Dickinson Season-Finale Recap: Burn After Reading


You Cannot Put a Fire Out
Season 2 Episode 10
Editor’s Rating 3 stars


You Cannot Put a Fire Out
Season 2 Episode 10
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: Courtesy of Apple TV+

Last season ended in a wedding; this season finale gives us the christening of hot widow Jane’s baby, to whom Austin is godfather. Plot continuity! You simply love to see it! (Sorry, after a season of Emily in Paris shattered my brain nearly beyond repair, these small graces are like a gallon of ice water after a long day in the desert.) Some of our couples seem to be doing well — Mama and Papa Dickinson definitely had sex last night, and good for them! — while others are on the rocks. Ship casually drops to Vinnie that he expects they’ll make haste to New Orleans once they’re married, so time to say bye to her whole family forever. And Austin and Sue aren’t even pretending to get along, though it’s not clear if Sue knows Austin knows or what. She hasn’t seen Em since “The May Wine” was published, though Austin tells her, through a grimace, to leave his sister alone.

Em is the only member of her family who got out of attending the christening. I guess really honing your brand as a weird loner does have its perks, like how nobody gives you too much of a hassle when you skip out on boring church stuff. At the Dickinson household, Maggie the maid answers a cloyingly cutesy knock at the door: It’s Sam.

Em is staring out the window, and I am remembering that her doctor told her to stay in dark spaces, so I hope she isn’t doing irreparable damage to her eyesight. She refers to Sam in as formal a manner as ever (“Mr. Bowles”) and refuses to look at him. She requests, then demands, the immediate return of her poems. Sam balks at this, assuming she’s just playing hard to get — “False modesty, it’s cute” — and then, when he realizes she’s serious, implores her to see what he has decided is the bigger picture: She will be world famous, the biggest poet in America. But even when he is (accurately) predicting her influence, he’s still putting her work in service of his own: Her poems, he says, can help him build an empire. In Sam’s framework, Em is still the daisy and he will always be the sun. Em’s perfect response to this is that she HAD AN EMPIRE … in her brain.

Sam pieces together that Em knows about him and Sue and then — again, because his whole worldview requires everything revolve around him; he is incapable of imagining that Em’s needs and wants and instincts have nothing to do with him at all really! — is all, “Oh, you’re jealous.” Then he pretends he wasn’t flirting with her, which, OOOOKAY, buddy. He was 100 percent flirting. He’s so condescending! “Don’t let your emotions get in the way of your career,” advises this hustler. “That is always what happens to women.” His understanding of the artist-publisher relationship is that she is the one who needs him, and whether he genuinely believes this because of the messed-up power dynamic (technically, he can accept or reject her work, and he’s the one with the resources to pay her for it) or if he is just saying this because he secretly/obviously is insecure about the fact that no amount of power or influence can grant him a modicum of the talent that Em has sloshing around in that empire in her brain … we don’t really know. But his increasingly desperate claims of his own importance suggest the latter to me! “No one would pay attention to you if it wasn’t for me pointing them in your direction … You have no power without me.” You get the idea. Plus he’s already sent her latest poem to print. DID HE EVER PAY HER FOR THESE POEMS?

They get into a tug-of-war over the satchel in which her life’s work is stored. Or so they think. Maggie the maid, who is the cleverest of them all, swiped the poems out of his bag when he wasn’t looking and salvaged them for Em. But before he learns that, he bolts with his bag, Em screaming “YOU ARE THE DEVIL” and him calling out in reply “I AM A FEMINIST.” Okay, as can sometimes happen in this show’s winks at the present day, it’s all a little heavy — I mean really, “I am a feminist”? — but I think it works in the moment.

Back at her desk, Nobody/Frazier reappears for the final (?) time. Just in case anybody missed the point, he says he died in the war “seeking glory, seeking fame.” I mean, that’s all very Homeric, I guess, but isn’t it possible he died in the war to preserve the Union and/or abolish slavery? I’m not sure this particular bit of symbolism is holding up here under even moderate inspection. But he leaves Em with the charge to be “the bravest, most brilliant Nobody who ever existed.” Em starts to write: You cannot put a fire out. As she does, the troublesome teens are playing with matches at the church and I write in my notes, wow I hope that’s not dangerous?? I feel like it is. And then the teens burn the church down, whoops! Send them back to Brooklyn!

