Previously on John Adams: John got to be president, which ended up being an exhausting, endless fight, so he more or less willingly handed the position off to Jefferson and headed home, a private citizen once more.
It’s 1803, and John’s at his bucolic home, Peacefield. Dr. Rush arrives and is happily greeted by John, who thanks him for coming as he shows him upstairs to Nabby’s room. Seems the daughter of the house is having a health crisis. Rush sits down with his new patient and John and Abigail excuse themselves, closing the door behind them. Once they’re alone, Rush asks Nabby to tell him what’s bothering her. She informs him she feels a lump in one breast that pains her. Oh, dear God. Early 19th century breast cancer?! Yikes!
Rush gently asks if he may examine her, and she asks him to excuse her while she unbuttons the front of her dress.
Post exam, Rush heads downstairs, where John and Abigail are hanging out with their now teenage grandkids. Rush asks to speak with John and Abigail alone and he doesn’t mince words. He tells them flat out that Nabby has cancer and her whole breast has to be removed. Jesus. Eeek! They didn’t have painkillers back then! Excuse me, I need to go spend a few minutes hugging my knees in a corner and rocking back and forth, attempting to go to my happy place.
All right, let’s get through this. Rush tells the distressed parents this is the only course of action, and they can’t delay the decision.
Nabby’s prepped for surgery and shaking in abject terror, like any reasonable person would. She watches as Rush and his assistants mix up some potion. Rush has her drink it and asks her to lie down so they can tie her to the bed. This whole thing, by the way, is happening right in her bedroom. An assistant uncovers the breast and starts to sponge it down as Nabby weeps.
Downstairs, Abigail paces, Nabby’s and Sally’s children sit on the sofa and listen to the people walking around upstairs, and John sits quietly, trying not to completely lose his shit. Abigail quietly asks Sally to take the children for a walk, probably figuring it would scar them irreparably if they heard their mother screaming her head off in horrific pain. Sally obliges, and one of the older boys helps corral the younger ones. John watches them leave and looks up in the direction of the bedroom.
Upstairs, Rush quietly asks Nabby if she’s ready, calling her his “brave girl”. She nods, and he puts a stick in her mouth as two of his assistants hold her arms and head down, which is for the best, because then she can’t see the terrifying curved knife Rush pulls out. Ok, back to the corner for me.
Downstairs, John’s taken up pacing, and Abigail’s sitting. She snaps at him to sit down, and he plops down beside her, looking upward once again. After what must have seemed like an eternity, Rush comes downstairs and tells the Adamses that Nabby came through like a champ and is resting now. Abigail asks if she’s out of danger, and Rush tells her that, as long as the cancer hasn’t spread, Nabby should be ok.
Nabby’s soon up and eating dinner at the table with the rest of her family. The makeup people did a great job of making Sarah Polley look really haggard, by the way. Just as you would expect in a woman who’s gone through as much crap as she has. Thomas, her youngest brother, reads a ditty attacking Jefferson from the newspaper, until John tells him to knock it off. Thomas instead skips down to a claim that Jefferson financed the publishing of the ugly attack articles on John, years ago. Neither John nor Abigail is pleased to hear that. John asks to see the paper and it’s passed down to him.
John takes his aggression out on a wall that needs fixing. He complains to Thomas that he taught Jefferson everything he knows, and Tom reassures his dad that the whole Sally Hemmings situation will be attached to Jefferson’s name forever. John doubts it and, getting more agitated by the minute, he bitches that all anyone will remember of his presidency is the Alien and Sedition Act. He punctuates that prediction by dropping a large stone on his foot and bellowing in pain.
So, now John’s laid up, and I’ll bet you anything he’s the most annoying convalescent ever. He complains to Abigail that he feels like a prisoner, so she tries to comfort him by handing over a letter from Johnny. John’s not so pleased by that, because the real problem is that he hates retirement. Abigail suggests he fill his days by writing his memoirs, “to correct people’s misinterpretations.” Not a bad idea. John thinks that the only people anyone will remember in years to come will be Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. Well, yeah, John, if you don’t bother to leave any record of what you did. Abigail sighs that she used to really like Jefferson, but she’s no fan of his now.
