If last season’s big question was, “Is fame worth pursuing, or is it a toxin?”, this season, we are asking not just what it means to be a war poet but what good poetry is in wartime. Is art meaningless in these violent circumstances? What purpose does someone like Em serve when she’s not doing the obvious: going into combat or sewing bandages? This is a great question to build a season around, and the only real hang-up I have here is that sometimes our fair series can get a little too “theme of the week” with it, and it can get a bit repetitive. Em asking the same question over and over again, while realistic — who among us does not ruminate on what we consider to be the big ideas of our lives? — can get sort of stale. Sometimes it works, like in last season’s trip to the spa, where each person Em brought her concerns to had a new light. This time, it feels a little like, “… okay, I think we get it.” How’d you all feel?
But let’s begin with some good news: It’s a bright morning at the Dickinson household. Papa Dickinson is up, dressed, and exhilarated with the knowledge that he will die, probably soonish, and it’s time to get his estate in order. I know Em doesn’t want to hear it, but that’s a very good idea. Given how Em feels about death (not to mention Death, her BFF), I’m surprised this conversation throws her. She loves talking about death! She’s always felt so alone in her obsessions, and finally her dad is sharing one with her and she’s not thrilled about it? Interesting. Speaking of death, I’m very into Vinnie’s fixation on the loss of her “infinite number of husbands I’ll never meet.” Just knowing Vinnie and the show, I have a feeling/hope that this recurring joke, which at the moment is being played as a sort of flippant funny thing, will come back more poignantly and painfully — Vinnie as a kind of stand-in for all the women of her generation who watched all the men they loved, or could have loved, be slaughtered for years on end. In the meantime, I’m happy to see her insist upon more ruffles and cleavage in her mourning dress. She looks fantastic. Very here for those fishnet fingerless gloves.
Em confronts her dad about the rift between him and Austin, and Papa Dickinson dismisses the whole thing, claiming Em is being “dramatic” and life is too short for grudges. How’d this land with all of you? On the one hand, I really liked his attitude about supporting his son by giving him space and not forcing some inauthentic reunion (the kind Em seems to be pushing for). But later on, when Austin (drunkenly, as is his standard practice) accuses his dad of trying to make problems go away by ignoring them and not taking him seriously … that hit me, too. It is a way of minimizing Austin’s legitimate grievances to say they aren’t even worth fighting over, is it not?
Vinnie is hosting a sewing circle that will now be focused on making bandages for soldiers. (This whole thing reminds me of Molly the American Girl. She knit quilts or something for the war effort, right?) Em keeps insisting upon her need to sit in peace and write. Vinnie scolds her: Peace is NOT an option. I feel for Em trying to carve out the time and space to write in a modern world that demands she gives all of her time and energy away to other things and people. If she doesn’t set that boundary, she will never write anything!
We also learn that Betty (1) hasn’t heard from Henry yet, which worries me because I’m afraid Em is going to write a fake Henry letter so Helen (Betty and Henry’s daughter) will feel better, which is NOT a good idea, and (2) she has a houseguest who is keeping her up all night so Betty can transcribe her life story. Did any of you guess who she was? I admit I did not, but it’s Ziwe (!) as Sojourner Truth (!!) in a solid end-of-episode reveal. I love that she is “60,” but also, “we don’t know your exact birthdate.” That said, I hope she gets more to do, because so far her material is reading a little Schoolhouse Rock and not enough like a three-dimensional character peppered with fun facts (which this show has done so well before! See: Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Law Olmsted). Also, though his family does not, we get confirmation of life re: Henry, seeing him arrive safely at his intended destination.
Sue’s baby is a boy, is a week old, has no name, and cannot be held by Mama Dickinson, who in classic mother-in-law fashion is outraged at this slight — and, as Sue later tells Em, only comes over to “criticize me, boss me around, and give me advice that I don’t need or want. She just needs to respect my boundaries.” Tale as old as time, baby. Em is sent by her mother as an envoy to plead her case. Em does not want to go. Em wants to write! Can’t the people give her some space? But no; she goes across the street. She is the only person Sue wants to see. She calls herself Uncle Emily, lol.
