What to Watch Verdict
Blending physical comedy with emotional (and historical) truth, a trip to the spa offers a chance for 'Dickinson' to excel once again.
🌸The evolution of Emily's relationships with her mother and sister.
🌸Jane Krakowski's pep talk.
🌸Demonstrating that wellness has historical roots long before Goop.
🌸The balance of humor and emotion.
🌸The slow-burn of Austin's arc.
🌸After last's week's song explosion, the Sue conversation is a tad anti-climatic.
After the dizzying events at the opera when Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) was told during a heated conversation with editor Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) that “the romance is between you and yourself,” the poet spends some time with the women in her life. She might be an unenthusiastic participant, but a day at the spa proves to be surprisingly holistic in another episode that explores how current trends are rooted in the past.
Print media (including the abolitionist newspaper), salons, and a night at the opera are elements nodding this period of great change in American history, which is being shown through the lens of Emily Dickinson’s life and work. Earlier in the season, a séance tapped into the spiritualism of the mid-1800s while also doubling as a therapy session providing an outlet for the dilemmas haunting the participants. Similar to these previous endeavors, this trip to the spa to experience the healing powers of water (aka hydrotherapy) has not been fabricated for the purposes of television. Water-cure towns took off in the United States during the 1850s, and this sanctuary is perfect for the Dickinson women to expel the negative energy threatening to envelop their Amherst abodes.
The Dickinson creative balancing act is in full swing in “Forever - is composed of Nows,” which is an episode that revels in the comedy of the spa treatments (including similarities to contemporary fads) while also digging into Emily’s emotional malaise. “What if that’s my brand?” she quips when she is told the spa cures sick and melancholy women. There is a distinct split between those buying into the wellness ethos (see the well-traveled Aunt Lavinia and her niece with the same name) and the reluctant participants (Emily). Straddling the divide are Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) and Sue (Ella Hunt), the latter has been reading a book on etiquette and this invitation from her mother-in-law is one she knows not to turn down. Meanwhile, Mrs. Dickinson is also concerned with appearances even if the opera was already an expense she didn’t enjoy. Edward (Toby Huss) voices his displeasure about the cost — calling it “experimental voodoo” — in the wonderfully chaotic cold open and the financial tag becomes a running joke throughout the episode.
Mrs. Dickinson has a set schedule, but Emily has never been one for following her mother’s plans and she immediately wants to ditch the second treatment to catch Sue up on the thoughts dominating her mind. It has been weeks since she first gave Sam her poem and after the incident at the opera, she fears this poem will never see the light of day. Laying the blame at Sue’s feet regarding her current predicament — because she encouraged this publishing ambition — her all-consuming feelings are part infatuation, part standing on the precipice of her creative dream. “It’s like your brain is on fire,” Emily is told during this treatment, which is a pretty accurate description of how Sam has impacted her emotionally. Because this conversation is focused on Sam and her writer’s block, it feels a little anti-climatic when factoring in the Sue and Emily of it all — in comparison to the terrific (and fantasized) song moment from last week.
It isn’t only Sue who is Emily’s sounding board and while tensions flared between sisters in the first season, Lavinia’s (Anna Baryshnikov) attempt at independence has been fueled by her sister’s refusal to conform. When Emily suggests that maybe she should’ve got married, Vinnie gives a well-timed pep talk telling her “I need you to be strong. Emily, you’re my hero.” Running into one of the men she turned down in Season 1, George (Samuel Farnsworth) also has a positive effect when he recalls one of her poems word-for-word. “Water is taught by thirst. Land — by the Oceans past” he recites and notes that the spa made him think of this missive. She thanks him for always believing in her and while this crisis of confidence is hard to shake, her words have lasting power on the few people that have read them so far.
Interactions with Sue, her sister, and George are meaningful, but it isn’t until the “cocoon rebirth” session with her mother that Emily has a real breakthrough — and it has nothing to do with the freezing cold towels they are encased in. Utilizing Krakowski’s physical comedy prowess, this scene flips from laughter to tears when Emily confesses the burden of falling in love. Likening her experience to that of infection, her mother doesn’t pry too much about the man causing these extreme emotions but instead offers her advice. Love shouldn’t induce this visceral reaction and Mrs. Dickinson cites her own marriage as the antithesis to this. “I know he’d sit by my bedside if I needed him” she notes while also pointing out that this partnership isn’t always easy — as we have witnessed this season — but she doesn’t deserve to feel unwell. It is hard to imagine a conversation like this occurring last season, but Emily is older now and marriage is no longer all Mrs. Dickinson wants for her. “I feel almost healed for now,” she says after she remarks that no treatment has made her feel better than her mom. Yael Green’s script is particularly potent in this scene that brought me to tears — ditto Lavinia calling Emily her hero.
“For now is the best we can do,” comes the reply, which plays into the poem Emily begins to write early in the episode after Aunt Lavinia (Jessica Hecht) has commented, “Forever, after all, is about right now.” Mortality and remembrance is a repeated theme in Dickinson’s work and while Emily hasn’t taken a ride in Death’s (Wiz Khalifa) carriage so far this season, fame is intrinsically linked to this notion of permanence. It was there when she talked to Adelaide May about being forgotten and it informs Emily’s choice in the final scene. Returning home relaxed, she finds Sam convincing her father to invest in print media (a solid investment in 1859). She has made her peace that her poem will not be published but in true Sam Bowles style, he tells her it will make the front page tomorrow. Rather than let the rest of her work languish in the darkened trunk, she gives him everything she had written. Reiterating his trustworthiness — I still don’t buy it — the title music choice of “Devil I Know” by Allie X seemingly backs up my gut.
The power of the written word ripples throughout this season, which includes the abolitionist newspaper that Henry (Chinaza Uche) is producing. His wife Betty (Amanda Warren) is concerned it is getting too dangerous as threats are becoming more frequent. Looking at the broader picture, Henry emphasizes why it is so important to keep going and this story continues to build — the Civil War is now only two years away.
One other plot that has been bubbling this season is Austin’s interest in the newly widowed Jane (Gus Birney). After last week’s continuing feud with his wife, his feelings for Jane make themselves known during a meeting about her will. He is a natural with baby Billy and the connection is undeniable, however, Jane proves she is not a superficial as she might appear by reminding her lawyer that they “made our decisions.” Some actions cannot be undone and this stolen kiss is not the solution to Austin’s growing frustration that his marriage is not what he thought it would be.
As we head into the final third of the season, the various threads are coming together and the anxieties of this era are making themselves more visible. At the moment Emily Dickinson has made a choice to embrace the present to preserve her future, but the tension comes from the knowledge that Emily will put those poems back in her trunk. Something will cause her to step back and shut the world out, but for now, she is clinging to the light.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.