Apparently the boredom finally got to be too much for him, because we next join John when he is, indeed, working on his memoirs, as Thomas sifts through decades’ worth of letters and newspaper clippings, trying to help. Sally comes in with an armful of more papers as John rages at everyone for being unable to find a certain clipping.
Outside, in the garden, Nabby tells her mother that the cancer’s not gone after all. Abigail refuses to believe this is it and tells her daughter they’ll send for Rush. Nabby’s resigned, though, and tells Abigail that the cancer’s worse this time than it was before, and this is really the end of the road. She rises and embraces her mother, who holds her tightly, rocking her back and forth.
Nabby sits down with her father next and makes him promise not to keep holding this grudge against her husband, after she’s gone. John nods—barely—and goes over to his precious daughter, who smiles up at him. He smiles back, barely able to keep from crying, and then leans down and kisses the top of her head. The tears come at last, for both of them, and he goes and tiredly sits back down in his chair. I’d forgotten just how depressing this episode was. Now I’m crying.
It’s wintertime, and Nabby’s gone. Weeping, Abigail tries to go about her day, but it’s no use. John comes upon her as she’s trying to put away the laundry or something, and he holds her as she sobs brokenheartedly. That’s now two adult children they’ve had to lose, in addition to the ones who died in childhood (two or three, I think). Rough, even for that time.
Smith, grief-stricken himself, returns from wherever he was and reassures the Adamses that his and Nabby’s children will be well taken care of. Abigail tells him Nabby never lost her faith in him, and he smiles sadly and says he’s sorry she couldn’t live to see their success. John heavily says he’s sorry too.
Springtime. John’s hard at work repairing the roof on one of the barns while down below Abigail strips dried corn off the cobs and listens to her husband angrily banging his hammer above. Thomas thankfully arrives with something to distract them: their matching portraits, painted when John was president. They uncover the paintings in the house and Abigail calls it “an admirable likeness” while John snarks that it just reminds him of how decrepit he is. Sally thinks the portraits should be in the White House, but John doubts President Madison would be interested. Abigail decides to keep them at Peacefield, to remind them of how far they’ve come.
Abigail’s reading John’s memoirs as he paces nervously, just like he did with his closing argument in the first episode. Ahh, how long ago that was. John guesses she doesn’t like what he’s written and calls it rubbish, then says if he had to live his life over again he’d have just been a farming deacon, like his father. Except then, he realizes, he probably never would have won Abigail.
Sally and Abigail cool their heels on the porch, watching John hard at work raking hay. Abigail bemoans old age and Sally reminds her she has much to be thankful for. They talk about Abigail’s and John’s upcoming 54th (!!) anniversary and Abigail says there were times when she was younger that she thought she and her husband would never be together for more than a few days at a time. Then she realizes she’s speaking to a young widow and she apologizes for being thoughtless. Sally tells her not to worry about it, and Abigail compliments her for being a sweet and generous girl. Sally admits she sometimes feels she’s a disappointing reminder of all the missed opportunities of that one son, and Abigail reassures her that both she and John love Sally dearly. And then Abigail dies.
Ok, not really, it just seems like she does. She drops off suddenly and Sally tries to wake her, but when she fails to rouse, Sally panics and screams for John, who comes as quickly as he can. He shakes Abigail and shouts her name a few times, and she finally wakes, but looks confused. He and Sally help her into the house.
Abigail’s in bed, unable to speak. John sits beside her, nursing her sweetly, but from her point of view we can see her vision’s all blurred. Stroke, I’m guessing? Except, from what I understand, Abigail died of typhoid. Then again, Nabby died in 1813 not 1803, and Thomas was an alcoholic like his older brother, Charles, so I guess they’re not sticking too close to actual history here. John climbs into the bed as she comes to and shows her the flowers he picked for her. Awww. Abigail gets her voice back and tells John she’s reached the end of the line. John holds her and tells her this is not going to happen, he’s not going to let her go, but this isn’t something they can control, and this time, she dies for real. John cries and begs her to come back to him, and Thomas comes in and sees his father just straight-out bawling, which I doubt he’s ever seen before. Thomas’s face crumples and he kneels down beside the bed.
John, now without his anchor, stands in the middle of a field, where he’s joined by Thomas. John admits he wishes he could just die right then and there, because life without Abigail sucks, and so does the whole damn world. His son listens quietly, and then they head back to the house together.
