Dickinson gets crazy-good when it heads to the loony bin [Apple TV+ recap]

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Dickinson recap: Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) endures a trip to the asylum this week.
Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) endures a mad trip to the asylum this week.
Photo: Apple TV+

This week on Dickinson, the girls are off to the lunatic asylum and Henry needs to find his inner housewife to help his recruits pass an inspection.

This week’s episode of the Apple TV+ feminist alt-history fable is one of the strongest yet — and it makes the looming finale all the more bittersweet. Just when the creative team seems to be hitting its stride and enjoying themselves, the end must come.

Dickinson recap: ‘A little Madness in the Spring’

Mr. Dickinson (played by Toby Huss) has been offered a trusteeship at the Northampton Women’s Asylum and he wants to leap at it because they’re considering taking away his title at the university. Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is excited to see her dad excited. Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) is excited to get out of the house.

Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) is less so — she thinks her husband’s trying to have her committed. “Your father is very conventional, Emily!” she says.

Maybe my favourite joke this week is when Mr. Dickinson forgets Lavinia’s name when introducing the family to the head doctor (Jordan Lage). The doc doesn’t want to commit Mrs. Dickinson, but does want to commit Emily, whose talk of flowers and suspicion about the asylum seems out of whack to him.

Colonel Higginson (Gabriel Ebert), still embarrassing, asks Henry (Chinaza Uche) to get his recruits in tip-top shape for a uniform inspection for visiting General Rufus Saxton. Henry uses the housewife kit the Dickinsons sent him to sew up their uniforms so they’ll pass inspection. He confesses to them that he writes letters to Betty (Amanda Warren) and their child every night, but can’t send them because he thinks he’ll never see them again. He doesn’t want to give them, or himself, a false hope for a future that may never come.

Sue (Ella Hunt), reeling from Emily’s perceived betrayal, convinces Austin (Adrian Enscoe) not to divorce her. But that matters less when Austin gets his draft letter in the mail a few minutes later.

Girls interrupted

This week’s asylum visit is a comedic tour-de-force. Krakowski and Steinfeld constantly trying not to seem crazy in front of the doctor brings out their best as comic performers. When Mr. Dickinson tries to say that his wife’s been suffering from grief, one of the symptoms they treat, his wife blows up.

“What me?” Mrs. Dickinson says. “Grieve for my only sister? Good riddance to that woman!”

Of course, when she finds out that most of the patients are being treated well, she tries to get herself committed. Emily sees the truth, though. The basement wing is filled with the women being treated worse than the ones her mother encounters. So she tries to free the women and stage a protest. Her father gives up his trusteeship when he refuses to commit Emily to the asylum at the director’s urging. It’s a nice turn of events, reaffirming their relationship.

A high point for Dickinson

Dickinson recap: Meanwhile, in the Civil War ...
Meanwhile, in the Civil War …
Photo: Apple TV+

The scenes with Henry and his recruits remain a huge high point in this show, and not just this season. The chemistry between the performers, and the visuals that the directors cook up to show their camaraderie, are breezy and fun and deep. This week we see a beautiful montage, almost like a catwalk, of them showing off their new uniforms. And it ranks among the most pleasureful sights Dickinson ever offered.

Director Silas Howard does a splendid job all around this week. The show seems to get better as it goes, which of course is a major bummer considering this will be Dickinson’s final season. But then maybe it’s best to go out on a high note. Regardless, I’m very glad to have been taken on this journey by show creator Alena Smith and company. It’s been more fun and edifying than not, especially lately.

This week in millennial-speak

This week’s episode, titled “A little Madness in the Spring,” proves mercifully light on empty references to the present. When Mrs. Dickinson tries to tell Emily about her father’s attempt to commit her, she calls it “the oldest trick in the 19th-century playbook.” When Henry sees his unit in their uniforms, he asks, “Y’all hungry? Cuz y’all ate that up and left no crumbs.”

When Higginson refuses to give them weapons, he says, “I see you, I recognize you,” like a brand Twitter account after it’s done something transphobic. And when they have their lack of guns confirmed, one of the men shouts, “We up against a whole bunch of racists who suffer from economic anxiety!”

This is one of the most sharply written episodes Dickinson yet. The glimpses into the future strengthen the show’s conception of the past instead of distracting from it.

While not exactly the same thing as millenial-speak, this episode lifts a whole conversation from Girl, Interrupted. Writer Ayo Edibiri is clearly a fan (as she should be). That movie, by James Mangold, is the kind of huge studio feminist counter-programming that doesn’t really get made anymore.

Something about its closed-off perspective and male director make it an imperfect vessel for its messages, but compromised works like that tend to speak to people in even more compromised times. Consider that Girl, Interrupted opened the same year as The Virgin Suicides, whose director Sofia Coppola plainly inspired and paved the way for Dickinson‘s anachronisms and flights of depressed fancy. And also that Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, a tale like this about lesbians having to hide their true selves from their families, premiered in 1999 as well.

With those two films, you can start to see the bedrock grammar upon which this show was built. I like the idea of the writers looking back and saying out loud the work that means something to them. You get to know them better.

Watch Dickinson on Apple TV+

New episodes of Dickinson arrive Fridays on Apple TV+. This week’s episode arrives early due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

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.