude, I KNOW her!!! But he shares no additional intel. Instead, he asks Higginson to “do something” for him in Amherst, and if that “something” is not “pass along a VERY detailed and apologetic letter to my wife and daughter about how I ghosted them in the middle of a war,” I will be a VERY disappointed recapper.
Back at Sue and Austin’s, Em shows up to find a little going-away party for George. But Em really just came to see Sue and make out with her against the wall. I gotta say I feel a bit conflicted and confused by this only because it seems like a real one-step-forward, two-steps-back situation re: Em making up with Austin. Have Sue and Austin really reached some kind of agreement about their respective infidelities? Is Austin actually cool with his wife being in this intimate tryst with his sister?
At the party, Vinnie tells everyone she’s been working on a site-specific performance piece about grief called “Sheep No More” (lol), that involves staring into the eyes of Old Bessie the dying sheep and “meditating on the basic reality that one way, we will all be dust.” The Drum Beat editors pull out the latest issue with an original poem by Emily Dickinson, but really by “anonymous” — the one Sue submitted on her behalf. “I just felt like the country needed it,” Sue says, which is very romantic, and though I don’t usually like subterfuge for this sort of thing, I will allow it! Em reads it aloud but not before saying, “I’ll do it for all of you, but mostly for Sue” … Em, not the most subtle move here. Em recites the poem, “These are the days when Birds come back.”
Then we see Austin holding his baby against his chest while Sue and Em have sex — which, again, I guess we are to assume he’s down with it? Or no longer cares? Interesting loophole! Sibling-betrayal concerns aside, I love how this scene with Em and Sue is shot. So many sex scenes on TV are just scored to the rafters with music that tells you what to feel. I’m very into how quiet this scene is, with no sound but Em’s poetry.