In ‘Dickinson’ Season 3, Emily Dickinson Flowers Amid the Storm of Civil War
Early in the third and final season of Apple TV’s beloved “Dickinson,” we learn that the great American poet Emily Dickinson went through a time of feverish productivity during the Civil War. She was suddenly composing a poem a day. Unsurprisingly the patriarchal nature of culture has still denied her a place among the “war poets” of the era. Yes, she lived in seclusion for most of the war, away from the bloodshed, but so did other classic writers of the time who penned prose about the conflict, like Herman Melville. Over a century later and this magnificent series continues giving Dickinson her due, now with a season that grows in dramatic intensity. The world around Emily is as convulsive now as her life and matters of the heart.
As the Civil War thunders across America, we catch up with the Dickinson family. They have gathered for the funeral of Aunt Lavinia. Sorrow is multiplied by the fact that the nation is tearing itself apart. Emily or “Em” (Hailee Steinfeld) has been furiously writing stronger poetry full of eloquent, clear depth. Her family still remain a bit aloof to the genius in their midst. Of course, they are distracted by other dramas. Sister Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov) is full of regrets for not having accepted marriage proposals sooner. All her former love interests have died in the fighting. Emily’s own love, Sue (Ella Hunt), has returned pregnant by husband and Emily’s brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe). His heart still longs for Jane Humphreys (Gus Birney), who has to remind him fatherhood is imminent. Frustrated over his situation, Austin begins openly challenging his resentment towards Dickinson patriarch Edward (Toby Huss), who also happens to have a brother fighting in the Confederacy. Will the Dickinson family be torn asunder with the same ferocity as their country?
One of the charms of “Dickinson” is watching how its characters grow and mature with each passing season and timeline. If the first two seasons had a breezier, though no less compelling, environment with a YA series feel, now it enters somewhat darker territory. The Civil War is like a shadow hanging over the reckonings now boiling over in Emily’s own world. Episode titles are taken from lines of poetry that capture both the national and internal mood, such as “Hope is the thing with feathers” or “It feels a shame to be alive.” Even the humor of the show gets darker. In the season premiere Emily rides a carriage with Death (Wiz Khalifa), who bemoans the war sucking all the creativity and fun out of his duties. Austin’s friend Frazar Stern (Will Pullen) makes a rather moving reappearance at the Dickinson home, now in uniform and at peace with going to the war. Henry (Chinaza Uche) is already at the frontlines, being tagged to educate the first Black regiment. The writing here even goes all for broke in winking at our modern wokeness, with a white colonel boasting phrases like “rest in power” and apologizing to Henry for sounding paternalistic or over-emphasizing white points of view. He even tells Henry they are operating in a “safe space.” Probably not historically accurate, but it is part of this show’s vivacious way of making history relatable. Emily’s circle of friends, including Abby (Sophie Zucker) and Toshiaki (Kevin Yee), just can’t believe how the Civil War is defining their 20s.
Emotionally this season of “Dickinson” isn’t all laughter. There are many moments of wrenching emotional drama. Early in the season Austin gets drunk at dinner and finally lets out everything he feels about Edward, accusing him of holding back the family, essentially stunting the growth of his own children. This provokes a near-fatal heart attack which will haunt the relations between the siblings for a few episodes. Emily tells Austin he should apologize, but the bitterness is too great. It doesn’t help that Jane refuses to be with Austin and reveals she has agreed to marry a French plantation head in Vietnam. His heart is left in tatters. Magnifying how nihilistic he’s become, Austin is too drunk and angry to even witness the birth of his child. Ironically, Sue is also keen on rekindling the fire with Emily. The moment the two see each other they are blunt about wanting to make out, but this is a world of restraint. Love is treated more as an ideal, marriages are to be practical. Emily gets a hilarious early reminder of this societal truth when Ithamar Conkey (Robert Picardo) gets down on a (pillowed) knee and proposes. He’s much older to her, but he reminds her that as a man, he’s still quite vital, she’s the one who is getting too old for marriage and child-rearing. Emily’s natural impulse for freedom also creates a different kind of friction with Sue. She doesn’t try to really spend time with the new baby and Sue feels like she’s fighting for attention.
For the poet this is all fuel for the prose. As in the previous two seasons, “Dickinson” dramatizes like few productions the relationship between a writer’s words and their world. Passages grace the screen and we see how they’ve been inspired by a moment or overall experience. In the opening moments of the season she imagines being in uniform, charging through battlefields. Like Melville with his “Battle-pieces and Aspects of the War,” Dickinson’s imagination was powerful enough to vividly conjure the truths of the Civil War at a distance. Seamstress Betty (Amanda Warren) delivers one of the season’s most potent lines when she tells Emily, “Writing that shuts real life out is as good as dead.” When Emily reads a copy of the Atlantic Monthly given to her by George, discovering a piece by the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she writes him a letter. Fans of Dickinson know how momentous this will turn out to be in terms of her future career as a published writer. That other great American wordsmith, Walt Whitman (Billy Eichner), also reappears, first in a hilariously rowdy scene where Emily watches him break into lyrical ecstasies while treating war wounded.
The supporting cast is still stellar bedrock for Hailee Steinfeld performance, which is growing deeper and sharper with the character’s own development as an artist. Jane Krakowski as Mrs. Dickinson remains an anchor of serenity, even during emotional pain at the loss of a sister. The Black American voice gets great attention not only through Betty, but through Henry’s experiences as teacher of a Black regiment where the soldiers feel compelled to fight for their freedom more than for some hypocritical idea of the American union, which they know will remain fiercely racist. “Dickinson” proves again why it is both wonderfully entertaining and also radical. It celebrates both Dickinson and the idea of a writer as a participant of their times, absorbing them and translating them for us through the emotion of powerful language. By the end there’s a joy in knowing this series can’t possibly end, because there is still much more to go in the life of its icon.
“Dickinson” season three begins streaming Nov. 5 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.