Having reunited with her siblings, reconnected (like, really reconnected) with Sue, roused her mother from the most debilitating stage of her grief, and ensured her and her sister’s enduring independence via her brother, Em is in much lighter spirits. It seems like all those good tidings outweigh the horror she felt at her father’s ultimate betrayal — which was really just his failure to be anyone other than himself, which is something Em understands better than anyone. So Em is happily greeting her flowers and bumblebees when my favorite Dickinson special guest, whom I would have been SO crushed not to see in this series finale, appears before her. Hello, Death!
I think this is the first time we’ve seen Death greet Emily this way, no? Coming to her turf, rather than bringing her into his carriage; he’s dressed in white, and her attire remains the same. (No magical transformation into her sultry red death dress, which is one of the best outfits in this show, but I get why she isn’t wearing it here.) Like Em, Death is doing a lot better. He’s got a new perspective. He’s not as hard on himself as he once was, feeling like he was always the one nobody was happy to see. Now he understands: “Without death, what is life?” It’s a cycle, baby! Inspired by his own fresh attire, he suggests Em needs a new look, too. “You gotta wear something that makes you feel like yourself.” She is, literally, hemmed up by other people’s expectations! She has to get to work and needs the uniform to do it. As Death tells her: “You’re on a bit of a deadline, too.” She needs to be asking herself: What’s going to make me go deeper than I’ve ever gone before? I absolutely love this question! I wish Emily Dickinson could submit it to Opulent Tips. Em and Death have a little dance party in her garden to celebrate this impending sartorial evolution.
You know how as soon as you decide to change something, no matter how long you’ve put up with it, the thing you’ve been living with is instantly and totally unbearable? This is where Em is now, back home: struggling to unbutton her dress, which she’s never been able to do before, but now that she sees she needs to change her whole wardrobe, she is enraged by the entire system. “The way women dress today is idiotic,” she says, as Vinnie, summoned to assist, gets her out of the corset. “To be inspired, you have to be able to breathe.” Yes! Honestly, I would love to know what you all wear when you are doing your creative things … please leave detailed descriptions of your fits!
This finale does bring us some closure in the form of family-rift-mending: Sue and Austin bring the baby over to the Dickinson household, finally letting Mama Dickinson hold her grandchild. As we know, Papa Dickinson was never taking Austin’s revolt as seriously as he should have, so it’s not too surprising that he accepts Austin’s olive branch — though it is somewhat heartening to see he is willing to take on Angeline Palmer’s case, which Austin admits he needs assistance to handle. (The story of young Angeline working for and subsequently being sold into slavery in Georgia for $600 by the Shaw family is real, as is that of her rescue by her brothers, who were, as Austin says, arrested for assault and kidnapping. Their defense attorney really was Edward Dickinson! The brothers were on trial alongside Henry Frink, a white liveryman and deputy sheriff who aided in Angeline’s escape; Frink was the only one of the lot to be acquitted. God bless America! More details on that here and here.)
As for the other Dickinson women: Vinnie is knitting something “epic.” Maggie is horny as ever. Betty arrives looking for Em to apologize for coming down so hard on Em’s attempt at giving her hope. Em accepts, and anyway, she has a project for Betty: to help her design a dress that Em, a terrible seamstress, will be making for herself. “I’m not sure that a dress quite like this has ever existed before.” She needs one that will help her “live in every possibility,” with no corset (“pure shapelessness!”), no hem that drags, no buttons she can’t reach. I love this!
And according to the experts at the Emily Dickinson Museum, this is the moment in Em’s life — in her 30s — when the poet started dressing in white most of the time, and Em knew everybody in Amherst recognized and gossiped about her signature aesthetic. One of the dresses that survived, which now lives at the Amherst Historical Society, has a pocket that is “just the right size for a pencil and paper.” Some of my reading says the dress isn’t quite as radical as Em in our show would suggest — that this style of housedress was typical for women of her time, just for housework and chores and such. And while in this episode, Higginson waits in vain for Em to descend the stairs, in real life, they did meet and her white dress was one of the first things he noticed about her.
The Dickinsons keep waiting for Austin and Sue to just tell them what they want to name their kid, but they are interrupted by a knock at the door: It’s Higginson, here to see “the great poet Emily Dickinson.” Maggie is, obviously, ecstatic about his arrival. (Also, it’s hilarious that she keeps screwing up his name.) It’s great to see this collision of Higginson, who is sort of a stand-in for us — the viewers who already know Em’s legacy and how important she will become — with the people who ostensibly know her best but also, for the most part, haven’t quite grasped what Em’s work is or means. Higginson doesn’t even know how to explain their relationship, exactly. He calls her his “unseen correspondent,” someone who miraculously can speak the truths of the battlefield from the confines of her bedroom. “Tell me, when did you first realize she was a genius?”
Upstairs, Em is freaking out at the prospect of coming face-to-face with her pen pal. “I never said I wanted to meet him in real life! Our relationship is strictly text!” Maggie informs her that, okay, but he’s very hot. Em is like, Thank you, but I will need YEARS to prepare for this meeting. Downstairs, Sue is thrilled and manages to connect two things that have long been at odds: Em’s literary ambition and Mama Dickinson’s housekeeping. Higginson, Sue explains, could one day be responsible for Em’s legacy, “so we are going to serve him tea and we are going to use our best dishware.”
Higginson doesn’t mind waiting for Em for as long as it takes. “What’s an hour or two for a poet like Emily? People might have to wait centuries to really understand her.” While they wait for an Em who will never materialize, the Dickinsons attempt to describe their in-house weirdo to this guest. “She’s an odd duck.” “She’s like, really into flowers.” “The crazy one of the family,” Austin says as Vinnie bursts in cocooned inside her red knit worm thing to do yet another performance piece. Higginson is losing it and loving it and SO AM I. Oh, then Sue and Austin do this thing of having the baby ask Papa Dickinson to share his name, which is very sweet even though, again, not shocking in a family where half the names are repeats (Mama Dickinson’s name is Emily; as you all know, her sister is Lavinia). Adults doing baby voices isn’t really my thing, but I’m sure Mama Dickinson found it very adorable.
Betty comes downstairs to say that Em is busy writing, and Higginson puts it together that this is Henry’s Betty, so he follows her outside to tell her about Henry and the men arming themselves, going to war, etc., etc.; it’s like, BUDDY, TELL HER HE’S ALIVE ALREADY. Which he eventually does and then gives her a journal full of the letters Henry didn’t send. “I always say great writing always finds a way to reach its audience,” Higginson says, and Betty is too overjoyed at the news of Henry’s survival to be mad that he NEVER SENT HER A LETTER, but as you can tell from my use of the caps-lock key, my feelings in this situation would be a bit more conflicted than that.
Upstairs in her room, Em decides that she will keep writing no matter what — even if she can’t change the world, even if no one ever cares, even if it makes no difference, she will still write. This was a Poet. The seasons change all around her. There is no frigate like a Book. She waters her plants. She grows older, I think, and then she imagines herself in her white dress on the beach, her hair loose all around her. Out on a rock, she sees mermaids — that’s Sue in the middle, with the hot-pink hair — lounging in the sun. And she has a dog, just like in the mermaid poem! There’s a rowboat on the shore, and Em gets in. The last we see of her, she is paddling ahead: eyes on the future that she wants, head full of poetry, dressed wholly as herself.