Dickinson finally faces its essential truth [Apple TV+ recap]

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Dickinson recap: Emily and a dead man peer into the abyss this week.
Emily and a dead man peer into the abyss this week.
Photo: Apple TV+

Dickinson, Apple TV+’s soon-to-be-missed show about the great poet, arrives at its moment of truth this week. The episode, titled “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -,” is the one the entire show has been building toward — and there are still two left to go before this final season concludes.

Will Emily Dickinson become who history understands her to be, or is there some greater truth for this version of the poet? Strong performances and fearless writing guide the show into uncharted territory this week.

Dickinson recap: ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – ‘

Emily’s older brother Austin (played by Adrian Enscoe) doesn’t want to attend Frazar Stearns’ (Will Pullen) funeral, much to Emily’s (Hailee Steinfeld) chagrin. He doesn’t want to see his dad (Toby Huss) honor his friend’s legacy in front of the town. Frazar’s ghost shows up to keep Emily company during his funeral, at which they dedicate a cannon in his honor. He tells her that the war is awful, like Dante’s Inferno. He also tells her that war is truth — that it showed him everything he’d ever wanted to know.

When Emily gets home, she gets the surprising news that Mr. Dickinson wants her to step into Austin’s shoes and help him make out his last will and testament. Her dad’s been death-obsessed since his heart attack. And with Austin off starting his own law firm (or so he intended before his draft notice came), Mr. Dickinson can’t rely on him anymore. They have a heart to heart and Mr. Dickinson confesses that he feels supremely lucky that she’s been looking out for him and the family. Then he drops a bomb on her: He’s leaving everything to Austin.

Suddenly, all the work she’s done seems for nought. What was she saving the family for if she was still going to wind up the least among lowly equals? She turns from him and abandons him after trying so long to curry his favor and watch out for him.

Of war and bottomless pits

Meanwhile, Colonel Higginson (Gabriel Ebert) awakes to rouse his men only to find that Henry (Chinaza Uche) has taken the initiative and led them to battle without Higginson’s by-your-leave.

Betty (Amanda Warren) is still stinging from the revelation that Henry joined up, hasn’t told her and might never return. She and Emily have it out when she tries to convince Betty not to give up hope.

Reeling from having forgotten her own privilege, Emily runs into the woods and finds Frazar observing a bottomless pit, into which she reluctantly but purposefully descends. She finds her sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) there nursing her dead ex-boyfriends. She complains that it was Emily’s talk about art and emancipation that made her think there was more to life than marriage and family.

She goes deeper and sees Austin, who complains that he ruined his marriage to Sue (Ella Hunt). She goes deeper and sees Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski), a wreck, having lost her mind. She goes deeper still and sees her dad, dead, and Sue, who says they can now finally run away.

Abandon all hope

Betty finally voices the show’s inherent tension for all the world to hear: What difference does it make that this girl and her family encounter trouble? The world is on fire and war threatens the freedom and lives of millions. Dickinson danced around this idea from the start, but now the show simply can’t run from it anymore.

By then becoming a parade of personal and voluminous symbols and visuals, it answers its own paradox finally. We need art because we need a record of how it felt to live, what it felt like to have to be creative at the worst times in history. Is there more to life than just the eternal life-and-death struggle that comes when people have irreconcilable disagreements?

The Civil War, the show finally says, was a necessity because it was always life or death for black people. Not that this was ever in question, exactly, but we’d only heard from the show’s white characters on the question of the war. Relating it to COVID-19 in the early part of this season gave it an attitude of dread and inevitability, rather than of essentiality.

But here, Emily — a mute and impotent witness to Henry’s struggle — has to see what Betty tells her: While she worries about her own squabbles and foibles, people are dying. And they aren’t dying because their dad doesn’t respect them. They’re dying because millions see them as inhuman property.

By having Emily at long last cease to worry about her troubles, and see those of everyone around her, Dickinson also answers its own question. Without art, life is but suffering or surviving. Art is everything else.

This week in millennial-speak

Sue tells mourners that Austin is watching the baby while she attends Frazar’s funeral. “We’ve disposed of predetermined gender roles in our house,” she says. Other than that, this was a very focused episode.

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.