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Dickinson - Season One - Part A Review - It Beckons

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This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond -
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound -
It beckons, and it baffles -
Philosophy, don't know -
And through a Riddle, at the last -
Sagacity, must go -
-IRL Emily Dickinson

This review contains actual spoilers. Also, Dickinson is not a teen show. 
Any Resemblance to Actual Events or Persons, Living or Dead, is not Purely Coincidental

Drawing inspiration from the life of poet Emily Dickinson, for most of its first season, Dickinson refuses to be an ordinary show. It is not one whit interested in being a biopic, choosing to instead revel in the spirit of its heroine, a young woman whose ambitions and talents are imprisoned by the social constraints of her time. Her fate could be viewed as tragic tragic, immensely so, but the walls holding her in disappear as she lives her life to the furthest reaches her soul can fathom. Hailee Steinfeld’s acclaimed performance as the leading character crackles with energy, and the show never grinds to a halt thanks to the exasperated passion she drenches over even the most mundane things Emily does. As for the show itself, every second is elegant irreverence. Every frame swims with exquisite set dressing and costume work. The faithfulness to even the most minute historical details in these areas makes the show a feast for the eyes. However, don't expect the show itself to bend its characters' personalities and behaviors to dated social norms. It is far more likely to pull up its skirts (a few inches or so) and run helter-skelter over some gorgeous New England fields. You'll want to pull up your own skirts, metaphorical or otherwise, and run with it. 

Episode 1: Because I could not stop for death

Summary: Emily wants a maid. Emily’s mom (Jane Krakowski) does not want a maid. Emily’s friend George (Samuel Farnsworth) who has a C-R-U-S-H on her helps her publish a poem. Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) brings home an orphan he is going to marry. Emily’s brother’s future wife Sue (Ella Hunt) loves Emily, and Emily loves Sue. Don’t take my word for it. They passionately embrace in an apple orchard IN. THE. RAIN. Emily's dad loses his mind when

Best Scene: It’s a tie between Emily’s scenes with her two loves. There’s such delicious chills from her meeting with Death when he tells her that she’ll be the only Dickinson talked about in 2,000 years. The orchard scene with Sue is just wonderful too.

Best Vinnie Moment: Anna Baryshnikov frequently steals scenes like the Pink Panther steals diamonds as Emily’s sister Lavinia. The highlights will be tracked here.

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: This is the only time I will compare the events of Dickinson to the actual people who inspired the show. Sue is an immensely watered down shell of character who has little agency; it is agony to watch her be tossed about at the whims of others, and it doesn’t get better over the season. Ella Hunt is phenomenal in the role though, and one hopes the second season will give her more to do.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Emily’s Death flirtation dress which is the exact shade of a drop of fresh blood. Dramatic AF.

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery:  Her wistful matter-of-fact “You are useless girl. Useless.”

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: Comes to her bedroom drunk, asks her to promise he’ll never lose her, and falls asleep on her bed.

Death: Emily is obsessed with Death (Wiz Khalifa), and he lurks on the fringes of her existence. Sue’s entire family is dead. Vinnie plucks the feathers from a plainly dead bird. The Dickinson attend the funeral of Sue’s last family member, and Emily whispers “I love you” to Sue from the other side of the grave, which is….dare I say….poetic in its own way. After enduring some terrible verbal abuse from her father, Emily flees to Death’s carriage.

Quote Most Likely to Inspire Future Poets: “Tragically I am a woman.”

Shot of the Episode: RAIN KISS. Bonus points for the show actually filming in New England, an area I have not seen very much of on TV.

Episode 2: I have never seen ‘Volcanoes’

Summary: SEXY TIMES. Emily may be a poet, but she doesn’t have the words to describe the horniness Sue inspires within her. Thankfully and ironically, a little old-fashioned sexism means the gals have to go adventuring undercover in dude clothes to watch a lecture about volcanoes. While I’ve seen one too many 21st century comedies to associate volcanoes with pressure cookers of desire, Emily has not. Meanwhile, Mr. Dickinson has hired a maid, Maggie (Darlene Hunt), to keep his promise for Emily to get more free time. Mrs. Dickinson doesn’t adjust easily. Sue and Emily’s attendance of the lecture incites male panic, and Mr. Dickinson berates Emily once again. (For safety’s sake, don’t play a drinking game for every time Emily’s dad belittles her.) With Maggie’s assistance, Emily makes an apology loaf of bread for her father, later confessing to Sue that she feels trapped which leads Sue to channel her inner Jamie Fraser and give Emily something to remember their sleepovers by.

Best Scene: Emily and Sue’s dance party set to Lizzo’s “Boys” is all the fun in the world.

Best Vinnie Moment: “Have I been knitting all day?”

