“This was a Poet-“ Four simple words, written by one of the great American literary minds of the 19th century, perfectly sums up the journey creator Alena Smith and her team have taken viewers with the AppleTV+ series, Dickinson, over the last three years. But come November 5th, the wildly inventive show begins its third and final chapter, and fans will have to find the strength to say goodbye to the vibrant, dynamic Emily Dickinson they’ve come to know.
The third season was written and produced entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, an uncanny coincidence given this final season focuses on the years when Emily’s most prolific poetry was penned — namely, the American Civil War, an era of national unrest and social reckoning. Sounds familiar, no? What’s more, while Smith and her team have always beautifully connected our past problems with current events in nuanced ways, given all that’s happened in the country over the past two years, never has the show felt more reflective of the national consciousness than this season.
Season three picks up years after the events of season two, with the war well underway and the country divided. Emily Dickinson, played ever-so-expertly by Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld, finds herself on the precipice of defining her own legacy, though she doesn’t know it. But before she can dive into the work that solidifies her genius, she is faced with the enormous task of how to write meaningfully in such a derisive time.
But it’s not just her voice that’s being challenged. The entire Dickinson family is at war, whether with each other, or more unexpectedly, with themselves. Emily’s mother (Jane Krakowski) and sister, Lavinia’s (Anna Baryshnikov) wartime grief makes them reevaluate their life choices, while Emily’s father (Toby Huss) and brother Austin (Adrien Enscoe) forge a deep rift between the family so unforgiving, it feels impossible to overcome.
Fans of the passionate love story between Emily and her sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt) will be pleased to find them still desperately in love, yet still frustratingly tested by a time that would crucify their relationship if it came out from the shadows. Moments of joy are almost immediately tarnished by the reality that being a woman and queer in the 1860s, which meant having to accept the small scraps of living your truth that were allowed. This season attempts to answer the question, “what happens when that’s not enough?” The answer isn’t great.
If that breaks your heart a little, settle in, because overall, the season carries with it the weight of the time. The settings are far less grand and opulent than season 2, and definitely less eccentric and bizarre than season one. The highs are high, but the lows are exceptionally low, and they linger through multiple episodes. Steinfeld’s performance is as captivating as ever, with smart delivery of poignant and comedic dialogue alike, giving attentiveness to a literary figure so criminally unappreciated for so long. It will never be said, at least not by me, that Krakowski didn’t rightfully get some of the best lines of the series, due to her impeccable timing and her commitment to physical comedy. But it’s Baryshnikov and Hunt to keep an eye on as the curtain closes on Dickinson. Their performances brought the most humor and heart, respectfully, to the series, particularly this season; Baryshnikov expertly segued her character into an eccentric to rival Emily, and Hunt beautifully portrayed one woman’s queer journey with grace and respect for the complexities.
When the show returns to its comic rhythms, you’ll be incredibly hard pressed to contain a smile. Moments like Vinnie leading a sewing circle in honor of ‘all her dead ex-boyfriends and all the men she could’ve loved’ and a blink-and-you’ll miss it Girl, Interrupted reference gives the show much needed levity. Plus, I’ll confess there are several fan service moments which will no doubt set TikTok on fire when they happen.
But if you’re looking for deep laughs, you’ll look no further than the extraordinary line up of guest stars. Ziwe , who joins the series as both star and writer, steals scenes as Sojourner Truth, an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist that if you don’t know, you should go learn all about right now. Zosia Mamet’s return as Louisa May Alcott is elevated as she plays against Billy Eichner as Walt Whitman, who is, in a word, wild. But it’s the arrival of Chloe Fineman as Sylvia Plath that will have fans buzzing, not only for her impression of the tortured poet, but because of the imaginative way she enters Emily’s orbit. Even Steinfeld has deemed the scene her favorite of the season.
While season 2 saw a welcomed story expansion to include more about the lives of its Black characters, season 3 takes things a step even further. Emily’s journey runs parallel to that of Henry (Chinaza Uche), the family’s former house hand, who’s taken up arms with the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized black regiment under Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Henry’s story, along with the arc following his wife Betty (Amanda Warren) still in Amherst, gives another level of gravity to the story, something Dickinson has always done well.
Overall, the series gets a fitting end for a story about Emily Dickinson, a finale Smith has said she envisioned since the start of this creative journey. But whether it can be considered a happy or even satisfying ending really depends on why you watch Dickinson to begin with. Those who were diehard fans of the infamous poet before the show will turn off the TV with a smile, but those who came in blindly and are invested in this world specifically will likely be left wanting more. And that’s just it: with so many incredible performances and such imaginative storytelling, perhaps the real problem with Dickinson‘s end … is that it is the end.
‘Dickinson’ season 3 debuts three all-new episodes on Friday, November 5th, 2021 on AppleTV+, with one new episode premiering every week thereafter.