In the ‘Dickinson’ series finale, Emily embraces her infamous legacy in a poetic sendoff fitting for the show worthy of the artist.
And now, the end… is here. After three seasons and 30 episodes, Dickinson aired its final episode on Christmas Eve, bringing to a close the wildly imaginative series that re-examined the young life of one of the most celebrated poets in American history. Creator Alena Smith had said from the beginning that she envisioned her show ending after three seasons – but did this beautiful, brilliant, heartbreaking and hilarious series get the final bow it deserved? Let’s break it down:
We find Emily happily in her garden, surrounded by her beloved flowers and the hum of the bumblebees. She is soon joined by Death, surprising her with a visit, all spruced up in a brand new, all-white suit. He’s better than the last time she saw him, signaling both the end of the war, but also a change in perspective. Seems even Death needed to be reminded of the cycle of life.
As Emily raves over how good Death looks in his new clothes, he encourages her to start thinking about her own look. He hints she’s a on a “deadline” to write 1000s more poems and he fears that dressed in a corset, she won’t be able to work fast enough. “You’ve got work to do, Ms. Dickinson,” Death tells her. “You’re going to need a uniform.” Emily likes the sound of that.
She immediately retreats to her room, trying fervently to take off her dress, but struggles with the “demonic” buttons. She calls out to Vinnie, who rushes to her sister’s side to help her undress. There’s an off-handed comment about being unfit for visitors (hint-hint), but Emily ignores this, with a great line about it being a “baseline requirement of being an adult” to be able to dress yourself. Freed from her corset, Emily’s ready to write, and Vinnie gives her a smile. “I will always be here for that,” she says. It’s sweet moment between the sisters, and it’s also the last time we’ll seen them together.
In fact, this is the only scene that Emily has with any members of the Dickinson family. From here on out, Emily will remain in her room, away from the ones she loves, as she focuses on a very important project. It’s perhaps the hardest pill to swallow about the episode, despite there being a very good reason of the separation. Since the show is all about the untold stories about Emily’s relationships outside her room, it’s fitting that the end sets up her future. But it doesn’t make it any less sad.
Downstairs, Sue and Austin have finally brought the baby over to the house to meet Edward and Mrs. D, who demands she be called “Grandma Cookie”. Austin is ready to make peace, if his father is ready to be a better man. Austin comes armed with a proposal: there is a black woman named Angeline Palmer who worked for a family in town, who, in turn tried to sell her into slavery. Her brothers attempted to rescue her before she was sent away, but were caught and now face unfair charges. At first, Edward is hesitant to get involved in the “messy business,” but seeing Austin’s passion, and realizing his legacy lies with the respect of his family, he agrees to take the case.
Betty arrives then to see Emily, and to apologize for the way she acted the last time they saw each other. She finds Emily furiously writing up in her room, wrapped in her robe. She admits to Emily she was too hard on her and thanks her for trying to give her hope about Henry. Emily is more than happy to put the past aside, especially since she needs Betty’s help. She’s decided she wants to make a dress unlike any that ever existed. “I need this dress to let me live in every possibility,” she tells Betty and Betty accepts the challenge.
The beauty here is that the real Emily Dickinson became synonymous with wearing a white gown. Through conversations with Betty, the writers filled in every blank as to why Emily wore this particular dress. For example, the reason the dress is white is because back then, it was the easiest to clean. The buttons down the front, a radical concept of the time, afforded Emily the flexibility to get in and out of it herself. And the pockets, the all-important pockets, to carry around her pencil and paper everywhere, so no matter where inspiration struck, she’s ready to write.
Emily’s known future is starting to take shape, in more ways than one, as soon, another unexpected visitor comes knocking at the Dickinson front door: Thomas Wentworth Higginson has arrived! He enters the parlor, meeting all of Emily’s family, announcing he’s come to meet the poet that has brought him so much comfort and joy. The family is stunned, including Sue, who already knew that Emily was writing to him, as he regales them over their letters. “Somehow, I’ve been out there on a front lines, yet she’s the one to capture the experience,” he says, and begs them to tell him all about the “genius” he’s been writing to.
Maggie rushes upstairs to give Emily the news, but Emily is overwhelmed. “I never said I wanted to meet. Our relationship is strictly text.” (BTW— it’s writing like this that I will miss the most!) After being teased by Betty and Maggie over “catfishing him”, Emily begs Maggie to send him away, insisting it will be years before she’s ready to meet him — which is, as with most things in the show, historically accurate. But then she thinks of Sue, and how angry she was when she learned Emily was writing to him to begin with, and Emily becomes concerned that Sue’s upset.
But there’s no need: Sue’s now secure in the knowledge that Emily loves her and her alone, and knowing that Higginson could help Emily become a published writer, she’s eager to make him comfortable. She’s so sure that he could be responsible for Emily’s legacy, that she even puts Mrs. D in her place, ensuring that he gets a proper welcome into the home. Sidebar: hearing Jane Krakowski call Ella Hunt “that bitch” is one of the true highlights of the episode.
When it’s clear Emily won’t be coming down, it’s up to her family to fill in the blanks for Higginson. They call her things like “unique”, “odd duck,” and for sure the “crazy one” in the family, a statement that rings fairly false when Lavinia arrives in a full-body knitted blanket that encloses everything but her face. “This is a statement about isolation and security,” she yells, thus cementing the need for a spin-off just about Lavinia and her performance art.
Betty and Emily finally finish the sketch for the dress, and as Betty leaves, Emily settles back into her desk to continue writing, vowing then that she’ll never stop, even if no one ever cares to read her work. When she goes downstairs, Betty tells the family Emily won’t be coming down. Higginson immediately recognizes her name, and follows her out to deliver long-awaited hope: the news that Henry is alive and well and fighting bravely with his men. He also hands over all the letters Henry has written to her while he’s been away, and for the first time in forever, Betty feels his love.
Back inside, Austin and Sue reveal the name of their baby – Edward, after his grandfather – and when Higginson returns, he settles in to wait for Emily to come down. But she never does, and it’s really a very bittersweet moment, seeing the family gathered together without her, thinking of the years ahead, when Emily won’t be as present in their outside lives as she was. Then, Sue raises a knowing eye to the ceiling, knowing upstairs, her love is working away, as Higginson says, “People might have to wait centuries to finally understand her.”
And so, we go back upstairs to find Emily working…and working. Time passes, seasons change, and Emily does not leave her room. She writes, she tends to her plants, she knits – and still, she never leaves her room. What seems a lonely existence proves anything but, as Emily’s genius is her escape to the outside world. While gazing at a painting in her room, she imagines a trip to the sea. Suddenly, there she stands, Emily, in her iconic white dress, strolling along the beach with her never before seen until now dog, Carlo. She’s greeted by a group of mermaids, who beckon her to join them. Emily clambers into nearby rowboat and paddles out to them, asking them to wait for her. “I’m coming,” she says and makes her way out onto the water, with a smile.
And that’s where we leave this version of Emily — this wild, vivacious, enticing, brilliant version of Emily so perfectly performed by Hailee Steinfeld and crafted by Alena and Co. Like the poet herself, it may be years before people really start to appreciate how incredible and innovative Dickinson was, but for fans like me — and you, good reader — we’re thankful to have been on this journey in real time.
So, should we start the rewatch now, or…?