There’s fire inside and out in Dickinson’s season 2 finale [Apple TV+ review]

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Will Pullen as the ghost of Emily's future on this week's Dickinson
Will Pullen plays the ghost of Emily's future in the season 2 finale.
Photo: Apple TV+

Bad dreams, dead rebels, crumbling marriages, and new babies all collide in Dickinson’s season 2 finale.

The Apple TV+ show about the famous feminist legend of poetry needs to tie up a lot of loose ends. But it’s got to also leave enough left unanswered to entice viewers for next season. Can it accomplish all this on its own terms?

Dickinson review: ‘You Can’t Put a Fire Out’

Right now, Jane hot widow (played by the Gus Birney) is having her christening and everyone in Amherst is out for the occasion. The only one missing from the affair is Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who’s frail and worried about what happens next to her.

Her publisher, Samuel (Finn Jones), shows up and Emily demands that he give back her poems. He thinks she’s just being … well, a woman about it. “You had no power without me!” he says. “You’ll look back on this and thank me!”

Jones the actor isn’t quite up to this confrontation. It makes sense that Samuel would be a little condescending, but the character seems too distant considering he’s trying to convince his star find to let him get rich off her work. (Samuel couches it differently but that’s what he’s doing.) Jones isn’t nearly strident enough in this scene. It’s a bummer, because he’d been good all season — and he can be quite good when at his best — but he kind of fumbles this big moment.

He does better in the immediate aftermath when Emily tries to steal his satchel and they fight in the foyer. That scene ends with maybe the best exchange in the entire series so far. Running after his carriage, Emily shouts, “You’re the devil!” Samuel, hanging on for dear life, retorts, “I … am a feminist!” Chef’s kiss.

Forgive me, godfather

Emily Dickinson contemplates her future in the fiery season 2 finale.
Emily contemplates her future in the fiery season 2 finale.
Photo: Apple TV+

Emily is visited again by her ghost, who at last reveals his purpose: He’s the ghost of the future of her ambition. As a man who is about to die in the Civil War seeking glory, his future self knows the price of trying to be famous, the impulse with which she’s wrestled all season. “You must be a nobody,” he says. “The bravest most brilliant nobody who ever existed.” She agrees.

I don’t know that I quite agree with the show needing to use Emily’s future life as a development this early in her career. (Historical Emily wound up dying in relative anonymity, considering her impact years later, so the show’s Emily should plan to do it now, or so goes the logic.) However, it does afford her more agency. Which is … I don’t know. It’s maybe more interesting to watch someone with more agency at a time when she had so little, but it also feels like rewriting the past in a way that the characters using 21st-century slang doesn’t.

But then maybe it’s for the best that the show goes fully fictional in conceiving its Emily, because there is only so much you can do with the bare facts when you’re writing a weekly sitcom. So against my better judgment, I respect the developments in the season 2 finale. This last episode proved brazen enough to make me get over my dislike of the early episodes and fully embrace the possibilities that might come with a third season.

You expect me to drop everything and come with you?

Emily’s still deep in thought and stinging from Samuel’s betrayal when Sue (Ella Hunt) finally confronts her. She finally explains her reasoning for the whole mess she put Emily in, and while Hunt does a great job with the monologue, it’s pretty hollow stuff. The show has by now kind of lost touch with the pressure affecting Sue, wrapping her in her shallow, societal concerns. So it doesn’t exactly track that she’s been covering up her feelings for Emily the entire season, because we see only fleeting glimpses of them at all meaningfully interacting. And those are largely from Emily’s point of view anyway.

The show had to sacrifice any of who Sue was to create the unhappy version of her, but in so doing they stranded her with the least interesting story, outside of Lavinia’s. It is nevertheless edifying when they finally finish shouting and start kissing, even if the show has asked/made us to fall out of love with Sue.

Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and Joseph (Gus Halper) finally split because he blows all his money on a house in Louisiana and she doesn’t want to go right before the Civil War breaks out. She taunts him that she’ll be the most interesting woman he ever loved, but we know better, don’t we, audience?

Meanwhile, Mr. Dickinson is plagued by visions, one of which, of the local church burning during Jane’s baby’s christening, comes true. No one’s hurt but he’s concerned what that means for the rest of the dream. The show ends on a note of ecstatic uncertainty. I’m finally excited to see what happens next.

This week in millennial speak

Sam accuses Emily of “virtue signaling.” Joseph describes Lavinia’s new home as being in “Nola, babe, Nola!” It’s no coincidence that the less time the show spends with Lavinia and Joe, the less terrible modern lingo winds up in the script. So here’s to never seeing Joe again — and seeing an awful lot less of Lavinia, unless the writers figure out something for her to do.

Dickinson is at its best when it’s being sincere and actually about the woman whose name it bears. I understand the show needs the historical moment as reflected in side characters to contextualize her journey, but Dickinson can’t fully do justice to the moment. (Hattie and Henry don’t even show up for a minute in the finale, which ironically puts the writers’ disinterest in them front and center.) So, I think fleeting glimpses is really all the history bits should be.

A big part of making sure the show stays true to Emily as a character is to stop thrusting modern speech into the script every chance they get. It has nothing to do with Emily Dickinson. And by now, the gimmick of it being in a modern idiom has been well established, so if this show wants to continue maturing, the writers have got to stop peeling off the Twitter word of the day calendar and just write what they want to write. They’re pretty good at that, it turns out!

Dickinson season 2 on Apple TV+

The final episode of Dickinson’s second season arrives on Apple TV+ today.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.