To distract himself from the pain of life, Austin throws a tea party for his old college friends - but the day is disrupted by a major political event.
Mrs. Dickinson is preparing to serve both her husband and her son’s tea parties, which is like 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 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.
“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 Mrs. Dickinson plays the perfect hostess, they discuss recent events. Like the newspaper group, they seem unwilling to consider the abolitionist point of view.
Their attempts to avoid talking about the war, such as reminiscing about their college days or Ship’s love life are curtailed by Austin, who repeats the words that Henry spoke earlier.
In between these two groups of men is Mrs. Dickinson, who says “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 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 has doubts and makes him prove his love by putting on her Lola Montez fantasy.
Meanwhile, Emily has been in her room, “like some madwoman in the attic.” 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. 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”. “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.
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.
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.”
- Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson
- Jane Krakowski as Mrs. Dickinson
- Toby Huss as Edward Dickinson
- Anna Baryshnikov as Lavinia Dickinson
- Ella Hunt as Sue Gilbert
- Adrian Enscoe as Austin Dickinson
- Nick Kroll as Edgar Allan Poe
- Timothy Simons as Frederick Law Olmstead
- Ayo Edebiri as Hattie
- Will Pullen as Nobody
- Finn Jones as Sam Bowles
- Pico Alexander as Henry ‘Ship’ Shipley
- The episode's title and themes are based on "I like a look of Agony," Poem #241 by Emily Dickinson.