Dickinson, Apple TV+’s feminist fable, returns for a qualified victory lap Friday. The first three episodes of the show’s third and final season arrived today, not even a full year after the last one concluded.
It will be a shame once we no longer can enjoy fresh episodes featuring the show’s antic poetry and remixed pastoralism.
And, while Dickinson still hasn’t worked out precisely what its identity is, the comforting oddness of its milieu was a tonic in trying times, even if the show had a ways to go before it could meaningfully grapple with the present. All the same, the final season hints at what Dickinson could have done exceedingly well — if its showrunners were given a little more room.
Dickinson review: Season 3
In the season 3 opener, titled “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” young poet Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) has started writing about the Civil War as it’s all anyone can now focus upon. The war dead are being reported by the hundreds every day. Indeed, the dead are so numerous that a priest can barely make time for a ceremony celebrating the life of Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski)’s sister.
Joseph (Gus Halper), one-time fiancee of Emily’s sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), dies, too. And that sends her into a spiral. She decides she needs to get married in a hurry, feeling especially spinsterish now that a bunch of her old boyfriends are dead.
She’s not the only one in a crisis. Sue (Ella Hunt) is about to give birth to Austin’s (Adrian Enscoe) baby, and she wants to run away with Emily and raise him together. Emily’s cooled on their affair ever since Austin got her pregnant, making their relationship closer than she wants. And Austin’s not helping matters by having become a drunken rabble-rouser in the interim between seasons.
So many troublesome relationships
His affair with Jane the hot widow (Gus Birney) has blossomed, but she, too, wants to call that off now that he’s going to be a father. (Plus, a rich merchant offered to marry her.) Mrs. Dickinson helps deliver the baby but is immediately at loggerheads with Sue when she won’t let her hold the infant as long as she wants.
Austin’s drunken outburst at dinner gives Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss) a heart attack, from which he emerges with renewed purpose. The Dickinsons’ seamstress Betty (Amanda Warren) is still waiting on word from her husband, Henry (Chinaza Uche), who’s behind Confederate lines helping the cause of freedom. Emily’s phantom Fraser Sterns (Will Pullen) finally joins up and leaves. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth (Ziwe Fumudoh) comes to town, and Betty helps her write her memoirs since she can’t read.
Dickinson has been a complicated watch for me for as long as I’ve been covering it. It’s been at war with how much it wants to showcase the history that inspired it, how much it wants to subvert and comment on that history, and how much it wants to outright invent.
It’s difficult to fully commit to an idea like this — here’s what happened, here’s why it was great but was also terrible, and here’s what we think should have happened — because it means that a show called Dickinson must take huge detours away from its central character and what she stands in for.
The writers reasonably decided to let the world drift into the show in the way it did for Emily’s poetry. But using the greatest hits of abolitionism as window dressing for the journey of a white poet feels both convenient and depressing.
A different kind of show about abolition
I suppose you could argue that modern shows about abolition (Underground, The Good Lord Bird, The Underground Railroad) achieved limited reach. So pitching another one might not have been as successful as an outwardly and contemporarily feminist take on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, starring one of the most bankable and talented young actresses of her generation.
However, seeing how much time the show ultimately wants to devote to other matters beyond Emily’s journey, the clearer it becomes that Dickinson was never going to be able to fully succeed at its stated aims. You can’t make, say, Lavinia’s horror at her spinster status seem as important as Sojourner Truth writing her memoirs, so why bother?
Of art and false equivalencies
The show is, to its credit, fascinated by the idea of false equivalencies and whether art really makes a difference. Saying so in the form of what’s basically a sitcom (an exploded one but still) hammers the point home just as firmly. Is this the best place to be having these discussions? Maybe so, as few people will be expecting something that looks on the outside like a flippant exercise in revisionist history.
All of this still being worked out uneasily is sort of a shame because at the end of season two, and the start of this new season, the writers really did find new ways to make Emily and her family’s story finally as interesting and immediate as they always threatened to become.
Emily Dickinson: Civil War poet
Part of that is the opening framing device, in which Dickinson creator Alena Smith makes the compelling visual case that we don’t think of Emily Dickinson as a war poet because she didn’t fight. The language they landed on is a little pat, but this is a great argument. Dickinson, like so many, was quite clearly undone by the things reported from battlefields during the Civil War. Her poetry leaked tremendous sadness over the absurd injustice of a war like a poorly dressed wound. A stirring and clearly made argument.
The show also (at least momentarily) tries to get a modern audience reacquainted with the reality of living through the Civil War by equating it to COVID-19. Fair point, but the showrunners introduced the concept in season 3’s first episode and dropped it by the third, so I’m not sure yet how much they’ll make of the metaphor.
Amherst’s gossipy young people take turns trading the expected platitudes about it: “Maybe this is the new normal?” “Why does this have to be happening in our twenties?” It’s smarter, I think, to not overstate the case beyond that one bit of dialogue. But I do want to see a little more done with the device.
This week in millennial speak
Friday’s three-episode opening barrage of Dickinson is loaded with eye-rollers. “Don’t gaslight me,” says Mrs. Dickinson after the family tries to spin the disastrous truncated funeral. Lavinia describes her namesake, Aunt Lavinia, as “iconic.”
Jane explains that her new fiancee is trying to bring French trade to Vietnam. “Sounds super-problematic,” says Austin. And the people of Amherst “cancel” Jane for sending postcards back from Vietnam with culturally appropriated images. Lavinia’s sewing circle wants “hot goss.”
This stuff is still the weakest link on the show. Plus, it jibes uneasily with the talk of war dead and slavery.
Dickinson season 3 on Apple TV+
The first three episodes of Dickinson’s third season arrives November 5 on Apple TV+.
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.