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: That narc screaming "GIRLS!" in the lecture hall.  No, actually, the whole volcanic hot-and-bothered metaphor.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Emily wears a blue dress with a bronze pattern on it that is library wallpaper if I’ve ever seen it, and it is the coziest thing.

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery: Equally sincere and indignant “I’ve tried sitting down. It didn’t agree with me.” And also her pleading reference to “cooking meals that ranged from adequate to downright appetizing.” But we also can’t forget her seething indignation when she says that unlike Emily she is “not in the habit of constantly expressing herself.”

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: He wants Emily to read an essay he wrote on the “proper place of women.” The joke is on him, because Emily uses the precious piece of paper to write rebellious poetry on.

Death: Sue and Emily attend the lecture in a dead man’s clothes that they were previously supposed to be packing up to help his widow. Furthermore, they frolic around in the dead man’s clothes prior to the lecture. Emily is enthralled with the imagery of the victims of Pompeii frozen in time and ash, drawing parallels to her own feelings of disconnection and immobility.

Quote Most Likely to Inspire Future Poets: “Let’s just run all the way to the edge of the Earth and fall off.”

Shot of the Episode: Vinnie’s knitting realization.

Episode 3: Wild Nights

Summary: When Mama and Papa Dickinson leave town for the night, the youngsters throw a way cool house party that introduces a gaggle of charismatic supporting characters. The episode marks a point where the show finds its wings, and we are blessed with the electric camaraderie of the Dickinson siblings as each one takes center stage. Painful revelations, a very big bee (with a male voice which seems odd since I thought pollinating bees were actually female), and so many dance moves all contribute to the episode’s many delights. Dickinson friends Jane, Abby, Abiah, Tokiashi, and Joseph are memorably introduced. Steinfeld gets to bring out the MOST SASSY version of Emily yet.

Best Scene: It can take me a minute or two to truly love a performance. I loved Steinfeld’s the moment Emily let out a guttural howl at realizing her period had started; afterwards, she dragged herself across the floor in faux death throes. Recognition!

Best Vinnie Moment: Every Vinnie moment really, although her speedy “I like to think it plays me” brought of tears of glee to my eyes. 

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: Austin picks up on the vibes between Emily and Sue, gets jealous, and announces his and Sue’s engagement as the whole party is swaying in an opium daze. Later, he stumbles upon Emily’s passionate poem for Sue and then stumbles upon Emily and Sue MAKING OUT. Sue is turned off by the hissing sibling fight that follows and runs away to work as a nanny in the city. 

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Take your pick. Austin’s lavender cravat, Emily’s royal blue party frock, the ivory metallic horizontal ribbon on Vinnie’s gown, any one of the Jane Humphrey Posse's outfits, etc 

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery: “While I’m gone, clean constantly.” 

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: Zero creepy dad moments in this episode. Yay. However, Vinnie’s crush Joseph keeps a wallet of hair locks from all the girls he’s dated like he’s Sense and Sensibility scoundrel Willoughby or something. He tells Vinnie later she’s “hella ripe.” It’s hilarious in a twisted way. 

Death: In a moment of dramatic metaphorical foreshadowing, Emily dreams that she and Sue are on a ship during a storm at sea. Sue falls or jumps overboard. George brings Emily white lilies, the symbol of death, which Emily LOVES. His picking out the flowers is a mere coincidence though, so if you haven’t clued in their love story isn’t happening before this point, now you know. Other references to death include every time Sue looks at Austin like she’s dying inside. 

Quote Most Likely to Inspire Future Poets: “Parties are like shipwrecks. You should emerge from them soaking wet, out of breath, and hopelessly disoriented.” 
Shot of the Episode: Emily slow dancing with Bee.

Episode 4: Alone, I Cannot Be

Summary: The most idyllic of all the Dickinson season one episodes. Emily both rides a train and sits under a grand old tree. It’s also the last episode that George is cute in before we find out he’s the worst. Going back to the important stuff, Emily’s tree is threatened by the 19th century’s second most awful villain: the railroad. She hopes to save it through the influence of her current favorite author: Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney). Her expectation that Thoreau is a kindred spirit gets promptly shattered in a miserably funny scene. All that aside, Hailee Steinfeld gives a performance that I adore every second of. It’s the rare Dickinson episode that is nearly free of romantic angst or cuteness, which allows Steinfeld to chisel away at who her character is as an individual. Emily examining a pumpkin while waiting on the store porch. The red hot angry sadness when her father mistreats her. Steinfeld is immersed completely in her character’s mind and skin. The result is that we are tangibly connected to Emily, and everything no matter how small or great affects us as it affects her.

Best Scene: The most enjoyable is Thoreau gradually revealing himself as a self-centered bore who greatly exaggerated his solitude. He talks down to his mother who came to collect his laundry, and he snaps at his sister who makes the trek later to bring him cookies. It wouldn’t be hilarious if it weren’t for the brattiness Mulaney brings to the role. And the insane hair. And the self-righteous declaration “I hope you’re not hungry, because all I have is beans” before aforementioned sister arrives laden witih baked goods.

