Dickinson queues up a consequential sing-along [Apple TV+ review]

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Dickinson review: Young poet Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) gets some good news this week.
Young poet Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) gets some good news this week.
Photo: Apple TV+

It’s an old-fashioned family sing-along on this week’s Dickinson, Apple TV+’s show about the Belle of Amherst and the tempestuous times in which she lived.

Lots of talk about legacy and darkness cloud an evening’s celebration during the episode, titled “Sang from the Heart, Sire.” Can Mr. Dickinson’s birthday party (or his reputation) survive?

Dickinson review: ‘Sang from the Heart, Sire’

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (played by Gabriel Ebert) has written back to Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), validating the young poet’s work and asking for more. She tells Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov). However, since Lavinia took a vow of silence in solidarity with the troops, she can’t be very articulately helpful. They hit up the quilting bazaar (set brilliantly to Shiloh Rafe’s “Quilted”) but it ends in tragedy. Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss) wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper asking for civility as the war becomes increasingly brutal, and the locals hate him for it.

The family wants to cheer him up for his birthday, so Emily suggests a party and a sing-along. Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) is so taken with the idea she agrees to let Sue (Ella Hunt) and Austin (Adrian Enscoe) come. She’s still mad at Sue for not letting her be closer to her new baby, but she relents for Mr. Dickinson’s sake.

Emily finally tells Sue how she’s been feeling in an effort to get her out of her postpartum stupor. Feeling renewed, Sue confesses that she thinks her new poem is good but could use some trimming. Emily’s taken aback. Not only does Sue find room to criticize her, she’d just heard Higginson call the poem amazing. Now Emily’s not sure what to think.

So sitcom-y

I’m always a little miffed when Dickinson leans fully into sitcom episode ideas. The idea of a quilting fair and then the singalong (like last season’s baking contest) exhibit a kind of shopworn quality. And the scenarios don’t often bring out the best in the show’s writers or performers. Still, the sing-along works because it allows Krakowski to flounce around like she’s the show’s main character, which is always a good idea.

Meanwhile, Henry (Chinaza Uche) has started his classes with the South Carolina regiment. They haze him pretty good, and give him a lot of trouble because he won’t get guns from Higginson. But he nevertheless makes a strong case for himself (and the whole show). “If you can’t confront darkness how can you move forward into the light?” he asks.

That’s what’s the matter

Dickinson review: Jane Krakowski gets another chance to shine this week.
Jane Krakowski gets a welcome chance to shine.
Photo: Apple TV+

This week’s sing-along is actually a great sequence, segueing from lighthearted fun to sincere sadness with grace. Krakowski once again channels Jenna Maroney, her infamous 30 Rock character, in her deranged insistence on being the center of attention.

Due to her vow of silence, Lavinia can’t sing. (“Perhaps that’s for the best,” says Mrs. Dickinson certainly.) While reminiscing about the past, Mrs. Dickinson lets out a lifetime of disappointment while recounting her wedding day. She doesn’t mean to suck the air out of the room. But everyone is, for once, fully on her side in the matter of her grief over her sister and mother, who died before she could ever meet any of the Dickinson children.

In anger, Sue tells Austin he should enlist in the Army. And though he doesn’t do that, he does something equally drastic. He announces he’s leaving his father’s law firm, starting his own outfit specializing in divorce — and his first case will be his and Sue’s own dissolving marriage. He announces this in front of everyone, rather ruining his father’s birthday.

Emily and Sue

Sue and Emily have their own falling out when she discovers Emily’s been sending the same poems she’s been giving to Sue to Higginson without mentioning Sue in the correspondence. This stuff is quite well-handled. The Sue storyline foundered in Dickinson’s second season as a separate entity from Emily’s journey. But now that they’re back in each other’s confidence, it works much better.

Their argument really stings because we’ve seen the way they’ve been missing each other and misreading each other’s actions. We know the ways in which they can’t be there for each other anymore, and how few favors they do each other by continuing to heap great expectations on one another. This kind of thing is what Dickinson excels at on a dramatic level — and this is probably the best episode of the season so far.

This week in millennial speak

  • “Wow, America’s been a country for less than a hundred years and thinks it invented quilting? Go off, I guess.”
  • Mr. Dickinson’s letter to the editor is accused of advocating for “both sides.”
  • A recruit in Henry’s unit named Michael Jordan (Curtis Morlaye) leads to a lot of jokes about his future as a star, complete with the sound of sneakers on the court.

The stuff with Henry and the recruits is excellent, though, with the small cast making the most of their parts. Their chemistry is off the charts.

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.