In the third and final season of Dickinson, a vision brings the titular poet face to face with one of her successors. As an undergraduate at Smith College, Sylvia Plath (Chloe Fineman) would’ve spent time in the Western Massachusetts enclave where Emily Dickinson lived her life in infamous seclusion. She’s thus on hand to serve as a literary Ghost of Christmas Future, informing Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) that her fellow coeds consider the Amherst native “an obscure, strange female poet who lived a sad, miserable life.” Emily, aghast, takes umbrage. “Emily Dickinson is not depressed,” she argues. “She does not want to die. She wants to live and connect with the world through her words!”
In both style and substance, the scene is Dickinson condensed. The exchange makes explicit the thesis of the show as conceived by creator Alena Smith: that the consensus around Dickinson, summed up by Plath, gets it wrong, and that the recluse ought to be remembered for what she had (drive, vitality) and not what she lacked (a husband, kids). There’s also the off-kilter way Dickinson delivers that message. It goes without saying that Plath and Dickinson were never in the same room, even if they occupied the same geographical space. But Dickinson is not a show that lets superficial accuracy obscure a deeper truth. When it comes to poetry, literalism will never do when a good metaphor is what’s needed.
When it first premiered in 2019, Dickinson was one in a cluster of shows timed to the launch of streaming service Apple TV+. Lumped in with the likes of The Morning Show, it was sometimes hard for Dickinson to stand out, even with a premise like “horny young poet hangs out with Death as personified by rapper Wiz Khalifa.” And when taken on its own terms, the first season was uneven, if promising. There’s a tonal tightrope to writing 19th-century characters who talk in 21st-century slang—a thin line between self-aware slyness and bursting a fictional bubble. Dickinson could also veer between light comedy and heavy-handed drama, an issue that hamstrung its initial conflict. Emily, independent woman, wants to write and get published; her father, Edward (Toby Huss), stubborn man, refuses to let her. Compared to the nuance of Dickinson’s work, the simple binary of Dickinson’s plot proved an imperfect tribute, nor did the earnestness jibe with its playful approach.
But as its protagonist found her artistic voice, Dickinson grew into its own. Crucially, the question of when and how Emily would make herself known shifted from an external problem to an internal one. In Season 2, Emily meets a potential patron: Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones), a seductive newspaper editor who promises a platform and the fame that comes with it. Emily has to decide whether opening up to the world is truly what she wants, an abstract question Dickinson explores with imaginative flair. In one standout episode, Emily turns invisible the day her first poem is (anachronistically) published in the Springfield Daily Republican, observing the fallout from a supernatural remove. She eventually decides she’s not ready to allow access to her intellectual domain and takes her poems back from Bowles. By the finale, Emily’s privacy was reframed as a way to protect her vision—a triumph, not a tragedy, and most importantly, her choice.
While Dickinson improved, it also earned imitators, or at least peers. The year after its debut, Hulu debuted The Great, a savage spoof of Russian monarchs in the style of The Favourite. Then came Bridgerton, the Shondaland smash that ripped bodices to the tune of Taylor Swift. These shows differed in theme and tone, but they shared a distinctive MO: stories about young women in the past, told with the values, humor, and often music of the present. In just a few years, the genre grew established enough to earn essay-length analyses in literary journals. The trend also helped clarify the differences between the shows as much as their similarities. Dickinson may be tongue-in-cheek, but that tongue isn’t acid, at least compared to The Great’s mean streak. And while Bridgerton is happy to operate within the Regency era’s rigid social norms—apart from some pointed adjustments to its attitude on race—Dickinson is more rebellious. Its Emily yearns to break free of stuffy New England society, and Dickinson wants to help her.
With Season 3, Dickinson becomes the first of these shows to reach its conclusion. (The Great will air its second season later this month, while Bridgerton earned a swift renewal after breaking Netflix records.) It’s a chapter that cements the show as the most ambitious, purposeful, and ultimately, best of its class. In the simplest sense, Dickinson’s style makes its subject more accessible to those unfamiliar with her work—but the show goes far further than a CliffsNotes you can watch. Dickinson doesn’t just want us to understand Emily. It wants us to feel her passion, in whatever form it takes.
For its final act, Dickinson moves into Emily’s productive peak and the country’s political nadir: the civil war. The premiere opens with a sober subset of the show’s larger argument. “In the years of the civil war, Emily Dickinson reached her greatest heights as a poet,” a voice-over explains as a slideshow mixes Dickinson’s signature scraps with Ken Burns–style stills. “Yet, due to her life of seclusion, Dickinson has not traditionally been considered a war poet.” We then cut to Steinfeld in full Union army gear, sprinting through bullets and bloodshed until she reaches Dickinson’s writing desk, where she starts scrawling furiously to Little Simz’s “Introvert.” Like the Plath scene, the sequence mixes bluntness and artistry, history and fantasy. It’s also more specific. Not only did Dickinson, in her way, engage with the outside world; she was obliquely commenting on the most urgent moral crisis of her time.
A common cliché holds that the war turned brother against brother. For the Dickinsons, this was actually true; one of Edward’s siblings lived in Georgia when the conflict broke out. Dickinson doubles down on the domestic side of national strife, opening a rift between Edward and his son Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) that leaves the family as fractured as their country. (Austin announces his estrangement by declaring he secedes from the Dickinsons. Subtlety is overrated.) Wisely, though, Dickinson expands to match its new scope. A subplot follows Henry (Chinaza Uche), a former hired hand of the Dickinson family, as he joins the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a history-making Black regiment commanded by Dickinson’s longtime correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Gabriel Ebert). But in this telling, Higginson isn’t exactly a hero; he’s Dickinson’s take on a white ally, 1860s-style. He even greets Henry with an awkward fist bump.
The complicity of even “good” white people is one of many big ideas woven into the season. Many take the form of questions. Does an artist have to engage with the world to capture it? What does it mean to leave a legacy, in one’s work and one’s life? Does art have inherent value apart from its audience or impact? How does one preserve hope in the midst of death and chaos, and is doing so inherently naive? It’s as if Dickinson wants to squeeze in as much as it can before it goes out for good, echoing Emily’s mad rush of creation.
Dickinson balances the grandeur with humor, an increasingly smooth blend as the show has gone on. The mix of meta reference and clever non sequitur is so distinct it’s best conveyed with examples from the new season: comedian Ziwe appears as Sojourner Truth, a 60-something diva—“We don’t know your exact birth date,” another character points out—crashing in Amherst to pen her memoirs; Emily’s sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) becomes something of a performance artist, staging her own version of The Artist Is Present in the family barn. Like a great piece of abstract art, Dickinson shows it has the knowledge and skill to make a realist replica if it chose to. Instead, it earns the trust to discard, elide, and invent what it wants in service of a greater goal.
At its core, Dickinson is a family sitcom, and like many TV series, it gained depth as it built its characters over time. Dickinson doesn’t exactly forgive Edward for his retrograde politics, but it softens him into a flawed, shortsighted man who loves his daughter. And while Jane Krakowski is one of the best comic actors we have, as Emily’s mother, she’s also the heart of the season; in grieving the death of her character’s sister, she brings the national mood of mourning into the Dickinson home. The Dickinson in Dickinson was never just Emily. The poet already had her fans. Dickinson made more, but also built something of its own.