Best Vinnie Moment: Wearing a Native American headdress because she hopes to be kidnapped by a chief who will have a handsome son for her to marry. Also every moment she lurks on the edge of a frame wearing said headdress. Anna Baryshnikov possesses that rare art of being able to insert heartbreaking vulnerability into the most hysterically comical scenes.

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: Mrs. Dickinson walking in on Austin “getting it on” to Sue’s photograph on the living room sofa.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Emily’s faded-leaf-brown jacket with the blue and white flowers embroidered up the front. Also Emily’s teal shawl she wears at the end, also with embroidered flowers on it. Coincidentally, both items are 100% something Frozen’s Anna would wear. Emily herself is an Elsa though.

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: Refers to Emily as acting like a “mad heathen” after she pleads with him to spare her tree. Then there’s how he tells Austin to write a poem for the groundbreaking ceremony. Never have I ever wanted to shake a TV character until their collarbone was sprained. He does change his mind and spare the tree in a lovely gesture of appreciation and apology that I refused to be too moved by.

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery: Her apologetic explanation “I held my legs together a bit too long” after Austin’s poetry reading crashes and burns.

Death: Emily fights against Death indirectly in her quest to save the tree. See also that glare she shoots her father in the end after Austin’s public fiasco.

Quote Most Likely to Inspire Future Poets: “I’m trying to be alone.” Or “People hurt each other all the time. Just by proximity.” And Emily’s annoyance at George disturbing aforementioned peace and quiet under the tree is perfect. We’re kindred spirits forever, Emily!

Shot of the Episode: Emily under her tree.

Episode 5: I am afraid to own a body

Summary: Theater club and racism face off in Emily's Shakespeare Club, which, dear reader, we simply do not get enough of. More Jane, Abby, Abiah, and Toshiaki in season two, please. In this episode, Emily picks Othello as the play they will read, a decision that some people find controversial for very different reasons. Throughout the episode, various characters react to the Fugitive Slave Laws that endanger one of the family’s servants Henry (Chinaza Uche). There is much to unpack in everyone’s treatment of the subject and their treatment of Henry. While there’s a general consenus that slavery is wrong, no one is about to acknowledge Henry is an equal. Emily herself seeks to include Henry in her club, but it comes across as if she’s doing this because it would be a creatively fulfilling casting choice. She might see Henry as more of a person than everyone else around her, but she’s still guilty of marginalizing him. That is heavy material, but the show applies it with a light touch. The episode also reveals that Austin and Emily are eagerly awaiting letters from Sue. Austin claims to have received two, and Emily is despondent at receiving none. Meanwhile, Sue is being sexually harassed (and likely worse) by her new boss. Bizarrely enough, I must now tell you the episode is a basket of fun in its other moments. The theater club antics and dynamics could very well fill an episode of their own, and I hope they eventually do.

Best Scene: Two choices here. Henry kindly calling Emily out for her sympathetic racism.
Austin impressing Emily by choosing to play Desdemona by noting that “A character, to me, is a soul. And the soul of Desdemona is one that I relate to deeply. Her love for Othello is so so pure, so true, just like my love for Sue.” (Cue Jane’s epic eyeroll).

Best Vinnie Moment: Vinnie spends the episode casting immense side eye at everyone. Can’t pick just one moment, but each is perfectly timed.

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: George suggesting that he and Austin should go through Othello and mark out the naughty parts.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Vinnie’s blue floral gown. Henry’s corduroy coat.

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: All the Terrible Things George Does: Deciding he wants to marry Emily, George goes behind her back to ask her father. Mr. Dickinson is not impressed. He says something about George encouraging Emily’s worst impulses, although you can tell what really doesn’t impress him is George’s career plans. George responds by smacking Emily over the head with the patriarchy. He frets that the Shakespeare play might not be “appropriate” for “young ladies.” He almost faints when Emily declares she will play the villain. And that’s not even leaving out where he defends his Southern relatives for trafficking and enslaving human beings. Emily literally shows him the door.

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery: “You let him go.” Mournful and distressed followed by a majestically depressed walk away from her daughter.

Death: Emily kisses a skull.

Perfect Musical Moment: Famous by KAYJEZ playing over the Shakespeare Club montage

Shot of the Episode: Went back and forth on this one, but Sue gently, reverently touching Emily’s letter as if it’s the most precious thing on Earth won out. Throughout season one, there is a dreamy spell cast over their relationship. It isn’t a mature love story yet, but the sparkle of romance makes it irresistible.

Next in the Dickinson Season One Part B Review: 
The two best episodes, a showdown with Death, something very silly, and a Little Women orgasm. Please do share your favorite parts of the first five episodes in the comments.

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