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Dickinson - Season One - Part B Review - You Thought This Was a Love Story

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Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
-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

When Apple TV+ fell from the tree in November 2019, it couldn’t help but be bruised by striking the enormous pile of content demanding our attention. Yet there was one particular show that didn’t cry out to be noticed, but once you saw it, there was no looking away. Dickinson is a divine freak that is miraculous by its very existence in a world that often considers repackaging to be creativity. Yes, it’s wit and humor and color spurred happy memories of the excellent Gentleman Jack. Yes, weeks after Dickinson’s release, Little Women was heralded as a masterpiece, with few reviewers noting the spiritual connections to Dickinson. The splendor is that we live in a world where Sally Wainwright, Alena Smith, and Greta Gerwig are feeding our souls such an absolute buffet. It’s impossible to watch their work, to watch a show like Alena Smith’s Dickinson, to watch the show that is Dickinson and not absolutely believe that meaning and magic are to be found in our travails and our quirks and our loves and our disappointments and our passions. Here is my guide to the back half of Dickinson Season 1.

Episode 6: A brief, but patient illness

Summary: Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) decides to feign illness to give herself some peace and quiet, something everyone did on a daily basis before social distancing became our new normal. Her plan takes on a life of its own when her family believes the illness to be terminal; subsequently, Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss), Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski), and Austin (Adrian Enscoe) each visit her “deathbed” to share emotional confessions ranging from absurd to heartfelt. Along the way, Emily meets a kindred spirit in her father’s new law clerk Ben Newton (Matt Lauria), and sparks of the “let’s roast marshmallows together” variety make an appearance. Ben is so modern that he might as well be wearing one of those pink kitty hats, and it’s HOT. Elsewhere, Bee checks in to question Emily taking the ruse so far, and Death even shows up to flirt. Meanwhile, Lavinia will not let a dying relative stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime vanity boost. Austin, however, visits Emily and asks her not to die, in a scene that will call up tears so careful with your precious Kleenex supply; he says she’s the most fun and shares that his feelings for Sue (Ella Hunt) are deeper than appear. Emily is taken back by his vulnerability, his honest intentions (though we wonder if he truly understands his feelings), and later gently pushes Sue back into his arms with some slanted truth.

Disclaimer: This is my favorite episode of the show so far, and I have watched it 7x.

Best Scene: Emily and Ben’s first meeting. It’s a side of Emily that Steinfeld hasn’t gotten to show us, this happy glow when Emily can talk freely about her passion. And the exquisite teleplay that Steinfeld delivers with such truth in every one of her expressions.
“A lot of what’s called poetry isn’t really poetry you know. If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can warm me, then I know that is poetry. 
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. 
These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” 
And how Ben reflects those same feelings back to her. Made my mind swoon. I’m not sure I consider them a romantic connection, but they are kindred spirits, and seeing them find each other is too wonderful.

Best Vinnie Moment: Her fleeting moral dilemma over whether or not to sit for the portrait, which isn’t really a battle at all. (“You want me to get sick too and die without ever having a beautiful portrait painted of me. It’ll be like I never even existed at all.) And her disappointment when seeing her gorgeous self on the canvas is a lovely bit of devastation. How often do we fail to love what we see in the mirror, in spite of our beauty?

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: Mr. Dickinson takes advantage of Emily’s impending death to make a confession. (“I must unburden myself of this long-kept secret.” Emily’s “Maybe don’t” is perfect and unnoticed.) He cheated on Mrs. Dickinson during their engagement with a maid at a fraternity party, an indiscretion he blames on “those wicked bivalves” that were served there.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Lavinia’s yellow portrait dress. No question.

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: We find out Mr. Dickinson buys Emily books but puts them on the highest shelf of his office, in hopes she won’t read them.

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery: The tearful, wistful “Can’t we just try--the leeches?”

Death: Emily’s sickness is mistaken for impending death, and Death puts in a brief, flirty appearance. Sue and Emily fight over Death in the end, with the former calling Emily out on her lack of respect for Death. “Dying isn’t a metaphor,” an obviously pained Sue tells her. Emily is taken back by Sue’s response, and you sense the rift between them widen. In my review for the first half of the season, I noted that Sue can come across as character without agency. And that’s because she is. Girl has no autonomy, possibly no dreams she dares to dream, her imagination and joy squashed under tragedy, her mind undervalued. The whole miserable package.

