Follow along with our binge-watch of this sumptuous series.
Episode 1: “Because I Could Not Stop”
The series begins with Steinfeld’s Dickinson composing poetry in her bedroom when she’s interrupted by her sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), who tells her that their mother wants her to fetch a pail of water. When Emily asks why their brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe), can’t do it, Lavinia reminds her that “he’s a boy.”
“That’s bulls—,” Emily fires back, our first indication that she’s not like other 19th century girls.
Dickinson lives with her well-to-do family in 1800s Amherst, Mass., shackled to an era in which her worth is measured by her efficiency in housework and her agility in securing a prosperous marriage. Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) is like an American version of Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice: a nag and determined to turn her daughter into a well-behaved Mrs.
Upon Emily’s entrance into the kitchen, her mother announces that yet another suitor is coming to call on her daughter. The intensity of this conversation is emphasized in the scene’s one-camera shot style. Emily, in her eccentricity, proclaims that she wishes she were a cat. “You’re not a cat,” Mrs. Dickinson replies. To which Emily snaps back, “No, tragically I’m a woman.”
The scene cuts to the family drawing-room, where Mrs. Dickinson is now sitting down with the boyish suitor and discussing the possibility of an engagement. Emily marches into the room and plops herself on the couch in a nonchalant fashion. Determined to appear as unappealing as possible to the opposite sex and irritate her mother, she slouches further into the upholstery.
The budding poet recognizes the suitor in question as George Gould (Samuel Farnsworth), a guy she “hangs out” with in lit club. His eager smile suggests that he wants to be more than pen pals, but Emily puts him in an old-fashioned friend-zone, saying, out of the earshot of her mother, that she can’t marry because of her literary aspirations. A husband, she says, would just stand in her way. Plus, she’s in love with someone else. “Who is he? I’ll kill him!” George promises unconvincingly.
“You can’t kill him,” Emily says with a smirk, “He’s Death,” and he’s “sexy as hell.” Queue a text overlay of Emily’s poem, “Because I could not stop for Death.” This does not deter George, who attempts to win Emily’s love by promising to get her poem, byline included, published in the college magazine.
Emily is wary of her father’s reaction, but she boldly decides to go for it. George kisses her, but Emily is clearly not feeling it.
Later, we learn that writing and death are not Emily’s only lovers. She also has a non-platonic friendship with Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who she discovers is engaged to her brother, Austin. Awkward. To confront Sue, Emily sends down a basket on a string to the drawing-room, asking Sue to meet her under the apple orchard. The two girls meet, and neither appear to be ecstatic about the marriage arrangement. Emily asks Sue to promise her two things: “Not to move to Michigan” for her brother’s occupation and “to always love her more than her brother.”
Sue gazes into her friend’s eyes and declares that the first is her fiancé’s decision, but the second Emily does not have to worry about. The two share a passionate kiss under the apple tree while doused by a rain shower.
George is successful in his efforts to get Emily’s poem published. A series of announcements are made at the Dickinson family dinner table: the engagement, Mr. Dickinson’s (Toby Huss) plans to run for Congress, and Emily’s literary debut. The entire family is in flux, especially Mr. Dickinson, who abhors the idea of a woman having “literary ambitions” because it is “scandalous.” Well, if he only knew. As Emily’s punishment, he orders her to clean up dinner and declares that she will be the ruin of their family’s good name cultivated over two centuries in Amherst.
To the soundtrack of Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend,” a rouge-dressed Emily pays a visit to Death in the form of Wiz Khalifa, who “kindly stops for her.” Death’s mannerisms are quite seductive, and his actions are tender toward Emily. She asks Death when he will “take her away from this place for good,” and he disappoints her when he says it “won’t be for a long time.” She leans against his shoulder for comfort as he prophesizes that she will be the only Dickinson spoken about for 200 years to come and that “publicity is not the same as immortality.” Death also professes that he has many mortalities in store concerning a “Civil War that will divide this nation.”
The scene cuts back to Emily in her white gown post-cleanup. Her mother ominously announces that another suitor will be visiting tomorrow. “Sexy,” Emily retorts. Then she finishes her “Because I could not stop for Death” poem. Later that night, she and her father reconcile.
- Emily, in her actual life, was notorious for wearing a lot of white. Already in the show, she has that capsule wardrobe going. She even wears white to Sue’s sister’s funeral.
