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‘Dickinson’ season 3 episode10 Review: This was a Poet

'Dickinson' cements its legacy with a triumphant final episode.

Hailee Steinfeld in the Dickinson series finale
(Image: © Apple TV+)

Our Verdict

A beautiful conclusion to Alena Smith's ambitious and vibrant portrayal of the great American poet, Emily Dickinson.

For

  • - One final chat with Death (and his new suit)
  • - Designing Emily's signature white dress
  • - Amanda Warren's performance as Betty
  • - The lasting Dickinson legacy through Austin and Edward's work
  • - The nine poems that are woven through the last sequence (and the appearance of Carlo)

Against

  • - No scenes between Emily and her family (aside from Vinnie)

This post contains spoilers for the Dickinson series finale "This was a Poet." Read our Dickinson season 3 episode 9 review.

Emily Dickinson left behind thousands of poems that only gained popularity after she died and the vibrancy of her words was in direct contrast to the reclusive reputation of the prolific Amherst resident. Alena Smith’s Apple TV Plus series Dickinson isn’t the first to explore Emily’s output and life, but no other interpretation has been as lively or ambitious. Smith makes her directorial debut with the Dickinson finale (she co-wrote the episode with R. Eric Thomas) and it is a fitting end to a series that transformed the poet’s words into a love story — one both romantic and capturing the Dickinson family bond.

If the penultimate episode was about Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) fixing the rift with Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and reaching a deeper understanding with Sue (Ella Kemp), then the finale cements the legacy of the entire Dickinson clan. Other than her opening conversation with a newly decked-out Death (Wiz Khalifa) in her garden and her seaside sojourn in the climax, Emily spends the majority of “This was a Poet” in her bedroom. 

When talking to Death, Emily immediately recognizes a change in mood and he is no longer exhibiting ennui. His sharp new tailoring is part of his fresh outlook and he mentions a similar makeover could be exactly what Emily needs. “You’ve got work to do, Miss Dickinson. You’re gonna need a uniform,” is Death’s advice and this conversation sets the rest of the finale in motion — but not before the pair have a dance party for two.

Emily sheds the suffocating gown and corset when she gets home with a much-needed assist from her sister Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov). Vinnie is the only family member that Emily interacts with during the finale and the upstairs/downstairs separation makes sense thematically but it is slightly disappointing that the final scene the poet shared with her father was so fraught. 

One person who does make peace on camera is Betty (Amanda Warren), who also recently shared a tense interaction with the poet. Betty has nothing to apologize for and while Emily’s message of hope is valiant, she also wasn’t considering Betty’s circumstances. 

The arrival of the best seamstress in Amherst is rather fortuitous as Emily has been hit by the dress designer bug and is in need of an expert to help bring this vision to fruition. What comes next is one of several moments that references Emily’s legacy and the white frock design is vital to this image. This dress is required to “live in every possibility” and “pure shapelessness” is part of this aesthetic and costume designer Jennifer Moeller breathes life into this signature garment

Betty’s expanded role is a final season highlight that shows the depth of Warren’s performance. An example of this is when the visiting Higginson (Gabriel Ebert) gives her a gift she never expected. In one of several emotionally satisfying (and tear-inducing) scenes in the finale, Betty gets confirmation that not only is Henry (Chinaza Uche) alive but he has written her a book’s worth of letters. It is a beautiful scene that features lines from “Hope” is the thing with feathers“ and finally lets Betty feel a semblance of Emily’s much-touted sentiment.  

Adrian Blake Enscoe and Ella Hunt in the Dickinson series finale

Adrian Blake Enscoe and Ella Hunt in 'Dickinson' (Image credit: Apple TV+)

The arrival of Higginson at Emily’s home midway through Austin and Sue’s baby name announcement reinforces the bond Sue has with her great love. Last week showed envy is no longer a factor and Sue remains Emily’s biggest cheerleader. Here, Higginson talks about legacy, and in reality he was instrumental in the posthumous publication of Emily's poems. Emily’s mentor did eventually meet the poet but this wouldn’t occur until 1870. Without Emily at the table, Higginson gets a snapshot of the poet’s world without seeing her and he also witnesses another hilarious performance piece from Vinnie.

Before Higginson’s unscheduled visit, Austin and Sue venture next door to make amends and reveal the name of their 4-month-old son. First, Austin wants to make sure he is on the same page as his father; if the Dickinson legacy is going to endure then they need to stand on the right side of history. He presents a legal case he wants Edward's assistance with; a free-born Black girl was to be sold into slavery for $600 by a well-connected Amherst family and her brothers are facing jail time for intervening. The rescue of Angeline Palmer did take place and Edward Dickinson was the defense lawyer, however, this event occurred in the 1840s. The fudging of dates doesn’t diminish the power of this moment and when Edward (Toby Huss) agrees, he later finds out his grandson will bear his name. 

While Sue and Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) arrange refreshments downstairs, Emily’s absence is explained by her writing preoccupation. Before the final montage, Maggie (Darlene Hunt) notes that in Ireland the poets were sparred in war because they had to tell the story. In this case, Emily didn’t see the battlefield but she captured the mood of the tumultuous era. 

Accompanied by the serene piano of “Première Gymnopédie” the action shifts back upstairs to Emily’s room, and the change in seasons provide the backdrop. Nine different poems are spoken (including “This was a Poet”) during this sequence, and this effectively showcases both Steinfeld’s performance and the intuitive way Smith incorporates Dickinson’s work.

Fantasy takes over in the last moments at a beach, in which mermaids are a reality and Emily is joined by her famous dog Carlo. Getting in a rowboat, Emily announces “Wait for me, I am coming,” and this assurance reflects how the world took time to catch on to her genius. It also reads like a callback to the title poem of the first-ever episode, “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me –”. Emily couldn’t stop for death but she captures what it feels like to be alive, and so does the triumphant Dickinson finale.