Perfect Musical Moment: Add them all to your playlist. Emily’s party of one song is “Feelin Good” by Danger Twins, the say no to marriage and jump in a lake song is “Fever For You” by Michael Holland, and the concluding recognition of awesomeness song is “Undo” by Transviolet.

Shot of the Episode: I love how Austin and Sue are in the background of this shot, and Emily is turned away from them, lightly dazed but happy that her work, her art, her poetry is being recognized by someone at last, and she doesn’t feel alone or outcast or left behind.

Episode 7: We lose - because we win

Summary: Election day jitters lead to Mr. Dickinson elevating himself on a very high moral soapbox, which he topples right off of in a moment of physical abuse directed at Emily. A somber conclusion to a morbidly funny episode that sees Austin arranging a grave for Sue, Lavinia holding a woke sleepover, Ben being more adorable than a man of his time has any right to be, and Emily taking a trip to the circus. The episode features a series of tense Sue and Emily moments that emphasize the rift in their relationship, including one where Emily pokes fun at Sue treasuring a “Frugal Housewife” book passed to the latter by Mrs. Dickinson, failing to appreciate how deeply her words wound Sue. In one of my favorite Sue moments yet, Sue looks down at Emily and tells her to “Eat, shit.” It’s a startling but welcome level of boldness from the demure Miss Gilbert. Emily herself persuades Austin to submit one of her poems to a contest, the poem wins, and Mr. Dickinson reads it aloud to the entire breakfast table. One last kick to the gut comes when Austin reveals he renamed the poem to dedicate it to Sue.

Best Scene: Emily’s trip to the circus was heavily featured in promotions for the show. In those trailers, it plays as a celebration of imagination and freedom, as a daring voyage that Emily conjures for herself. In the episode, though, that scene comes after her father violently strikes her, and it’s impossible to read the scene as anything other than a way to break away from that trauma, a vivid expression of her longing to be accepted and rewarded for her just being herself. It’s an even more wrenching scene when Sue enters the tableau, unaware of everything, unaware of the true Emily, reminding us that the person Emily most longs to see her real self doesn’t and perhaps can’t.

Best Vinnie Moment: In a phenomenal scene that took my breath away with delight, Vinnie’s sleepover brings back Jane, Abby, and Abiah for a discussion of politics that shatters the Bechdel test and drips with relevant irony.

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: Austin announcing that Sue will be stoked he’s having a deceased infant relocated to ensure that he and Sue’s future corpses will spend eternity side-by-side. I mean...OMG.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Emily’s magnificent, cozy grey sweater or Jane’s blue dress with tasteful butter cream roses.

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: Enters her room without knocking, tells her everything she has is because of him, then viciously slaps her when she calls out his misdirected anger. He is beyond loathsome, and Maggie’s ice cold response to him declaring himself “a man of honor and decency” is spot on.

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery: The stone-cold appalled ““How dare you insult me like that?” when Ben jokes he assumed she was a suffragette. (Also for reasons unexplained, she is casually wearing a light rifle or musket slung across her back towards the end of the episode’s cool one-shot sequence.)

Death: Emily notes that “staring at gravestones” is her thing. Her poem contains a line about how easy it is for a small flower to die, making it even more atrocious and hysterically funny that Austin dedicated it to Sue. And of course there’s the look on Sue’s face as she watches her future grave prepared. Also, at Lavinia’s slumber party, a dejected Emily shares Death’s report of the upcoming Civil War with its mass casualties, which produces a very long pause in the spirited chatter.

Perfect Musical Ben Moment: Going after Emily when he sees she’s upset, declaring himself a “freak” if she is, suggesting they run off to the circus together, and playfully interlocking fingers with her. He’s more pure than a 20th century Disney princess but it works.

Shot of the Episode: This one.