- Lavinia is basically Mrs. Dickinson’s mini-me. First reaction: “Oh no, there are two of them!”
- Emily’s off-the-shoulder red dress, while she’s courting death, is every fan’s next Halloween costume. Mark my words.
- Billie Eilish’s entire debut album could have been the soundtrack for this episode.
- Prediction: The Civil War is going to be a huge plotline later on in the show.
Episode 2: “I Have Never Seen ‘Volcanoes'”
We last left Emily and Sue in bed together, mourning over the fact that once the latter lady is married, they will no longer be able to sleep with one another (double entendre, surely). The fiancé in question, Austin Dickinson, barges in on the two girls:
“I don’t know how the two of you fit into such a tiny bed,” he says. For a sensual guy, he really does have the worst gaydar.
Once the girls are dressed, they head downstairs to the kitchen to find their new sprightly maid, an Irishwoman named Maggie. Mrs. Dickinson basically has an identity crisis because she’s not allowed to cook or clean the house with the new help around.
“The kitchen was kind of my thing,” she sullenly says to Mr. Dickinson in private. Well, when housework is the only acceptable hustle in society for 19th-century women, perhaps it would suck to have it taken away.
Emily, on the other hand, is enjoying the perks of not having to do housework, utilizing her spare time to leisurely read the Springfield Republican. In the newspaper, she discovers that an illustrious geologist will be lecturing about his explorations of Mt. Vesuvius at Harvard University later in the afternoon. Mr. Dickinson protests that Emily cannot attend because she is not a university student, and she cannot become a university student because the education she needs “as a woman,” she will not find in a classroom.
Speaking of expected societal attributes of 19th-century women, Sue and the Dickinson sisters head to the town’s dressmaker to do some good old-fashioned window shopping. “Are the hips wide enough? I want to look really fertile for you-know-who,” Lavinia asks Sue and Emily. But looking fertile for the boys is far from Emily’s mind.
While twirling a top hat later in her bedroom, Emily rants to Sue about how unfair it is that she cannot attend the Harvard lecture. “Isn’t it funny how this huge universe exists, and we’ll never seen any of it outside of Amherst? I want to see a real volcano!”
Emily throws out the idea of tossing on men’s garb and sneaking into the volcano lecture in disguise. Sue is hesitant and points out that those types of things “only work in storybooks.”
“Maybe they’re scared that if they teach us how the world works, we’ll take over!” Emily says defiantly while sporting the top hat. Sue smirks at her friend/lover’s handsomeness and joins in on the scheme. Lizzo’s “Boys” plays during the cross-dressing and dancing montage, and it is a better usage of the song than all the viral TikToks ever made.
And so, the girls — I mean boys — galivant to the ivy league institution in a whirl of waistcoats and fake facial hair. George Gould recognizes them immediately but humors Emily, asking, “Who are you, young man?”
Emily caves to George, asking him not to tell anyone, and he agrees to oblige the “weird beautiful boy” by the name of “Lysander Periwinkle” and his friend, “Sir Tybalt Butterfly.”
At first, it seems that the male mirage will go on as planned. Sue and Emily enter the lecture hall and camouflage themselves in a sea of college boys.
The lecturer tasks George with enacting a volcano prototype and engages in a borderline-sensual explanation of how tension builds before a volcano erupts. A volcano-related outburst from Emily blows the girls’ cover, and they are immediately kicked out.
It does not take long for Mr. Dickinson to hear about the incident. He reproaches his daughter for such disgraceful behavior and urges her to read his essay “On the Proper Place of Women.” A magma of frustration arises in Emily at the mere title, prompting her to do some “scribbles in her room” that eventually evolve into another iconic poem, “I have never seen ‘Volcanoes.’”
Despite her disagreement with her father, Emily does feel guilty when Mrs. Dickinson reminds her that night that her father provides for her and she needs to behave and exercise gratitude. As a peace offering, Emily bakes her father a loaf of bread.
That evening, Sue and Emily end up right where they started: in bed together pondering their place in the world.
“I just can’t stop thinking about Pompei, a whole city covered in ash, frozen in time. That’s how I feel sometimes. Like I’m frozen. Like I’m trapped,” Emily sighs.
“I think I know what a volcano feels like,” Sue responds. They then briefly escape the world the only way they know how.
