- - Production designer Neil Patel created a strong personal inferno visual
- - Emily is called out when conflating her family's woes with the war
- - The warmth and easy chemistry between Steinfeld and Pullen
- - How the title poem is used to underscore the themes
- - The town has apparently forgiven Edward, but this shift occurred off-screen
- - Not enough Vinnie and Mrs. Dickinson
Hope and hell are entwined in the final season of Dickinson, which sees the young poet wrestling with a country at war and a battle raging within her family. The comfortable distance between Massachusetts and the front line has meant Emily’s (Hailee Steinfeld) experience is at arm’s distance — which has included attempts to make bandages and letters she writes to Higginson (Gabriel Ebert). Death has come to Amherst and this time Wiz Khalifa isn’t stopping by for a carriage chat. Instead, Emily says goodbye to a friend and confronts the festering family wounds that refuse to heal.
Dante’s Inferno is referenced by Frazar Stearns (Will Pullen) before he went off to his inevitable death and by Sylvia Plath (Chloe Fineman) in last week’s brief time travel adventure. A beating drum can be heard when the Italian poet’s name is invoked and that sound is impossible to ignore when Emily descends into her own subterranean nightmare.
The funeral of Frazar Stearns gives Edward Dickinson (Toby Huss) the chance to earn redemption in front of the town who only a few weeks ago viewed him with disdain — how he managed this is unclear. Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) tells his sister he is skipping the memorial because he doesn’t want to endure their father making it about himself rather than his dead friend. Emily calls him selfish because his non-attendance will also pull focus from Frazar. Austin spits that she “used to be so unconventional and now you’re just like dad.” It is another deep cut in this ongoing fight. Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) and Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov) don’t attend either and both characters only briefly appear, and their absence is felt.
Frazar first appeared to Emily in season 2 as Nobody when she foresaw his demise. It is fitting that he sits next to her while Edward uses profound (but ultimately empty) words to describe this sacrifice and the fantasy of a post-Civil War bond (the gold cannon Edward unveils is still in Amherst). The warmth between these two characters is purely platonic and Steinfeld’s chemistry with Pullen further adds to the emotional resonance of this scene.
It is notable that Edward’s eulogy earns raves, but we only hear snippets and it is Emily’s conversation with Frazar that holds weight. He doesn’t believe Emily’s continued assurances about hope, which has begun to ring false the more she repeats this line of thought. It also feels galling when she compares her personal war to the ongoing bloody conflict.
Thankfully Betty (Amanda Warren) dishes out some truths regarding Emily’s continued conflation of home and the events tearing the country apart. Betty’s fury at Emily is because she doesn’t have the luxury to bicker with her loved ones: her husband is already gone. The knowledge of where he is hasn’t alleviated her worries and she wants “nothing to do with hope. Nothing. All hope ever did was make me cry.”
After Frazar’s funeral, Emily and her father are closer than ever and are a world away from their combative dynamic in season 1. Despite this, Edward is still rigid in some matters, and even though he trusts her to be the executor of his estate, he doesn’t even consider naming her as a beneficiary (Massachusetts inheritance laws at the time did not cover unmarried women, such as Emily). Instead, Edward is leaving everything to Austin, and in the case of his death, his still nameless son would be Emily’s guardian. Emily rightfully has a look of horror etched on her face at the casual way her father says; Steinfeld’s reaction coupled with the poem accompanying this scene reinforces the gut-punch moment.
Bottled-up rage runs through “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -” (both the poem and the episode) and these words reflect the way laws have a way of holding everyone back who isn’t a white affluent man. It is no mistake that Higginson reads this poem while the Black soldiers equipped with the guns — that they aren’t even meant to have — have made the active choice to meet the enemy head-on.
Emily runs to a clearing where Frazar (or rather Nobody) awaits standing next to an open pit. A broken headstone reads “Lasciate Ogne Speranza” — which translates as “Abandon All Hope” — and this descent turns into a personal inferno through seven circles of Dickinson woes. Vinnie rages at her sister for destroying her chance of romantic love, Austin blames her for ruining his marriage (and is dressed similarly to the psychiatric hospital doctor), her mother behaves like a toddler switching between tears and laughter and her father is dead. Sue’s (Ella Hunt) positive reaction is in contrast and the menswear she sports is a direct callback to Season 1. They dance, but Emily is distracted and Sue accuses her of no longer being attracted to her. It is one final slight in a series of disagreements with the people she loves.
Production designer Neil Patel created a nightmarish version of the familiar Dickinson home, and each room is a twisted version of Emily’s sanctuary. The endless spiral staircase is bathed in a red light that further highlights the haunting fantasy. Costume designer Jennifer Moeller has decked Emily out in the so-called signature white — which adds to this unnerving vision.
When Emily does make it outside, she is back in the Union soldier uniform she briefly wore in the season premiere. Dead bodies litter the floor and she is blown back by an explosion. She then sees a familiar face among the men and it is Henry (Chinaza Uche) leading the First South Carolina Volunteers against Confederate forces. She shouts from the sidelines and he narrowly escapes with his life.
“Victory is ours,” he yells before Emily is snapped back to Amherst with the fluttering wings of a familiar yellow bird. Hope is the thing with feathers, and with only two episodes remaining, the poet has her work cut out for her.
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