Episode 8: There’s a certain Slant of light

Summary: If it weren’t for the whole “Austin and Sue make a baby right after Sue shares her childbirth fears” thing, this would be my favorite episode of the season. The episode begins with the departure of Mr. Dickinson to Washington D.C. Without a doubt, Emily’s father is one of the most complicated characters on the show. He’s frequently awful and possessive of his daughter in a way that could be interpreted to be seriously infringing on her mental and physical wellness. And yet at times his atrocious behavior seems to come from a side of him that cares about his daughter and perhaps even fears for her future in a world that he doesn’t think she will be able to assimilate into. He is still toxic, and Emily perceives him as such, hence her reaction to the greenhouse as another extension of her prison. We also see Emily seriously consider Ben as an option for marriage, as a means of escaping her house. I don’t interpret them as a romantic connection, but they love each other in the way that kindred spirits do. The episode revolves around a Christmas Eve dinner that brings some very special guests for a visit. It’s the last giddy episode we get before the devastating couplet that concludes the season.

Best Scene: As fitting for a Christmas episode, there is a plethora of gifts. Zosia Mamet’s Louisa May Alcott who introduces herself by her full name, mortifies Jane Humphrey (delightful in this episode as well) by practically discussing money, and dismisses a Moby Dick story idea as stupid. There’s also everyone’s complete disbelief when Emily announces she’s cooking and hosting. (“You said you were allergic to apron fabric.”). And Sue returning to Emily’s bed to admit that she’s jealous of Ben and Emily’s bond; the loneliness on Ella Hunt’s face when Emily describes how Ben hears her and knows who she really is. My whole heart!

Best Vinnie Moment: One of the very special guests that comes to dinner is Aunt Lavinia, whom Vinnie is named for, and the former can’t stop talking about how widowhood made her extra horny and sent her on a tour of European hunks. She advises all the young women at the table to reach out and grab what they want in life. And Vinnie’s priorities in this episode are getting her hands on the next installment of Bleak House and having Joseph get his hands all up in her business. “I’m half an Ada and half an Esther,” Vinnie declares at one point. Aren’t we all? No one practices the art of comic timing with as much finesse as Anna Baryshnikov.

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: Since Vinnie’s dinner table orgasms are literally a hoot and a holler, I’d say the wackiest moment also goes to Vinnie for her Christmas morning tradition of tearing open everyone’s presents as fast as possible.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Every outfit in this episode is eternal-naptime worthy. Ben’s gorgeous blue coat and Vinnie’s party dress with the beautiful alternating pink and burgundy are standout pieces.

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: Very much conflicted over Emily’s dad at this point. A toxic parent can still love their child, while also being the worst.

Jane Krakowski’s Most Wonderful Line Delivery: Mrs. Dickinson is seized with ennui after her husband’s departure, taking to her bed with determination. It’s funny but also moving because the show never makes fun of her for feeling the way she does and her children care for her tenderly. Emily’s repeated assurances to her mother that they don’t need her father to be there, that they can be okay without him, were especially bittersweet. The most wonderful line was the languidly dramatic “Snuff that candle on your way out.”

Death: Emily jokes that Ben’s (nonexistent) wife might be dead. Louisa presents Beth’s death as the big twist of Little Women. There are references to ghost stories, butchered calves, and the aforementioned snuffed candle. And then there’s Ben’s cough. As puking as to TV pregnancy, coughing as to TV death. Not even the sweet kiss he and Emily share can hide that truth, and Death’s carriage driving nearby leaves no doubt.

Perfect Musical Moment: Sue gets more and more uncomfortable watching Emily flirt (in a very forced manner) with Ben, and she is not in the mood when Austin asks her to play a song for him. Defiantly, Sue says she will play a song but it will be for Emily. And does she ever! Ben sees Emily’s face watching Sue, and he knows. And it doesn’t change anything, because he’s Ben. And he’s perfect. Austin seems a little miffed but too intoxicated to care (Narrator voice: He was not too intoxicated to care). The song Sue plays and sings is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the lyrics of which were written by female poet Christina Rossetti.

Shot of the Episode: Christmas lounging about. The March Sisters would approve.

