Dickinson delves into poetry's power during terrible times [Apple TV+ review] | Cult of Mac

Dickinson delves into poetry’s power during terrible times [Apple TV+ review]


Dickinson review: Humanist poet Walt Whitman (played by Billy Eichner) witnesses the Civil War's toll.
Humanist poet Walt Whitman (played by Billy Eichner) witnesses the Civil War's toll.
Photo: Apple TV+

Emily wonders about her place in the world during the Civil War, and the poet gets a little help from some colleagues — while the Dickinsons get fleas and Henry gets a new job.

It’s an eventful week on Dickinson, Apple TV+’s feminist fantasia. And, as usual, the simplest answer is often the right one.

Dickinson review: ‘This is my letter to the World’

Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld) has written to Colonel Thomas Higginson (Gabriel Ebert), whom Henry (Chinaza Uche) has come to ask for a job. Emily wants advice about whether to be a poet during such terrible times. Can it be as helpful as being a nurse?

Higginson wants Henry to help him show that the soldiers in the black regiment he’s commanding are every bit the equal of their white counterparts. And to that end, he needs Henry to teach everyone to read and write. The recruits are all Gullah natives, and they don’t take kindly to Henry’s educated Massachusetts attitude. They need guns and money more than they think they need to read and write. This is going to take up even more of his time, meaning he won’t be writing to Betty (Amanda Warren) anytime soon.

Problems at home

Meanwhile, Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss) is sick of hearing about the war, believing the conflict fundamentally reduced the value of life. He’s upset that the papers only report half the war dead. Plus, his brother’s home in Atlanta was ransacked.

Of course, he’s got more to be upset about than that. Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), who’s been sleeping in the barn as part of an experiment in suffering the torments that soldiers experience, brought fleas into the house, infecting both him and Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski). Sue (Ella Hunt) and Austin (Adrian Enscoe) are still at odds. Austin didn’t think he was the father for a time and he’s been rubbing Sue the wrong way for weeks now.

A lesson from Walt Whitman

Emily reads Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (Billy Eichner), then goes looking for him (metaphorically speaking) in the New York field hospital in which he’s volunteering. Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet) is there, too, looking for details for her own work, which is a funny kind of writer’s in-joke. (It reminds me of the comic of David Byrne and Paul Simon running into each other in Africa looking for new sounds.)

Emily realizes in “visiting” with Whitman that he’s more concerned with living than she is, and she shouldn’t worry about the best way to make an impact. Giving into experience and life’s many tragedies may make him obnoxious. But he didn’t write Leaves of Grass by overthinking his place in the world. Emily also realizes she’s been putting Sue on ice and it’s time to admit she loves her.

Committed to hands I cannot see

Rachael Holder directs this week’s episode of Dickinson, and she really brings everything into focus. Holder handles the show’s montages with aplomb, from a sequence of Emily’s letter traveling, to a later one depicting gifts arriving on Sue’s doorstep, to the dialogue-free introduction of the Gullah soldiers.

This episode simply overflows with great images and ideas. The show is always pretty (Tim Orr shoots it, after all) but it’s not always this bountiful to experience. After a very strong opening, it’s good to see the show remains at its energetic best despite other missteps. I liked the scene at Pfaff’s bar where Walt Whitman gets Emily drunk. (Beth Ditto puts in an appearance as the singer at the bar; she is always welcome.)

As I suspected, the Sojourner Truth stuff from last week is nowhere to be found, which makes its appearance at all a little crass. But that’s always going to be an issue with this show. Or anyway it will be for the next six weeks.

This week in millennial speak

Higgins and Henry eulogize abolitionist John Brown, ending with the former loudly proclaiming, “May he rest in power. Can I get an amen, my brother?!” He asks if Henry has the “bandwidth” for his job, and says his regiment is operating as a “safe space.” The whole scene with Higginson is supposed to be cringe-inducing and embarrassing, so it’s excusable that he speaks in dreadful, deliberate, code-switching language.

Watch Dickinson season 3 on Apple TV+

New episodes of Dickinson arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.

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.