Rush is back, hopefully not for another heartbreaking diagnosis. He finds John sitting with his head in his hands in his study, and he quietly asks if there’s anyone else John wants him to notify. John tells him there are very few people left alive, so Rush suggests Jefferson. Well, if anyone would know the grief of losing a much-loved wife, it’d be Jefferson. John says that if Jefferson were to write to him, he’d answer, but Rush suggests he write a letter himself. John’s still not over all the slights Jefferson offered him over the years, so there’ll be no letter forthcoming. Rush tells him he should really be the bigger man here, and hold out the olive branch. He finally gets through to John, who sits down and writes to his former friend.
At Monticello, an aged Jefferson reads the letter, thinks for a bit, and then sits down to pen a reply, using a contraption of his own design that writes a copy letter as he pens the original. Pretty cool, actually.
Letters now start passing back and forth between Monticello and Peacefield, as the writers get older and more nostalgic. Years pass, and Johnny becomes president. Johnny’s even on hand to read Jefferson’s congratulatory letter to his father, who’s just as querulous as ever in his old age. He does say that no letter from Monticello ever meant as much to him as this one did, and he’s very proud of his son. Sally and Thomas join John, Johnny, and Louisa Adams on the porch and raise a glass to the 6th president and his 90-year-old dad. Louisa observes that John’s not drinking, and he snaps that he doesn’t like to be reminded that he’s an “old dotard.”
“Well, neither to we, sir,” says Sally easily. Ha! I like her.
John and Johnny relax together and Johnny tries to talk political strategy with his father, who either doesn’t care or is too tired to focus on it. He urges Johnny to look to his wife for guidance, as his own wife was always his best advisor.
It’s been 50 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Some guy’s showing John and Johnny what I think is the senate chamber, where there’s a HUGE painting of the signing of the Declaration. John looks at it and starts picking out all the players who are now dead. Thanks, Mr. Sunshine! The man showing them the painting—Trumball, the artist—asks John if he thinks he did the event justice. Oh, dude, never ask John for a compliment. Johnny, sensing the oncoming onslaught, quickly takes cover as his father first insults the artist, then tells him just how inaccurate the painting is. Oh, John, get over it. How was the poor man supposed to paint a painting that shows the various members of the congress signing the Declaration when they happened to be in town? Do you want a comic strip? He’ll argue with people about anything. I’ll bet Sally’s stopped even asking him what he wants for dinner.
John and Thomas stroll through the fields back home and John starts talking about mortality and hope. Thomas observes that it’s getting late and they should head back, but first John says that all the amazing things he saw in Europe weren’t nearly as great as the littlest weed at Peacefield. He wishes he’d taken more time to appreciate the little things in life. Ahh the regrets of old age.
Thomas enters his father’s study and finds John asleep in an armchair by the window. Thomas wakes him so he and Sally can put John to bed, but John says he needs to write a letter. They ignore him and tuck him into the bed that’s now set up in his study. John remembers that the next day is the Fourth of July, and he tries to get up so he can write to Jefferson. Thomas gently tells him they’ll write to Jefferson the next day.
Down in Monticello, Jefferson’s in bed, dying, being fanned by slaves. Back at Peacefield, John wakes and finds Sally, Thomas, and a couple of other guys hovering at his bedside. Thomas takes his hand and tells him it’s the fourth, and fifty years ago their nation was born. He smiles proudly at his father as he says this. At Monticello, Jefferson remembers what day it is and tells the slave at his bedside to “fetch the others.” The slave sends Sally Hemmings—hovering nearby—to do so.
John is clearly dying. He thinks Thomas is Charles and begs him for help, then he starts to murmur Abigail’s name. His eyelids flutter and start to close.
Down south, overlooked by a bust of Adams, Jefferson dies. Sally and the other slaves gathered in the room begin to weep.
John’s still holding on, but barely. He mumbles that Jefferson will be the last survivor, then dies. Thomas’s face collapses and he pulls away as he starts to cry. The attending doctor closes John’s eyes, and then Thomas takes his father’s hand again and draws closer to the bed.
We go back to the early days, and see John and Abigail strolling through their snowy farm as some of their affectionate letters are read in voiceover—contrary to what John believed, we have so, so much to remember these two extraordinary people by.