With one episode to go, 'Dickinson' maintains its hot streak with more revelations on the cards.
- 🌸Emily and Austin's heart-to-heart.
- 🌸The Nobody mystery resolution.
- 🌸Podcast and media parallels.
- 🌸Lavinia's Spider Dance.
- 🌸Sam Bowles as the newspaperman devil.
- 🌸No reaction from Hattie's to the John Brown news.
After her poem made the front page of The Springfield Republican, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) turned invisible to all, with the exception of her brother. Aside from a brief scene, she doesn’t appear during the first 20 minutes of this week's episode, “I Like a Look of Agony.” This prolonged absence is a bold choice by Alena Smith, reinforcing how important the entire family is to this depiction of the great poet. And while Emily made the front page, there are other pressing political developments in the South that have caught the attention of the Amherst residents and the new print media in the penultimate Dickinson episode.
Last week, Emily witnessed Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) and Sue (Ella Hunt) in a compromising position in the Evergreens library, and the image of Sue getting pleasured by her editor (and crush) haunts her. If you are still on the fence about Sam after this revelation then his response to the fraught news out of Virginia should chill you to the bone. “War sells papers,” he tells new investors Edward (Toby Huss) and Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) regarding the profitability of conflict. A ghoulish lack of empathy emanates from the newspaperman who marvels at John Brown’s failure (again, I highly recommend the Ethan Hawke Showtime mini-series The Good Lord Bird) and remarks that his face and crazy hair “has all the makings of a celebrity.” Referring to Brown’s downfall as ideal for business, Sam’s opportunistic streak is nauseating but reflective of how media empires are run. Austin is already angry that his father invested without consulting him, but standing there in his bathrobe does him no favors and his rebuttal is laughed off.
“No one is a failure who stands up for what he believes in,” Austin remarks before stomping out in his nightwear. Sam has mentioned that all the co-conspirators will likely be discovered and the Evergreens barn has been used as a secret meeting spot. Funds have directly been sent to Brown’s cause and the celebratory mood of last week’s impromptu barn dance has been sucked dry. The oldest Dickinson sibling is naïve regarding Henry’s (Chinaza Uche) fate, who has never truly been safe but now his life is definitely in danger. Meanwhile, Austin is unlikely to face any blowback because he has been a silent partner in all of this. Providing a safe space and offering financial support is not to be sniffed at, but Austin has not put his neck (literally) on the line as John Brown has. He couldn’t even tell his father when he mentioned the good investments he has made — Edward scoffs at his recent painting mishap instead — and ultimately, all Austin can do is bid Henry safe passage. One drawback is we don’t get to see how characters like Hattie (Ayo Edebiri) react to this catastrophe, and while the 30-minute runtime is often beneficial, it does mean that some characters are not afforded screen time.
Later, Austin repeats Henry’s assertion that things have to get worse before they can get better but his old college buddies are viewing this fight as an abstract concept that won’t impact them (yet). Accused of bringing down the mood, Austin’s tea party is indicative of why this period is ripe for drawing parallels to current divisions. Robbie Macdonald’s script leans hard into this during a scene that references political podcast Pod Save America when one character remarks he is “out of the prediction business” when polls are cited. Ever the entrepreneur, Ship (Pico Alexander) comes up with the idea of meeting once a week to discuss politics and have someone write down their conversation and distribute it — they can advertise aprons, blue aprons. The Serial theme needle-drop ensures that anyone who is very online will get the gag.
The balance between nods to contemporary culture and historical accuracy continues, while also highlighting what blowhards most of these privileged men are. Although, it is nothing in comparison to Sam discussing how they can satisfy readers on different sides of the issues — endorse Brown’s spirits but not his actions. “It’s an attention economy” he smugly suggests and he is unphased by the thought of two Americas as long as he can shift his product. Again, this is reflective of those who control media platforms from William Randolph Hearst at the turn of the 20th century (The Alienist covers this in Season 2) to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. It is not a stretch to say that history repeats, particularly in how media is wielded by powerful men who turn a profit from a conflict.
War might seem far off (timeline-wise it is less than two years away), but Emily’s conversations with Nobody are a reminder of the bloodshed to come. The mystery of who Nobody was reignited last week and the poet discovers this person’s identity when she stops by Austin’s college reunion. Frazar Stearns (Will Pullen) is the reason Austin organized this shindig after he ran into him at the opera. At the time he mentioned Frazar was studying at West Point and in reality, Stearns did die during the Civil War and this had a profound impact on both Austin and his sister. Again, Smith is using historical events to deepen this narrative — even if some elements are fantastical. When Emily sees Frazar, she spirals quickly referring to him as Nobody before Austin pulls her into the library. Here, she realizes that what she witnessed the night before wasn’t a hallucination.
Austin being the only person who could see Emily last week is no coincidence and the scene that follows highlights their bond. Emily can’t let him stay in the dark regarding Sue and Sam’s transgression but he already knows (hence his consistent cold attitude toward Sam). Taking this to mean he knows everything, Emily mentions the baby his wife miscarried, and this revelation crushes him. Earlier his father has berated him for “one failure after another” and Emily’s disclosure confirms his fears. “I’m a joke,” he ironically chuckles before sobs take control. His quest for meaning has been in vain as he has “a hole inside that nothing can ever fill.” His sister might be suffering a personal crisis but she is emphatic in her support:
“You are not a fraud. You are so full of love. You have so much love to give. And none of us could survive without it… least of all me.”
This release is one that has been building all season and this episode features a lot of spilled pent-up emotions. Sue’s absence gives Austin the space to have this conversation with his sister, but she also finds solace. Visiting Mary Bowles (Marié Botha) is Sue’s guilt eating away from the affair she is conducting. Mary is one of her oldest friends and Sam is not all they have in common. They laugh about their sad childhoods, but just as Austin knows what his wife has been doing, Mary is aware that Sam’s attention has been captured by an Amherst lady. However, she doesn’t know this woman sits mere feet away. Mary mentions a miscarriage, which breaks through Sue’s fortified heart and she admits she has been pushing the pain away. Sue’s cold exterior hasn’t made her easy to like this season, but this conversation is a reminder of how much loss she has endured in such a short life.
Back at the Evergreens, Emily apologizes to Frazar for her rude reaction to his arrival and he is surprisingly understanding about her outburst. He mentions her poem, which causes Emily to bring up how fame could be dangerous to her. “If fame belonged to me I could not escape her,” she observes (a line from a letter the real Emily sent to Thomas Wentworth Higginson) and this season’s central thesis is spelled out. Considering Nobody has always been anti-fame, it is meaningful that she shares these fears with Frazar.
This episode is weighted in consequence, but there are moments of levity including Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) rising to the challenge of two tea parties — and offering her opinion about the conflict. She is upset that no one seems to appreciate her efforts, but Ship makes sure to point out she is the dream housewife before venturing up to win Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) back. What follows is an incredible scene cementing Baryshnikov as the funniest performer of this season. The Spider Dance is accompanied by Danish rock band Volbeat’s ode to Lola Montez adding to the ridiculously sublime recital. Ship claims he can accept Vinnie for all that she is, a promise he is unlikely to keep. But for now, Lavinia can bask in the hot dummy sex afterglow. The Dickinson family still has a lot of unresolved issues to work out and next week's finale is going to be lit.
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