This scene is very sweet, but also I am being driven insane by Sue’s repeated plea to run away with Em and raise a child with her. SUE, EM DOES NOT WANT TO RAISE A CHILD AT ALL. LET THE POET WRITE POETRY. She also wants Em to stay for dinner since Austin is away anyway. Sue is furious that Em “always” chooses her family over her. To this I say, first of all, Sue, your invitation is extremely last-minute and Em already has plans with her sister. Second of all, Sue’s whole thing about how she just wants to feel “chosen” by Em does not align with the series thus far, no? Em spent all of last season being obsessed with Sue! Writing her 10,000 poems that Sue could barely handle!! Em has been chasing and chasing, and now she has sort of made peace finally with the fact that she can’t betray her brother by continuing to have sex with his wife, and Sue’s response to this is to pout about Em being a grown-up? Honestly, rude!
It’s time for the sewing circle, where we get caught up on some goss: Jane is in Vietnam. Vinnie is tearing up her old dresses to make bandages, so “the closest I’ll ever get to a man is if he wraps his hemorrhaging leg wound in a piece of my silk.” (I lost it at “Joseph Lyman died fighting for the Confederacy. But we’re not ready to have that conversation.”) Em’s enforced presence in the sewing circle is deeply annoying because she obviously can’t sew and is just ruining fabric and wasting time. Meanwhile, her amazing brain is full of poetry, and she has finite time on this cruel planet to get it all out on paper, and instead, all these dolts are trying to make her feel bad because she sucks at this one domestic thing!
Em explains that she wants to tend to the wounds in people’s HEARTS and SOULS with her POETRY. The group points out that the greatest living poet in America is Walt Whitman, who is currently working as “a nurse in a field hospital.” Pretty much your classic debate re: are actions more important than words, what good is poetry in a battlefield, etc. But one partygoer talks about Drum Beat, which her husband runs under the warm gaze of Lincoln himself! (In real life, Dickinson did publish three poems in Drum Beat, a fundraising magazine for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which gave medical supplies and aid to the Union army. Its editor was Richard Salter Storrs Jr., who is maybe supposed to be the husband to which our character here refers? He went to Amherst and was friendly with Austin.)
Em decides the best thing she can do for the world is lock herself away and write poetry. And Betty’s response to this is, if you can’t handle the world, why would anyone need to hear what you have to say? My response to this is, okay, she is listening to the world; it’s just that at some point, the girl needs to sit at the desk and get it done, or she will never write anything!! Betty, you’re a seamstress, you should understand! Your clothes engage with the world, but they only exist because you stop doing other stuff and get to work!! I feel like no one here appreciates the creative process.
Austin breaks up this debate by arriving with an injury obtained in that most valiant of ways: during a bar fight. Mama Dickinson, naturally, uses an armful of the bandages that were supposed to go to war heroes on her son’s sliced-open shin. In his drunken delirium, Austin wails, “Where is JANE?” which, uh, Vietnam buddy, as you know. Em thinks this is the right time to tell Austin that their father forgives him. Did Em not listen to anything Austin said? Also, read the room! Now is not the moment! Austin still wants to “secede” from his family, but he also wants his mom to cradle him like a baby.
Speaking of babies: Em can hear Sue’s crying from across the road, which, yikes. She’s in her room (FINALLY) when George knocks on the door. (George, who proposed to Em and was rejected, then went West but turned around, has always supported her work but also keeps looking for an opening that will never arrive re: Em’s heart.) He has a gift: a copy of the Atlantic! George points to one article in particular: advice for young poets by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Presumably, this is a reference to his “Letter to a Young Contributor,” published in April 1862; in the show, as in life, reading this prompted Em to write Higginson a letter and send him her poetry. George assures Em that even in the heat of battle, here is someone who still finds the time to care about poetry and that Em must write because he’s her biggest fan, and it’s what she was put on this earth to do. I write in my notes, George, please don’t be creepy. She’s not into you, but he goes in for the kiss anyway. (“I just thought maybe with the war going on and everything.”) No, George, with “the war going on and everything,” Em has other things to do: Get her poetry published.