Dickinson bids us farewell this week — too soon, but beautifully. What lies in store for Emily and her family in their final outing? Can she overcome history to find a happy ending denied her by fact and legacy?
The Apple TV+ alt-history show says goodbye on a sweet, lightly ambiguous note — and finds its strength in invention. Emily Dickinson we hardly knew ye.
Dickinson recap: ‘This was a Poet -‘
In the series finale, titled “This was a Poet-,” Death (played by Wiz Khalifa) pays one last visit to Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) in her garden. He’s here to impart some advice. Don’t sweat death, it’s just a part of life. What Emily really needs, he says, is a new look. Then they have a small dance party. (For two professional musical performers, the actors don’t really have moves.) The scene’s a little silly. But Emily agrees. It is time for a new look.
Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) and his wife, Sue (Ella Hunt), finally come back to the Dickinson house to make peace with Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson. Austin wants to rejoin the family — but he also wants something from Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss). A wealthy local family tried to sell their housekeeper into slavery. Her brothers rescued her, but they were all caught. If the Dickinsons took the case, it could at long last save the family’s reputation.
Betty (Amanda Warren) and Emily reconcile after their tiff the other day outside the Dickinson house. Betty’s still upset that she hasn’t heard from Henry (Chinaza Uche), but she recognizes Emily was just trying to help. Emily asks for Betty’s help making herself a new dress, the kind that won’t impede her breathing like all her corsets and dresses do. It must be easy to wash, button up the front, and have pockets.
Colonel Thomas Higginson (Gabriel Ebert) finally arrives at the Dickinson household. He tells the assembled family that Emily speaks with the deepest truth about the war that she hasn’t seen. “Tell me, when did you first realize she was a genius?” he asks to the blank stares of all present.
Emily’s younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), meanwhile, is hard at work on her newest art statement — a full-length womb of yarn. She springs from nowhere wearing it and reciting a poem about the war dead. She, of course, falls immediately for Higginson. Before he can meet Emily, he gives Betty the letters that Henry wrote for her.
You got work to do, Miss Dickinson
Dickinson ends on a deliberate note of beautiful incompleteness. Emily doesn’t go downstairs to meet Higginson. Indeed, we never see her leave her room again. Instead, she disappears onto a beach where she sees mermaids out on a far rocky outcrop, then gets in a boat and starts paddling toward them.
It’s a fantastic note on which to end. I wish the show had had the courage to be more outwardly disappointing and sealed off in its poetic leanings throughout its brief run. This final chapter of the show displays at once a powerhouse performance from the whole cast, great discipline and joy from the writers, and a sensitive and sad eloquence from the director. (In this case, that’s show creator and head writer Alena Smith. Directing the final episode of the show is something like a tradition for showrunners.)
At its best, this episode approaches the resolute stillness of A Quiet Passion, the 2016 film about Dickinson’s life by Terence Davies, one of our finest artists. It cheats a little by grabbing an Erik Satie tune to do the emotional heavy lifting. But without seeming like I’ve resorted to hyperbole, I’d say the episode earns it. The quirky chatter of the family slowly dies down, and then it’s just Emily alone in her room watching the seasons pass, content with her life and her work. She’s aware that the life she dreamt of for herself may have limitations, but also that she is leaving behind a legacy worthy of a life.
Dickinson was a show with a number of imbalances and absences, digressions and missing pieces, but I will miss it greatly. When the second season ended, I saw a spark of excellence from the creative team that they fully realized in this final season. And though there was still the occasional fumble, I really would have liked to see where they went next.
But then this elegiac moment, this admission of defeat to time, is perhaps the best way to end a show about someone whose life was marked as much by things taken away as things given. Dickinson‘s imperfections made it interesting, but the things it got right were gifts, and I feel grateful to have received them.
This week in millennial speak
Emily calls the bumblebees in her garden “booked and busy.” She describes Death’s new suit as “fire.” Lavinia describes her art project as an “epic yarn bomb.” When Higginson shows up, Emily panics because their “relationship is strictly text.” She says she lied about her appearance in her letters to which Maggie the housekeeper (Darlene Hunt) says: “You catfished him.” Mrs. Dickinson is rude to Higginson but Sue intercedes on Emily’s behalf; this man might make Emily’s career, after all, so she dresses down Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski), who replies… “Susan Gilbert, you really are that bitch.” I won’t miss this part of the show.
Dickinson season 3 on Apple TV+
You can now stream all three seasons of Dickinson 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.