We know for sure that Sue does not get so much as a fleck of ash on her from this fire because she slipped out of church early to come and see Em. And this scene, I am sorry to report, does not really land for me; as I have mentioned in these recaps before, I just think Sue is miscast. Do these actresses have chemistry to you? I really wish they did! And I believe that the characters should, based on the writing. But when they are actually together, it’s almost like there’s this pane of glass between them. I feel like I’m listening to a duet where the parts were recorded in separate studios, then patched together after the fact.

I also think the eagerness with which Em throws herself into this explosion of intimacy undercuts what we’ve seen of her relationship with Austin, especially over the past few episodes. In the first season, that Em and Sue were hooking up behind Austin’s back was played for laughs at Austin’s doltish obliviousness, but we know Austin better now, and he and Em have been really vulnerable together this season — understanding and seeing (like, literally seeing) each other when no one else can. So does it track that she would be so brazen about having sex with his wife?

Anyway, back to the recapping here: Sue thinks Em’s rage is all about Sam, and Em blames Sue for pushing her to care about Sam and his opinion. Sue, as she has been saying in some form or another for a long time now, tells Em that her poems are just too powerful and almost suffocate her with their intensity of feeling. Sue pushed Em toward fame because Sue could not handle being the only person reading Em’s work. This … doesn’t really feel like character progression to me? This is exactly what Sue said at the start of the season. So how is this news to Em? This is the opposite of news!

Em spits out that Sue can go be “exquisitely empty” in her big house with her sham of a marriage. “Without me, I don’t think you know how to have feelings.” Woof, I don’t know how you come back from saying something like that. And then Sue just pivots to The only time I feel things is when I’m with you. Sue admits that she’s in love with Em and Em says, “I don’t believe you,” which I think is a GREAT response. “You’re not even Sue anymore, you’re a fake person!! Everything you say to me is a lie!” EM, I HAVE BEEN SAYING THIS! Their shouting turns into making out, as your shouting is wont to do. Then they are sensually feeding each other snacks from this lavish luncheon that I guess they aren’t worried anyone will walk in and expect to eat? Like, how are they not concerned about getting busted here? The last we see of them is wrapped in sheets up to their shoulders (lol) lying in this heart-shaped side-by-side snuggle in a field. It’s all very Garden of Eden.

Em says she writes for Sue, and Sue alone … which is literally just what Sue said she could not tolerate, but okay, whatever!! Sue swears to never let go of Em again.

As the church is evacuated, Austin asks the teens if they’re okay and quickly realizes, duh, they started it. Instead of snitching (cool) or reprimanding them at all (?!), he just says, “Well, nobody needs to know about this. It’s the 1850s. Things burn down all the time.” That did make me laugh out loud but as a parenting choice I’ve gotta say I am not on board. Austin then invites everyone over to his house, where he sets to comforting the masses and raising money to rebuild the church. Jane is eating this up for sure, as is Mama Dickinson. (Papa Dickinson wonders where Sue is and Mama Dickinson says, apathetic as can be, “I do hope we didn’t leave her burning in the church.”)

Vinnie breaks up with Ship again because she is NOT moving to New Orleans. Especially after she learns that Ship wired all his money to her ex to buy a shack where they’re supposed to live. Vinnie accurately says a war is coming and moving to the South right now is insane, plus they’d be on the wrong side of history — “Slavery is bad, Ship” “I thought you were all about keeping an open mind!” — and she affirms, once and for all, that she is a SHREWD YANKEE WITCH. There’s a little fake-out where you think she’s going to cave and stay with him, but instead she just wants him to know that she “will almost be the most interesting girl you have ever loved,” and then they get a great dramatic good-bye kiss. This reminds me of the part in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women when Jo is begging Meg not to get married because “you’ll be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.” Should I be incorporating that line into future wedding toasts? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

On the Dickinson property, Hattie passes by the barn and finds it empty. She reads Em’s latest poem, the one Sam was able to publish under the wire,
The Snake.” George and Austin read it, too, as does Frazier, who is on the train to … somewhere!

Vinnie is feeling great, but Papa Dickinson is quite unsettled because, as he confides in his wife: He dreamed this last night. Is he as crazy as Em, or is Em not so crazy after all?

Dickinson Season Finale Recap: Burn After Reading