Over the course of three seasons, Dickinson has pushed the narrative Emily’s life in so many wonderfully weird ways. The show shines brightest when Alena Smith and Co. throw all concept of reality out of the window and embrace magical realism in their storytelling. Case in point: episode four of season 3 finds Emily coming face to face with the other acclaimed poet of her generation, Walt Whitman, even though they never met in real life. And boy, do they have a good time!
The episode kicks off with Emily’s letter finally being delivered to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who while an author himself, is currently leading the first federally authorized black regiment in South Carolina fighting in the Civil War. But before he gets a chance to dive into Emily’s letter, the Colonel meets his newest recruit: Henry!
Yes, this is where the Dickinson’s beloved house hand has ended up, prepared to fight for freedom just as he did while writing for the Constellation and working with John Brown. When Henry arrives, he’s surprised to meet a very, shall we say, ‘woke’ Colonel Higginson. Here is a white man very dedicated to the abolitionism movement, using all of his resources to help build towards freedom for all – but is it enough? Not if you ask his other recruits, all of which are former slaves, and who look on Henry with initial disdain when he introduces himself as their new teacher. Colonel Higginson hopes that by teaching these men how to read and write, the Army will look more favorably on them to fight. But it seems these men know better. Already, they’ve been denied clean uniforms, decent food, and worst of all, no pay. Clearly, there is work to be done, and Henry gives them his word he’ll help them become real soldiers.
Back in Amherst, the “hellscape”of war, as Mrs. Dickinson puts it, is being felt by Emily’s family. Vinnie has taken up burying herself alive in the barn to feel closer to all her dead ex boyfriends, Mr. Dickinson receives horrible news about his brother in Georgia, and with nothing to do, Austin tries to be an attentive father to his new child, though Sue insists he’d be better staying out of the way.
Meanwhile, Emily is consumed with her poetry once more, and after Betty’s comments about how “writing that shuts real life out is as good as dead,” she turns to someone she thinks will understand for guidance: Walt Whitman. Escaping to her conservatory with arguably his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, she settles in to read …
Suddenly, she’s in a NYC field hospital, following around a scatterbrained Whitman, who is helping to tend to soldiers as a nurse. (A historically accurate fact, look it up.) Played artfully by Billy Eichner, Whitman is, well, a lot. He talks a mile a minute and he’s constantly on the move, almost as if he was running around the streets of NYC with a dollar bill in one hand, a mic in the other, all while asking strangers to name a Jennifer Lopez song.
But I digress — he’s also dolling out some serious perspective that Emily needs to hear. As she talks to him about exploring “pain” in her poetry, he very knowingly teases her. “Ah, so you are into pain, huh?” he smirks, before adding, “Well, then you have come to the right place. This is New York City, baby! The Bronx is up, the Battery is down, and pain is everywhere! Follow me, Emily Dickinson. Let’s go hurt ourselves.”
As they make their way around the hospital, they run into Louisa May Alcott, played once again by Zosia Mamet. Yes, another “surprisingly, legitimate fact” about her is that she too was a nurse during the Civil War – and she is still all about that hustle. While she’s taking down notes about the “smells” of death, Walt is still trying to get Emily to connect to soldiers around her, to no avail. Emily just can’t relate to these people or their struggle. Whitman tries another approach. “Exist as you are,” he tells Emily. “That is enough.”
When it becomes clear Emily isn’t getting the answers she needs from either him or Alcott about how to make her poetry matter in this time of war, Whitman takes her to Pfaff’s Beer Cellar, considered by many as America’s first gay bar. The clientele is wild – men making out in corners, waiters wearing no pants, sea shanties being crooned out by actual mermaids – and suddenly, Emily looks like she belongs. Whitman invites her to get out of her mind and into her body, to stop thinking about the pain and start thinking about pleasure. They knock back a few drinks before he puts her on the spot. “What turns you on?” he asks her. When she timidly answers Sue, he challenges her to own her truth, to stop running from it, and be who she really is. With a deep breath, she shouts the truth to the heavens. “I LOVE SUE,” she yells. “I want her and I can’t get enough of her. And if I was on my deathbed right now, all I would want, is Sue. “ And with that and a smile, Walt tells her, “Now that’s a poem.”
But has Emily truly found her way ? Down South, Higginson finally settles in to read Emily’s work, and right away, he’s captivated by her words. “This is my letter to the World. That never wrote to Me—” A smile on his face proves Emily’s finally on her path, well on her way to writing some of her best work during her lifetime.
‘Dickinson’ season 3 debuts all-new episodes on Friday on AppleTV+.