- I laughed out loud when George had to call a boy in passing a “weird beautiful boy” to cover for the fact that he called Emily a “weird beautiful boy.”
- Your third-grade DIY volcano could not conjure up such feels.
- Lavinia’s asides on the ridiculous expectations of women, like “Wait, have I been knitting all day?” are a true win.
Episode 3: “Wild Nights”
Dickinson is Sue and Emily’s love story and the rest of the Dickinsons are just living in it. “Wild Nights” opens on Emily caught in a shipwrecking storm, calling after Sue, who’s about to jump ship. Emily awakes from the nightmare with a gasp of breath, lifting her head from her desk pillow, which is actually scraps of parchment featuring her newest composition: “Wild Nights.” The poem foreshadows such stormy evenings.
The Dickinson parents are going on a trip to Boston. Emily rushes down the stairs and dramatically pleads, “No, you can’t, you mustn’t! How must we cope with the unbearable pain of your absence?” Her father’s comeback is priceless: “I know why you prefer poetry to acting, goodbye,” and kisses her on the cheek.
Mrs. Dickinson asks the girls to “clean constantly” while she’s gone. Yeah, right. All teens watching this know that it’s party time at the Dickinson’s.
Well, the 19th-century version of throwing a party when parents are out of town, anyway. Case in point, Austin’s comment to his younger sister, Lavinia: “Every time we throw a party, I find you with your hair tied around some boy’s neck.” Lavinia retorts, “It’s actually a traditional courting ritual.”
Emily, who instigates the soiree, declares, “Parties are like shipwrecks: you should emerge from them soaking wet, out of breath, and immensely disoriented.”
Austin finally agrees to the house-party and wishfully sees it as the perfect moment to announce his engagement. Sue, unsurprisingly, is hesitant and blames it on her lack of finances. She tries to put off the engagement by offering to be a governess in Boston for a few months, but Austin won’t have it.
As we remember, Austin is not the only Amherst bachelor who longs for someone he cannot have: George still has his sights set on Emily. The evening of the party, he brings Emily white lilies, the symbol of death, which she thanks him for with a peck on the cheek. Poor George takes this as an encouragement, the woes of unrequited love.
The party also introduces some new faces, including Jane Humphreys (Gus Birney), Amherst’s lavishly-dressed mean girl, who is determined to be the object of Austin’s affections. She alludes to Emily that they may be sisters-in-law someday.
“I suppose if Austin married a flesh-eating demon she’d be my sister too,” Emily says to her matter-of-factly. Bravo, Em.
No college house party is complete without the popular girl, or the pompous player bragging about his female conquests, which in this case is a boy named Joseph (Lavinia’s “you-know-who”). He proves his sexual prowess by showing Austin and George a wallet full of locks of girls’ hair. He could probably fashion a full wig out of it.
While the house party has all the dressings of a refined soiree: fancy finger food, candlelight, and resplendently-clad guests, it is still a teen party after all, so drugs are not off the table.
Opium is the 19th-century weed and everyone in the party takes a couple — okay a few drops. Emily, completely at the mercy of the narcotics, thinks she’s dancing with a bee. George cuts in and things get awkward. The lovesick boy says that if he and Emily were married, they could “have parties like this all the time.”
Emily soberly tells George that he should marry a “normal girl, not a crazy lady.”
“Maybe I like crazy,” he objects and kisses her on the lips this time. With coincidental timing, Emily grips her abdomen and tells George that she feels sick as she runs from the room.
After rummaging through an endless layer of petticoats, Emily discovers that she just started her period (which is actually shown on-camera) and cries out into the void, which all of womankind past and present can feel on a cellular level:
“Life is an endless sea of pain!” Yes, an unforgiving red sea.
Jane, meanwhile, asks Austin if Sue is suitable for him because she’s weird and alludes to her being romantically involved with Emily. He dismisses it, in denial.
But then Austin discovers Emily’s poem to Sue, “Wild Nights,” and comes to terms with reality when he walks in on Emily and Sue kissing in Emily’s bedroom. Oops. The Dickinson siblings proceed to fight over Sue, who then complains of them suffocating her. This secures Sue in her resolve to move to Boston and become a governess.
- Emily’s royal blue off-the-shoulder party gown is exquisite and so is her half-up ‘do.
- We all need a gay best friend whose samurai father will bring us a matching fan for our party dresses from Japan.
