Dickinson's Strong, Funny, Surprising Series Finale Delivers Hope from the Inferno

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<i>Dickinson</i>'s Strong, Funny, Surprising Series Finale Delivers Hope from the Inferno

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It must have felt, to the team behind Dickinson, like a great cosmic gift—possibly from the spirit of Emily Dickinson, herself—when they realized that the year the first complete collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems was published, 1955, was not only one and the same with the retro Future Marty McFly so famously went Back To in the mid-(19)80s, but also the very same year Sylvia Plath graduated from Smith College, less than nine miles away from the Dickinson family home. The Future never spoke? Please! If that’s not the future speaking, I don’t know what could be.

And so you have it: A great cosmic gift. I mean, taking enough artistic license to find ways to play with such famous contemporaries of Emily’s as Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney), Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet), Walt Whitman (Billy Eichner), and Sojourner Truth (Ziwe) is one thing. But to find that fate has conspired to not just give you an excuse but literally *every tool necessary* to let Emily leap forward in time to interrogate her own legacy with the help of one of the 20th century’s first great female poets as her conduit (played with saucy intensity in “The Future never spoke” by Chole Fineman)? I mean! Who wouldn’t jump at that chance? And who, when making said jump, wouldn’t do so by stuffing Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) into a rose-shrouded gazebo, blasting it with electric fuschia lightning, and sending them hurtling through the mists of time to the dulcet shredding of ‘80s all-girl heavy metal band, Girlschool? No one, that’s who.

Or at least, no one in Dickinson’s Season 3 writers’ room would. Just like no one in Dickinson’s Season 3 writers’ room would let the death of Fraser Stearns (Will Pullen) go by without plunging Emily into her own personal inferno, or let Lavinia mount fewer than three (3) shockingly odd, all-consuming performance art pieces, or let Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss) off the hook of patriarchal assholery, or let the Civil War get started without using it to underscore just how little has changed in how even the most well-meaning white Americans think about race—winking Michael Jordan jokes fully included.

Which is all to say: Dickinson, here in its third and final season, left absolutely nothing on the floor. Not Emily’s relationship with her family. Not Emily’s relationship with Sue (Ella Hunt). Not Emily’s relationship with her art. Not even Emily’s relationship with electrified, heavy metal time travel (AKA, her legacy). For a series that had already shown itself ready to be weirder and more audacious than so much else on TV today, Dickinson managed to make its final season its weirdest and most audacious yet.

That said, while start to finish this final season was a treat to watch, it’s the final (Christmas Eve) episode, “This was a Poet -,” that makes the series as a whole a definitive success. And not just because it opens with the victorious—and decidedly fly—return of Wiz Khalifa’s Death (although that really is a joy) or because it contains, thanks to Lavinia, what is possibly the funniest single scene of television to have emerged in 2021 (although it does have that, too). No, what makes “This was a Poet – ” such an achievement is how it fits in with the rest of the series on a structural level.

On its face, this might seem like an odd statement, as, structurally, “This was a Poet – ” serves less as the resolution to some intricately plotted, dramatically complete narrative than it does as the firm closing of a door on whatever intimate mysteries might have shaped the real Emily Dickinson’s adult life. Yes, I know just how openly, joyfully vast the episode’s (and series’) sea-set final scene feels. But all one need do is take a single step back to recall that the scene immediately preceding Emily’s imaginary trip across the waves is a dreamy montage of her alone in her room, composing her poems and living her quiet life as the seasons change outside her windows, her door firmly closed. Take another step back from that, and you’ve got the crowded domestic farce that comprises the rest of “This was a Poet – ” where every member of Emily’s family—Maggie, her little pyro cousins, her yet-unnamed nephew, and even her future editor and mentor, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, all included—squeezing together in the Dickinson family parlor while Emily and Betty plot together to design the dress of her creative life in her room upstairs… her door, again, very firmly closed.

From an artistic perspective, this isn’t just a satisfying end to the smartly wrought, cleverly nimble marvel of a small-screen project Dickinson had been from the very start, but an internally consistent one: Each of its short three seasons, after all, opened with Ella Hunt delivering, via voiceover, what amounted to a biographical caveat that much more remains unknown about Emily Dickinson’s private life than may ever have been even partially known. This was a woman who lived in Amherst before, during, and after the Civil War. This was a woman who had two siblings, and who treasured an old friend named Sue. This was a woman who corresponded with the world, who broke every imaginable artistic constraint, who described the truth of reality with a fresh vitality, and did it all almost entirely from behind her closed bedroom door. This was a Poet.

And that’s pretty much it! That’s what we know. Which is what makes the closed-door open-endedness of “This was a Poet – ” so uniquely satisfying. This is Emily Dickinson we’re (still, after more than a century) talking about, and Emily Dickinson is a story that doesn’t end. Emily Dickinson just… is.

All that said, from a fandom perspective—which, despite this being a series so completely and unapologetically dedicated to its own idiosyncratic, capital-A Artistry, is a perspective Emily and Sue’s excruciatingly hot, seasons-long secret romance has rendered wholly unavoidable—I have no idea how the closed-door openness that’s so artistically satisfying in “This was a Poet – ” will land. Emily and Sue share precisely no screen time in their final outing, after all. And rather than making the revelation of their unconventional relationship the thing that settles Sue and Austin’s marriage, or that brings the warring Dickinson households back together, it’s the decision to dispense with traditional gender roles that improves the former, and the agreement to mount an intergenerational abolitionist legal team-up that fixes the latter. Of course, this isn’t to say that #Emisue isn’t #OTP! For one thing, just look at the last few molten minutes of the penultimate episode—if that’s not Dickinson painting Emily and Sue’s love in (sexily low candle)light, I don’t know what it is.

Or rather, I might not have known, had Sue’s entire face not lit up in proud wonder at the appearance of Colonel Higginson in this final episode. Nevermind the series’ sumptuously sapphic sex scenes: Sue loving the strangers who not only love but see Emily nearly as much as she does, that—as far as at least this writer is concerned—is the series painting their love in pure light.

Still , this final season of Dickinson was by no means perfect. As I noted in my pre-air review, there are real pacing issues in Sue’s and Emily’s relationship arc that make its (literally) climactic resolution feel not entirely earned. Similarly, the characterization of Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) this time around is inconsistent, confounding, and frequently infuriating, with no real consequences for the handful of truly awful things he does in the season’s short eight-episode run. That said, the real Austin Dickinson seems to have been just as inconsistent, confounding and, if what details of his biography that have made it through to our time are to be believed, frequently infuriating, so perhaps that’s just keeping truer to reality than those of us who appreciated the fictional Austin’s Season 2 growth might have liked.

Honestly, though, in the grand scheme of all things Dickinson, these are minuscule quibbles. A beautiful show, filled with beautiful writing and even more beautiful performances, Dickinson is one of the few things to come out of the past two years that I am genuinely grateful for.

Happy Christmas to us all, indeed.

Dickinson is now available, in its entirety, on Apple TV+



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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