An excellent episode of Dickinson reminds us that for all that Emily is a boundary pushing figure, she’s unfortunately still a victim of the restrictive expectations of her time.
Only a show like Dickinson can take an episode that’s ostensibly about the circus coming to town and turn it into something that examines both politics and gender roles in a deeply nuanced, relevant way.
Politics, in fact, is the overarching theme of “We lose – because we win”, as Emily’s father stands for Congressional election. But the idea of rights – who gets to have them, who gets to decide who doesn’t, is a big theme, even when it’s obvious that those who can’t vote (Emily, Lavinia and the other younger women) hold more thoughtful and nuanced views than those who do.
Lavinia and her friends are surprisingly knowledgable about politics and the current state of the country – probably more so than any of the male members of the Dickinson household do. Their debate on the subjects from slavery to the possibility of an upcoming civil war is in-depth, informed and varied – particularly when compared to the general ignorance of both Austin and his father.
Mr. Dickinson’s political opponents feel painfully timely: The Know-Nothings have found success by blaming the country’s problems on immigrants, Catholics and other outsiders who are easily demonized. Watching this, it’s disheartening to realize that sometimes, time really is a flat circle.
“The men of honor and decency have prevailed,” Mr. Dickinson declares upon learning that he’s narrowly squeaked out an electoral victory over his odious Know Nothing opponent. But, since he just backhanded his daughter over what was essentially an insult to his own ego, it’s difficult to believe that’s in any way true.
Yes, Mr. Dickinson lets his daughter have some leeway in her life. He hasn’t forced her to marry a man against her will. He buys her books, but discourages her from reading them. He lets her write the poetry she loves – to a point. As long as she, you know, doesn’t share it or publicize that fact in any way. It’s actually the grossest kind of support – because it’s not really support at all.
Emily, bless her heart, looks as shocked as she does hurt after her father’s blow. One doesn’t get the sense that Mr. Dickinson is a man often given to violence. But it’s clear that he is a man with a definite sense of the things owed to him – this political post, public respect, an obedient daughter with no will of her own – because that is simply the way things are.
Austin, clearly raised to a similar sense of entitlement, spends most of the episode attempting to exhume the body of a dead baby from the local cemetery. simply because he believes he should be able to have his future wife Sue buried next to him. As a subplot, it’s darkly funny, but it also says something deeply uncomfortable about who Austin is. (Sue, who watches the gravediggers arrive with open disgust on her face, clearly realizes that herself.)
What that means for the future, at the moment, is unclear.
All episodes of Dickinson are now streaming on Apple TV+.