- When a guy asks you how you are, perhaps refrain from Lavinia’s killer line, “I just knitted a pillow for my cat.”
- Finally, a show that is talking about periods. Not just time periods.
- RIP cat pillow.
- The Victorian dance sequence to a rap song is genius. If only rap was discovered in the 19th century!
- When Joseph called Lavinia “hella ripe,” it was difficult not to throw up a little.
Episode 4: “Alone, I Cannot Be”
Emily takes a page out of David Thoreau’s book (literally) and reads his book Walden under the comforting shade of a flourishing oak tree.
George Gould, who clearly will not take no for an answer, inquires after Emily’s reading material while offering her “a drag”— which the boy is already being. Emily romanticizes Thoreau’s solitary existence and says that she wants a “life like that” (will George take the hint, or nah?).
“The wilderness is honest, trustworthy, whereas all other people do is hurt you.” Of course, by other people, she means her ex, Sue, who has not written to her since moving to Boston.
In the background, surveyors prepare for construction on the great Amherst Belchertown Railroad. This will be at the expense of the forests and specifically Emily’s great grandfather’s tree, the one she gingerly reads and writes under.
“If you let them kill that tree, you’re killing me!” she tells her father back at the Dickinson house.
Just to spite her, Mr. Dickinson tasks his son with opening the railroad construction with an original poem. “Are you sure you want me to do it?” Austin asks while looking to his sister, who is the actual wordsmith in the family. “Who else?” their father asks. Oh no he didn’t!
Emily briskly retreats from the house into the sunset on a quest to find environmentalist and the OG green influencer, David Thoreau, in Walden to help save her tree. After telling George she does not want a companion on this expedition, he reminds her that as a lady, she is not allowed to travel without a companion. “Plus, I feel like taking a day trip.” Okay, he got her there.
George stocks up on some road trip snacks from the town’s general store, and while she’s waiting for him, Emily spots Lavinia stumbling around town wearing some sort of tribal headdress. More on that later.
Emily and her unwanted suitor board the train by way of stagecoach. George pulls the oldest trick in the book and smoothly switches from sitting parallel to Emily in the train cart to side-by-side, in the name of killing time: “I’d just like to have a conversation, we’re sitting on a train together side-by-side, it seems like an opportunity for interaction,” he suggests. “We can share some laughs, profess our undying love for each other, talk about how many children we are going to have. Three boys? Two girls? Fantasize about growing old together on the porch that I’ll build for us? Just to get to know each other better.”
Emily shocks us all when she bears resentment over the institution of marriage and its favor towards the male species:
“If I were a man, I would want to have a wife. Someone to cook for me, clean for me, raise my 500 children for me, all while I got to do exactly what I desired,” she says. Mic-drop. But since mics didn’t exist back then, quill drop?
Back at the Dickinson house, Austin is struggling to compose a line (shocker) and thinks that masturbating to Sue’s pocket-sized portrait will aid him in this obstacle. Well, unless he lost his pen in his pants, not sure how helpful this will be. Also, Mrs. Dickinson walks in on him, and is certain that all her children have gone mad when she runs into her daughter still wearing that out-of-place accessory. It appears that Lavinia has gotten it into her head that if she is abducted by Indians, perhaps the chief will have a handsome son she can marry. This, she presumes will cure her heartache over Joseph, whom she caught walking hand-in-hand with another woman, and one without ringlets! The nerve!
Back in the wilderness, Emily and George discover that Thoreau’s Walden is not the remote oasis he pegged it to be in his prose. Walden is bustling with people. Thoreau technically lives in the woods — a wooden cabin in the woods that is. Plus, Emily and George find him to be a pretentious and slightly hypocritical figure.
“Ah, more cheap society!” is Thoreau’s warm welcome to Emily and George when they interrupt his solitary yoga sesh. But he’s perfectly okay with their company once George offers to interview him for the Amherst College Literary Magazine.
“I never found a companion that was as companionable as solitude,” he spews out poetically during the interview. While George is expected to be the scribe to Thoreau’s genius, Emily cites that they are kindred spirits, and that is why she needs his help in saving her tree.
But as the conversation progresses, it’s clear that Thoreau is a fraud. His mother does his laundry on the regular, his sister brings him a basket of peanut butter cookies because she only lives a mile away, and his father owns a pencil factory. Which cuts. Down. Trees.
