Saying goodbye is never easy — even less so when it is a goodbye that no one is truly prepared for. Heading into Dickinson‘s third season (of which fans were informed would also be its last), there was a sense of finality surrounding everything, lending a bittersweet energy to the experience. At the same time, Dickinson‘s conclusion also represents an endpoint that was apparently always the plan from creator, writer, and executive producer Alena Smith — and that is something to be truly thankful for. So many shows either overstay their welcome, renewed countless times over beyond the point of any narrative sense, while others are cut down before they’ve truly had a chance to flourish and thrive, becoming one of the many casualties of network cancellation. Fortunately for Dickinson, you get the sense of a complete story that has had the chance to be told — and it’s the story of an artist finally understanding herself, her identity, and the legacy she will inevitably leave behind long after she’s gone.
There’s so much to love about Dickinson‘s final season, and everything that hooked fans from the beginning is still unabashedly present — killer music, razor-sharp humor, and several faces throughout American and literary history that receive new vitality thanks to incredible guest stars. Comedian and actress Ziwe (who also joined the show as a staff writer this season) lends energy to every scene she’s in as activist Sojourner Truth, becoming a confidant and cheerleader for local dressmaker Betty (Amanda Warren). Billy Eichner has a particularly memorable turn in one episode as American poet Walt Whitman, whose free-flowing verses and equally flexible attitudes about death, life, and love prove especially influential on Emily in coming to grips with her own romantic feelings. Of course, it would also not be a show about Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) without Death, and the return of Wiz Khalifa as that incredibly stylish personification is one that represents not just the current state of the country, with all its war and destruction, but helpfully ushers Emily toward the demise of her former self — helping her grow into the poet she’s always been meant to become.
The biggest overarching conflict this season, however, isn’t necessarily Emily wrestling with herself — though there are many moments dedicated to that internal struggle. This year, it’s a time of war, both within and without the Dickinson home, and marital as well as familial strife plagues many important relationships. Not only have tensions reached a boiling point within the United States, as the North and South face off for the inevitability of the American Civil War, but the Dickinson family experiences a conflict that could threaten to tear them apart from one another as well. Emily, specifically, is stuck in a difficult place between her brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and her father Edward (a tragically beardless Toby Huss) — and as a result, attempts to lean on the only means she has of trying to heal the rift: her words. In the process, she also reaches out to soldier, abolitionist, and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Gabriel Ebert), which is a move that allows the series to sensibly expand its scope outward to a world that doesn’t entirely revolve around Emily herself.
Season 3 spends time with a very specific group on the battlegrounds of the Civil War when we see Henry (Chinaza Uche) venture down from Amherst, Massachusetts to Buford, South Carolina — where, coincidentally, Higginson himself is stationed trying to build a regiment of Black soldiers for the Union. While Emily and Higginson’s ongoing correspondence (itself very well-documented from history) provides a tether to this separate narrative, the moments we spend with Henry and the group of Black men who are fighting for the right just to be recognized as legitimate soldiers provide a perspective that isn’t often represented in Civil War narratives on-screen. These men have their own joys as well as frustrations that are unique to them alone, and most of the complaints they issue to Higginson are fruitlessly passed up the chain of command. As a plotline, it allows Dickinson‘s third season as a whole to not only be a depiction of the war at home in Emily’s own sphere, but an impactful illustration of the war itself that fewer might be familiar with.
Apart from its welcome realism, Dickinson also continues to pursue many stunning trips into the surreal, courtesy of Emily’s own imagination most of the time. While she’d chosen to abandon her efforts at becoming outwardly famous by the end of Season 2, Season 3 takes her on a journey of inward discovery, one that requires her to acknowledge her own wants and desires. Her constant vocation might be her poems, after all, though the question that lays beneath her drastic ebbs and flows of inspiration is: who is she actually writing for? It’s a question that also gets tangled up in the yearning and longing Steinfeld continues to infuse the character with, in the feelings Emily continues to harbor for Sue (Ella Hunt), who has her own tumult to work through not just with her marriage to Austin, but in her affection for her sister-in-law. But ultimately there’s the permeating sense throughout the season that the closer Emily comes to acknowledging her deepest truths, the easier it will be for her to finally evolve to the most fulfilled version of herself.
Even knowing that the end of this show was near has made it no easier to say farewell, but in watching the entirety of Dickinson‘s curtain call, I was appropriately reminded of a poem, one of the many that were preserved by her sister Lavinia and revealed to the rest of the world long after her death (thanks in part to Higginson himself, actually, who collaborated in the effort to publish her writing) and which only continue to preserve her memory today. So, in lieu of anything else to sum up what is unquestionably a phenomenal final season, it seems more than fitting that the poet herself should have the final word.
While we were fearing it, it came —
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair —
There is a Fitting — a Dismay —
A Fitting — a Despair
‘Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.
The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.
Season 3 of Dickinson premieres with its first three episodes on November 5 on Apple TV+, with new episodes airing each Friday weekly until December 24.
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