Episode 9: Faith is a fine invention

Summary: DEATH, DEATH, DEATH. Consider yourself warned. Emily’s fanciful obsession with Death takes a dark detour when someone she loves falls at his hand. The episode begins with an exciting day in Amherst, as everyone prepares to watch a solar eclipse. Vinnie gives Joseph one of her classy nude selfies, which he appreciates a little less artistically than she was hoping. Sue is pregnant with a capital P but is smitten by the sweet family life of Henry and Betty (the only healthy relationship on this show so far). Everyone gathers for a lovely eclipse-watching sequence, George returns with a new girlfriend yet still carries a bonfire-sized torch for Emily, and Ben and Emily un-propose to each other in a manner that would make the Mad Hatter and March Hare proud. (It is likely to only make you clutch your heart and make soft sobbing sounds though). Ben’s condition worsens, escalating until Emily in despair throws herself at Death to try and deflect the unavoidable. Sweet dreams are not made of this, but what sweet sorrow it is! Earlier in the episode, Ben asks Emily which book she prefers: “Song of Innocence” or “Song of Experience.” She says they’re both equally enjoyable, but she surely won’t feel the same after this loss.

Best Scene: The one with Death is brutal, however Maggie and Emily’s conversation takes precedence. I appreciated Emily’s testimony of how her seminary headmistress tried to force her to declare a religious state that she didn’t feel. Emily’s lingering heartbreak over not being able to feel what she thought she was supposed to, while also being determined to be honest, was beautifully executed by Steinfeld and exquisitely written. And Maggie, someone from a different faith than the one Emily was supposed to embrace, being the one to tell her that God didn’t view anyone as hopeless and gently suggesting she might try again but not pushing Emily was such a wonderful thing to see on screen in this world where people often claim religion but don’t practice love. Hunt shone in that scene.

Best Vinnie Moment: Being disappointed when Joseph praises her tits in her drawing rather than her technique. And after he shows her sketch around town, Vinnie takes back her power by sharing the rest of her drawings with everyone in her art class. Her proud smile when she takes a look at her handiwork is everything.

Death: Make no mistake. This was Death’s episode. The beginning of the episode was a preacher talking about death. Joseph said the talk of death made him horny, a sign that we would not be seeing death in the same light as usual. Mrs. Dickinson said death was everywhere that winter. Emily mentioned the frost had killed her favorite flowers. Ben and Emily quoted from a poem that featured death. Emily recounted watching a corpse for what felt like hours. Flies buzzed. Emily and Ben sweetly vowed “to not have and to not hold as long as we both shall not live.” And when Ben’s delirium took over, Emily fled the room, only to realize she was wearing her red Death dress. The subsequent meeting in Death’s carriage where she lashed out, blaming and accusing him of taking Ben and trying to bargain for his life was the climactic moment of the season. And Death’s scolding was a dagger to Emily’s spirit.
“This isn’t about you. 
You thought this was a love story. 
Some kind of romance between us. 
But it’s not. I don’t love you. 
You’re not special.”

Perfect Musical Moment: Does the sound of my wails count?

Shot of the Episode:

Episode 10: I felt a funeral in my brain.

Summary: Hope, the thing with feathers, flutters through the powerful, bittersweet season finale. Everything that makes this show extraordinary is on display. It begins with Emily sitting by a grave, but this episode is about her life and what will come next. Every frame is art. Every performance is magic. Every heart is breaking. And in the end Vinnie’s making out with a hot falconer she meets by the outhouse, Sue and Austin are drifting away in a hot air ballon like true loves in a musical, Mrs. Dickinson nearly blinds herself, and Emily both opens and closes a door in her relationship with her father. And George proposes again! (Samuel Farnsworth is exuberance personified, so I’m glad he’ll be back in season 2).

Best Scene: There are two. The season ends with Mr. Dickinson and Emily in the doorway of her room. He tells her he won’t be running for reelection, that he’s going to be home, that he’s going to be there for her. And maybe it’s just because Toby Huss is amazing, but there seemed to be an unselfish kindness in those words. Emily, in turn, declares that she is a poet and that she will be writing a hell of a lot of poetry. He says he knows, and she closes the door in his face.

