To be honest, there’s little to say about this third and final season of Dickinson that I didn’t already cover in my reviews of the first and second seasons. Sharp and irreverent, weird and sexy, and just anachronistic enough to have something to say without getting tiresome, Dickinson has been wholly and idiosyncratically itself since the day it premiered.
Does this final season include Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) descending into hyper-realistic daydreams, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) dabbling in ever-weirder performance art, and Austin (Adrian Briscoe) chafing at the disconnect between his heart and his father’s/society’s expectations? Absolutely! Does it feature some of 2021’s most delightfully weird comedians making cameo appearances as some of the late 1800s’ most delightfully weird historical figures? I mean, obviously! Does it weave today’s slang and woke af politics into the social scene of 1862 Amherst? Slay, queen! Of course it does! And so on and so forth down the line, from Emily’s passionate affair with Sue (Ella Hunt) to her parents’ stuffy domesticity to the whole series’ signature, mordant takes on the limitations of “progress” under a white supremacist patriarchy.
And yet, with the inevitable arrival of both the Civil War and Sue and Austin’s first baby, this third and final season of Dickinson nevertheless finds new ground to tread. Now, whether that ground is always emotionally consistent—well, that’s another question, entirely.
But first, the good.
On the Civil War front, we get not only the fruit of several storylines whose seeds were planted in Season 2 (Will Pullen’s “Nobody” arc as one of Amherst’s first major war casualties, Frazer Stearns, included), but also the greatest opportunity the series has given us yet to consider the Black perspective on this particular American moment. Or rather, Black perspectives, plural—a distinction which, unsurprisingly, ends up being critically important both up North (where Instagram’s favorite interviewer and new Season 3 writer, Ziwe, makes a very funny cameo as someone new to the Amherst scene), and down South, where Chinaza Uche’s Henry heads after absconding from Austin’s barn under cover of darkness before their combined role in publishing an independent abolitionist paper could be uncovered at the end of Season 2. That Henry’s lived experience as an educated, Amherst-born freeman ends up crashing into a wall as he tries (and fails) to look cool by swinging a chair around backwards to address the group of Gullah-speaking, formerly enslaved men who make up the 1st South Carolina Volunteers* he’s eventually hired to teach how to read and write is, ultimately, unsurprising. But it’s scenes like this, full of sly visual nods to Hollywood’s rocky history of white savior narratives and unsubtle acknowledgments of its own inherent storytelling biases, that make it clear that Dickinson is using Season 3 to look much deeper than Emily’s rich, white, Northern experience than it managed in either season prior.
(*Of course, having received my formative Civil War education from an American public school in the last gasps of the 20th century, neither the 1st South Carolina Volunteers nor their white commanding officer, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higgins, played here by Gabriel Ebert, were at all familiar to me before Dickinson brought them to my attention. I didn’t know that the Volunteers were the first federally authorized Black regiment, nor that Higginson, a poet and writer who would himself go on to co-edit the first published volumes of Emily’s poems following her death, was also an activist and abolitionist, and part of John Brown’s Secret Six. That my time spent watching these Season 3 screeners ended up split evenly between taking notes and researching niche figures in American history is just one more indication that Dickinson is going out at the top of *every* game. In other words, Emily fans: Get your research muscles ready!)
On the home front, meanwhile, this season ends up a bit more muddled than it likely intended—especially given where each of the characters were at Season 2’s close. Driving one of the emotional engines this season is the birth of Sue and Austin’s first child, yes, but before that unnamed baby boy even arrives, we find that Austin has lost every inch of ground he had gained in terms of personal growth last season, slipping so far into alcoholic rage and resentment that he starts a civil war in the Dickinson family itself. As a way to let Emily make “hope” the thematic framework tying her twin spheres of home and work together this season, this is reasonable enough, but considering where Austin was at the end of Season 2—e.g., confident in his goal to be a man who stands up for what he believes in, regardless of the consequences—it makes next to no sense. Not the drinking, not the inchoate anger with which he cuts down both his father and the Dickinson family name at every turn, not the seething scorn for Sue, and definitely not his suddenly straight, lank hair.
Nor, similarly, do Sue’s feelings towards Emily and her work track either logically or consistently with where the two left off (naked, on the floor) at the end of the last season. Some of this certainly comes down to what might be postpartum depression on Sue’s part, but too much of it ends up feeling like a rehash of disagreements they’ve had before about how Emily’s attention gets divided between Sue and the rest of the world to feel like it means much this time around. See also: Lavinia’s feelings about having ended up on a path to oddball spinsterhood, as well as Mrs. Dickinson’s (Jane Krakowski) supposedly all-consuming grief over a major personal loss, neither of which is easy to track without the characters spelling out explicitly where their heads are at in any given moment. Of course, it is entirely possible that I am just a crank! But where the emotional thrust of individual episodes this season feels compelling enough, taken as a whole, I just found it all confounding.
That said, Emily herself continues this season to prove a constant wash of genius and heart. And as surprising as her obsession with hope seems to be to everyone she talks about it with, the series is smart to note that her work from the Civil War period supports it. Moreover, Steinfeld’s sharp, zealous performance—which stands out in a field full of similarly sharp, zealous performances thanks to the raw joy with which she approaches even the deepest pits of Emily’s imagined personal inferno—makes this hope entirely multi-dimensional. It is not the twee hope of mall-bought greeting cards, or the empty hope spouted by unimaginative sophists, but rather the hope borne of knowing just how heavy the world can be, and how important it is to hold tight to even the flimsiest of hope, regardless of what darkness tears at you. It is the hope that can give Death (Wiz Khalifa), himself, hope; the hope of springtime flowers blooming, dying, rotting, then blooming again.
That is to say, it’s the kind of hope even the most cynical of us might believe in. And that, if nothing else, seems like the right note for a show like Dickinson to end on.
The first three episodes of Dickinson’s final season drop Friday, November 5, on Apple TV+. The remaining episodes will premiere weekly on Fridays through December 24.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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