Dickinson season 3: A heartfelt, bittersweet ode to the birth of a poet

Dickinson season 3. Image Courtesy of Apple
Dickinson season 3. Image Courtesy of Apple /

Apple TV+’s quirky period comedy-drama Dickinson has decided to wrap its run after just three seasons, a rare choice in a television landscape that’s full to bursting with series that have long overstayed their proverbial welcomes and often outrun the stories they were initially created to tell. Not so this modern-day spin on the life of a young Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld), which feels as sharp and clear-eyed in its final installment as it did in its first, bringing its story to a rich and satisfying – if somewhat bittersweet – conclusion, even if some of us (read: me) wish it could go on forever.

For all that Dickinson embrace a thoroughly modern sensibility in its storytelling – the show is peppered with modern-day slang, hip hop needle drops, and dreamlike interludes that clearly exist outside of the show’s primary narrative – it’s also a series that’s surprisingly grounded in the real-life details of Emily’s life, often featuring real people the poet herself knew and events she really experienced. (Remember that two-pound boozy cake Emily made for a baking contest last season? That really happened, and you can make it yourself today if you like!)

In season 3, that major real-life detail is the American Civil War, an event that obviously impacted everyone in Emily’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts – and America itself – in a myriad of different ways that are reflected in the show itself, from Emily’s father’s ( uncomfortable dislike of condemning his family members and former friends in the Confederacy to Henry’s (Chinaza Uche) decision to join a Black Northern regiment fighting in the South.

The Civil War also happen to be the time during which Emily herself was most productive as an artist. It is believed she composed upwards of half her poems during the years of the conflict, including some of her most famous works, such as Because I could not stop for death. Though history does not tend to remember Dickinson as a war poet, the show Dickinson deliberately casts her as one, claiming her words as a reflection of the spirit and state of the country writ large, expressively capturing our feelings and fears about death, legacy, and the things we leave behind.

Dickinson season 3 is a profoundly beautiful end to a true television original

Though Dickinson’s stellar supporting cast are all given plenty of material to work with this season, from Lavinia’s (Anna Baryshnikov)’s embrace of performance art in tribute to her many dead boyfriends or Austin’s (Adrien Blake Ensco)’s attempt to reorient his life after it finds rock bottom in a bottle, this season more than ever belongs to Steinfeld, who infuses Emily’s story with heart, hope, and the clear-eyed conviction that art, maybe more than anything else, is what will one day save the world.

Given that we all know the real Emily Dickinson lives for another twenty years after the Civil War concluded, so we know that Dickinson, the series cannot end with the ending of her life. So the question becomes – how does it wrap things up?

The answer is that it ends with a different sort of death: The end of Emily’s youth. The end of the idea that she should – or could ever – be something that she’s not. Season 3 is not an ending, so much as a different kind of beginning – a clear line of demarcation between the young girl Emily was when this series began and the woman she’s become by the time the final credits roll on its thirty-episode run.

Yes, this part of her story is over, and that’s why the show is concluding here, but Dickinson season 3 is full of hints that Emily’s greatest feats are still to come, from the introduction of the man who will become one of her longest-serving correspondents and editors (Thomas Wentworth Higginson) to explanations for several of the personal oddities that would one day make up the myth of who she once was. (For example: The real-life Emily’s obsession with wearing white and the fact that she spent so much time in her childhood bedroom.)

Dickinson’s final season wrestles with many big questions: Is there a place for art, for poetry, in a dark worked filled with death? To what extent do we control our own futures? Does a life’s work still have value, even if no one ever sees it? Who is Emily, constantly driven to create, even writing all these poems for? 

Where season 2 might have answered the question of whether Emily wants outward fame, its final installment looks inward, dissecting the hope and yearning at the heart of who she is an artist, and allowing her to fully step into the most realized version of herself. Emily doesn’t grow up, so much as finally accept who she truly is, and the result – much like Dickinson’s actual words that frequently blaze across the screen – is a profoundly beautiful one.

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Dickinson season 3 will premiere with three episodes on Friday, November 5 on Apple TV+. A  new episode will follow each Friday thereafter through December 24.