When we last saw Emily Dickinson (“Em” to her close, personal friends, which is to say, to us), she was hallucinating-slash-prophesizing the death of Frazar — beautifully reimagined in the show as the “Nobody” of “I’m Nobody, who are you?” — in a torrent of bullets. The Civil War was brewing, and as season three dawns, it is well underway: taking a whole lot longer than the moderates among them expected, slaughtering young men by the dozen, the end nowhere in sight. Our series, via Em’s voice-over, wants to assert that Dickinson has been sidelined from the canon of war poets for all the reasons you might expect: (1) not being a soldier, (2) being a shut-in, and (3) being a woman. But we are reminded that Em wrote “furiously” during the war and that, of course, the Civil War oozed into her poetry, even if she didn’t want it to. So it appears one of our big questions is, was she a war poet? “Does she speak for a nation?” To this end, she imagines entering combat with a cute messy bun with face-framing tendrils, which, yeah, if I were going to have a war fantasy, I would also make sure my hair looked the just-right amount of undone. Relatable! But Em’s imaginary combat sequence ends where she lives: hair slicked back, at her desk, ready to write.
The Dickinsons are at a funeral for Mama Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia (Vinnie’s namesake). Mama Dickinson is devastated: Her loss, which crushes her, is overlooked by the rest of the world; nobody cares about an old woman dying when young men are dying, too. Even the pastor (priest? Someone help me; all I know here is what I’ve learned from Fleabag) is like, I don’t have time for this, we have SOLDIERS to bury. The funeral is basically a wash for everyone but Em, who sees a tiny yellow bird that she believes is her aunt — a sunny optimist in life — communicating with her from beyond, telling her, Don’t lose hope. Hope is a … bird? Hope is a … tweet? Em leaves the funeral with “hope is a TBD” in her brain.
Then she pops into Death’s carriage, dressed, of course, in her Death getup (such a great dress). “We have so much to catch up on,” she says, but Death isn’t really in the mood. As Bo Burnham once sang, Death reports, “I feel like shit.” War has taken all the FUN out of deciding who dies and how. Now it’s just gangrene and more gangrene, ugh. How does Em stay inspired when her life is so boring? Like, no offense, but her life is just endless repetition and drudgery and overwhelming lameness. Em isn’t really all that helpful because she’s on a tear of her own: She wants to give people HOPE. Hope, which is a bird or something. TBD. But she believes poetry can be even more powerful than Death.
Back at the Dickinson house, Austin is MIA. I have enjoyed Austin’s arc so much. He started out as this foppish kind of dilettante who was laughably clueless about his beloved and his sister’s flirtation, but now he is someone whose life is genuinely tragic: a loveless marriage to someone he knows is in love with his sister; a father who never let him grow but now berates him for failing to thrive; also, there’s a war. We learn pretty quickly that Austin has spent his wife’s pregnancy drinking, partying, and carousing, obvious cries for help that aren’t treated seriously. Austin was so hung-over he missed the funeral, which Sue also missed because no one gave her a ride.
Ah, Sue. Sue is VERY pregnant. Sue says she needs to rest. (Mama Dickinson: “It is a woman’s job to make sure everyone else is happy at all times no matter the cost.”) Really, what Sue needs is some sensual handholding. (I know I’ve complained before about these actors not having chemistry, but I’ll say that they seem to click a lot more in this scene … although the show didn’t convince me of their relationship last season, and even the time jump isn’t selling me on Em being okay with … whatever this is.) Em is the only one of the two of them clinging to reality. “You are having my brother’s baby,” she says, which, duh! Sue: “So what? That doesn’t change anything.” I feel like that does, in fact, change everything. I mean, I’ve never been in a love triangle with my sister-in-law, so I’m not speaking from experience here, but I just feel like Em is in the right here. Sue dreams of a world where a baby can have two mothers. Em reminds Sue, coolly, that she never wanted kids. “My poems are my children.”
When Austin finally arrives, into the unconditionally loving arms of his mother and the ice-cold glare of his father, he points out that he doesn’t even know if the baby is his — which !!! Is it Sam’s, do you think? (Now is as good a time as any to note I am doing minimal research because I don’t want history spoilers … if you already know what’s what, feel free to discuss that amongst yourselves in the comments!)
None of Aunt Lavinia’s friends even show up to this goyim shiva situation. Em’s friends do, but it’s because she told them there would be scones. When it seems like someone is there for Lavinia, it turns out he is only there to very awkwardly propose to Em. She manages to evade his not-exactly-romantic offer — he calls her his “little parakeet” and notes that she is “elderly and frail, for a girl” — with an assist from Betty, whose dress shop has been bustling with orders for black crêpe and funeral bonnets and who is very, very worried her Henry will not survive out there. (We get confirmation of life later in the episode, so he’s okay, at least for now! Keep Henry in those thoughts and prayers, everybody.) The upshot of this proposal is Em lands on the line she’s been looking for: Hope is the thing with feathers. Yeah, that’s better.
By the way, this season was written and produced during the pandemic, so it is not an eerie coincidence that everyone is talking about the war the way we talk about COVID life: “Perhaps this is normal now. A new normal.” “This normal sucks.” I love Vinnie’s take on how unfair it is that this happens during their 20s when they should be having fun. (Her dad’s reply is to be like, Oh yeah, if this war happened during my 20s, I’d kill myself. Thank you, Papa Dickinson!) Vinnie, upon learning of yet another war casualty: “Do you guys realize every boy I ever kissed is dead?” I know that line is sort of in there as a joke, but I also love how it gets at the relentless trauma of being a young person during this war — just death all around all the time for what feels like forever.
Good to see Jane again, who thinks her deep-mourning phase is over. She’s ready to wear some color, but she is not ready to continue having an affair with Austin, who will be a father any minute. (Still, he is a devoted godfather to her baby, which is cute! Despite everything! Sorry I’m a bad influence, but I am rooting for these two.)
That evening, the Dickinson family dinner gets real heated. Papa Dickinson gives a toast that completely ignores Lavinia. Em steps in to say her aunt’s death has reminded her how much she loves her family and wants to be “a source of joy and light.” This thrills her mother but enrages her brother, who declares, “This family is a JOKE, this family HATES EACH OTHER, this family is a BIG PILE OF LIES. My MARRIAGE is a lie — but you know that, don’t you Emily?” OooOOOoooOH! He KNOWS. Well, he did know Sue was cheating on him with Sam last season, so I guess the moral of this story is: Don’t underestimate Austin’s powers of perception and/or Sue’s inability to be discreet.
Austin’s breakdown is valid, if I may say so. He correctly points out that his dad has “clipped the wings” of all his children and these are the results: Vinnie is lost and alone, Austin hasn’t gone farther west than “all the way across the goddamn street.” He calls his father pathetic, and his father responds by having a heart attack. Austin drunkenly sings the national anthem and announces he is “seceding from this family.” I brace myself for Sue to go into labor (a very TV-show-pregnancy thing to happen), but instead, she just does some deep breathing while Em confirms her father is still breathing. The Hope bird flits around the room. Still alive, like the rest of them.