The Civil War seems inescapable as two tea parties coincide.
This recap of Dickinson season 2, episode 9, “I Like a Look of Agony”, contains spoilers.
Do people on the precipice of grand historical events know the enormity of their actions? Or of the times they live in? After John Brown’s raid on Harpers, most of the characters of Dickinson know that war is coming, but their attitude towards it reveals everything about them. And the writers are clever to apply modern rhetoric to compare the past to the present, showing the cowardice of both the Dickinson bunch and today’s figures who would poo-poo the fight for racial equality.
The initial setup of Dickinson season 2, episode 9 is a bit of a riff on the classic “two dates one-night” sitcom scenario, although it’s two tea parties and Emily Norcross is preparing to serve both her husband and her son’s events — a dream come true for her. But she’s not the only one invited to both; Austin should be part of the Springfield Republican investors meeting, but an argument with his father changes that.
“You treat me like a child,” Austin tells him, after learning that Edward has made financial decisions without his awareness. Edward lambasts him, claiming that he only made Austin a partner to promote their family’s image, and makes fun of his forged painting. “It’s one failure after another.”
Downtrodden, he becomes even more alienated when Bowles arrives, puts the charm on Edward, and proceeds to treat the raid on Harper’s Ferry (which just happened) as nothing more than an opportunity for profit. “War sells papers,” says Sam Bowles, a true capitalist, and most of the newspaper folk agree. Some of the older folk lambast Brown, but Bowles knows the revenue a character like him will draw in.
Learning of Harpers Ferry, Austin’s mind immediately rushes to Henry, who he finds packing up, leaving town for his family’s safety. “Things will have to get worse before they can get better,” Henry says, in what feels like a justification for the upcoming war, and a motto of fatalism. Despite his belief that he and Austin will never meet again, I hope we see more of Henry and his family next season.
“If there’s a war coming at least we have each other,” Austin tells his friends, who he’s gathered for what will be for many of them the last time they see each other. While Emily Norcross plays the perfect hostess, they discuss recent events. Like the newspaper group (and most white people), they seem unwilling to even consider the abolitionist point of view; indicative of the white elitist point of view that persists to this day. But while the former are steeped in white supremacist, capitalist business logic, the younger group would prefer to ignore matters such as racial equality.
Their attempts to avoid talking about the war, such as reminiscing about their college days or Ship’s love life (“I have no luck with women”) are curtailed by Austin, who repeats the words that Henry spoke earlier. He’s listening (and learning!). (The scene where Ship invents the podcast and the Serial theme starts playing had me in stitches.)
In between these two groups of men lies Emily Norcross, who seems to epitomize the brunch liberal: “If I can find a way to serve two perfect tea parties, perhaps we Americans can figure out how to keep our country together.” She feels underappreciated, that is, until Ship finds her and praises her for being the ideal of domesticity he so clearly wants in Lavinia.
Seeing Lavinia’s mother perform the role he wants in her, he re-proposes. “The country is on the verge of war and I don’t want there to be any conflict between us.” But Lavinia, rightfully, has doubts and makes him prove his love by putting on her kinky, Lola Montez fantasy.
Meanwhile, Emily has been in her room, “like some madwoman in the attic.” The events of the last episode have left her frazzled, but she eventually decides to visit her brother, who invites her to join the tea party. Despite George’s warm welcome, Emily is not the ideal guest, gazing into the fire and repeating morbid poetry.
There’s a knock on their door, and Austin’s missing guest, Fraser Stearns, arrives. But he’s not just Fraser. “You’re nobody,” Emily tells him. She has a vision of Fraser’s upcoming death and begins prophesying. She’s a little too intense, and it starts to scare everyone around her. Austin pulls her aside where she reveals Sue’s infidelity. It turns out Austin was already aware, but he was not aware of Sue’s miscarriage, and when Emily reveals it, he’s shaken.
“I’m a failure” he says, “nothing I do, works”. Poor Austin, despite his cruelness at the end of last season, I’ve been feeling for him. His breakdown is heartbreaking. “I’ve been trying so hard to find meaning, something that will make Sue love me,” he says, before resigning himself to being “a fraud with a hole inside that nothing can ever fill.” He’s internalized his father’s insults. Emily reassures him. “You have so much love to give,” she says, and it brightens his spirits.
During this, Sue has been at the Bowles’ house, but with Mary, Sam’s wife. Sue makes awkward conversation, and Mary lets on she has suspicions about her husband’s frequent absences. Mary reveals that the “sickness” Sam talks about her having, is related to her miscarriage. Hearing someone else’s similar ordeal finally allows Sue to open up and grieve. “I’ve been trying to push this pain away,” she says.
Finally in Dickinson season 2, episode 9, Fraser compliments Emily’s poem, but she tells him that she doesn’t want more to be published. “Part of me does, or did — but another part of me is pretty sure that fame isn’t good for me.” “In that case,” Fraser, the ghost who has guided her all season, now in the flesh, says, “you better get your poems back.”