The other scene is Sue and Emily’s pre-wedding conversation, after the sight of Sue takes Emily’s breath away. She gives Sue a poem so small it will require a magnifying glass and apologizes for not understanding how Death had affected Sue. You can see every emotion ripple unchecked across Hunt’s face as Sue says she’ll always be there for Emily. She tells her about the pregnancy and admits that she wishes she were doing the whole marriage and motherhood thing with Emily. And later when Sue reads Emily’s poem, it’s clear that she reads the poetry and understands it in a way she wouldn’t have before. Their love story is only just beginning.

Best Vinnie Moment: With her father absent and her mother (temporarily) out of commission, Vinnie muses that she now knows what it’s like to be an orphan, and it feels nice. (Sue would probably NOT appreciate that sentiment). Already an icon and a queen, Vinnie firmly lays claim to those titles by denying Joseph’s proposal and gift of a locket (He wanted to “lock it” down), stating her cat needs to come first, and rolls her eyes when Joseph says he needs to sit a minute and cry.

Biggest What the Dickins Moment: The whole “Ben is gay” part of Emily’s funeral hallucination. It felt tacked on and weird and mishandled by a show that is usually even groovier and more woke than a Lavinia sleepover. Sure Emily’s circus dream showed Ben kissing a man and sure him not being romantically drawn to her implied that he was gay. But having him come out and say “I was attracted to Austin” didn’t make sense in light of the whole rest of the show. It was possible this part of Emily’s dream was meant to just be her conjuring this as yet another case of Austin taking away someone she cared about, but it was framed in a confusing way. Was Ben gay? In light of the show, he was almost certainly too classy to be a straight man of his time. But the whole Austin thing was just head-scratching and distracting.

Outfit I Would Be Buried In: Sue’s honeymoon suit. Lovely. Also her wedding dress and veil were stunning. Also want to note that when Emily and Sue ran off to the orchard to frolic (but not kiss), Sue was wearing Emily’s darling grey sweater. Also Lavinia wore Emily’s blue party dress to the wedding, in a cool bit of wardrobe recycling that accompanied the featured poem of the episode.

Creepiest Thing Emily’s Dad Does: Not be creepy at all. (I KNOW!).

Death: It might be Austin and Sue’s wedding day, but Emily is determined to sit by Ben’s grave, until Lavinia tells her to pull it together for family (“No thanks.) and Sue (that does it). Later, banned from the wedding by Austin in a fit of monstrosity for which Emily soundly rebukes him, Emily melodramtically wishes she would die. She is transported to an appropriately moody funeral, hosted by Death, attended only by Bee, Zombie Ben, and Henry David Thoreau. Death makes a grand speech about how they are all gathered there for “some basic bitch named Emily Dickinson.” Emily interrupts to edit the eulogy, asking if he could refer to her as the greatest poet of all time, forever, period. Death says she isn’t the greatest but adds “not yet,” effectively restarting their friendship. And Emily realizes she doesn’t care to be buried alive, as she has a poem to write. Many poems actually. Her new appreciation for Death is also reflected in the aforementioned scene with Sue.

Perfect Musical Moment: The lyrics and music of G Flip’s “2 Million” could be a more insanely flawless pairing with the scene where Emily starts assembling her poems into a book as the past, present, and future love of her life marries someone else in the room below her.

Shot of the Episode:

All wonders cease, but Dickinson isn’t one of those fleeting wonders yet. It will return for season 2. Hopefully, everyone will be back. Sue. Vinnie. Austin. George. Abiah. Jane. Abby. Toshiaki. Henry. Ellen. Maggie. Death. And of course Emily herself will return.

Hailee Steinfeld was voted by our readers as one of their favorite outstanding performers of 2019, and a winner article focusing on her work is forthcoming.

Last Musings:

1. Was there a bigger cringe moment then Austin and Sue making a baby?

2. Have you read the spoilers/an Emily Dickinson biography? If so, how do you feel about Sue on the show?

3. What is your season 3 wishlist? More cameos from famous literary characters? A musical episode? Redemption for George!? More Shakespeare Club? (Please, God!)

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