“Great writers tell the truth,” Emily responds to all of Thoreau’s red flags. “Try writing something and not showing it to anyone, then you’ll know what real loneliness feels like.”
Emily leaves with her tail between her legs. George gets somewhat of a victory out of the trip when Emily puts her head on his shoulder on the train ride home.
The time arrives for railroad construction. Austin opens the ceremony with a juvenile and slightly offensive poem. You could call it a piece of work. And him one too. Well, at least Mrs. Dickinson basically confirms it when she says that she “held her legs together when [Austin] was trying to be born” and that she “realized now that that may have been a mistake.”
In the spirit of tradition, Mr. Dickinson apologizes to Emily for not asking her to write the poem instead, and “poetically” does so under her sacred tree. He agrees to “lay the tracks around the old fellow (the tree).
- Here’s me wishing that Emily had burned the bread she made her father in episode two
- Let’s be real: VSCO girls would have been all over David Thoreau if he were alive today.
Episode 5: “I Am Afraid to Own a Body”
Emily and Mr. Dickinson play a nifty round of Old Maid: “Poor father, you old spinster. It’s your own fault, you know. There were many men who wanted to marry you, but you said no to them all.”
He smirks at the irony of his daughter’s statement and humors her: “I’d rather be a spinster than a wife. I think a spinster has more independence.” Mrs. Dickinson eavesdrops on this exchange and urges him not to encourage their daughter.
And ah, there is that Civil War narrative hinted at in the pilot! The country is now split in two, which seems eerily familiar.
Due to Amherst’s location, the Dickinsons face dissonance between their abolitionist views and the impending fine from the South if they help slaves escape.
George does not help his chances with Emily when he basically sides with Mr. Dickinson on respecting the Confederacy’s wishes in returning runaway slaves. Then he requests a private meeting with Mr. Dickinson to discuss church fundraising details. All of Christendom knows that is a cover. So does Mr. Dickinson. George discloses the motives for this private engagement: an engagement. Mr. Dickinson asks if George and Emily have discussed a betrothal. “She hasn’t exactly said yes. We communicate on pheromones, pretty much” is his reply. Then the hopeless romantic continues listing reasons why he would be a good husband to Em, including his stable career as an English professor. That’s when the Dickinson patriarch puts two-and-two together: George was the editor that published Em’s poem, the whole reason for the ongoing quarrel with his daughter.
Speaking of friction between loved ones, we finally see Sue settling into her new life as a governess to a Boston family, the Keys — a fitting name since Mr. Key likes to shut the door behind him. Later in the episode, he locks the door when he enters Sue’s room. Is every guy trying to get under her skirts?
Back in Amherst, Emily, Austin, and George decide to perform a bit of Shakespeare in Lit Club. Emily, clad in a Shakespearean blouse and collar, directs the crew (including some of those house party guests) in the performance of Othello. There’s just one problem: George, whose one redeeming quality was that he was supportive of Emily’s free-spiritedness, is now demanding to censor the play in order to appease her father, because as Joseph put it so eloquently, “Shakespeare nasty!” George does not prevail in his attempts. A montage ensues of the crew dressing up in different Shakespeare costumes and snapping historically accurate, vintage photos.
Following a very necessary dress-up montage, the crew perform Othello and cannot get through it without cracking up about all the profanity. Joseph also keeps trying to flirt with Lavinia, but she gives him the cold shoulder. He calls her on it and insists she need not worry about Eliza Coleman (the wretch without ringlets he was walking arm-in-arm with) because “he’s not making any beast with Eliza, that’s for sure!” Lavinia, ever the romantic, is satisfied with this proclamation.
Emily halts the proceedings, claiming Toshiaki (the son of an actual Samurai), is wrong for the part of Othello.
“Besides, Othello is black,” Emily points out. Jane Humphreys flinches at the revelation, and when the Dickinson’s black servant Henry shows up on the scene to tune the family piano, everyone turns away.
“Shakespeare is the greatest poet that ever lived, and you can’t hear his poetry when it’s being spoken by people who don’t even listen to the word,” Emily profoundly states to her peers.
She tries to get Henry to play the lead, but he kindly refuses, for fear of drawing attention to himself. She convinces him by suggesting that it’s a good way to stay inside and away from the runaway slave round ups. Henry’s original objective was to tune the piano. Instead, he manages to, for a fleeting moment, tune the entire room into his bewitching embodiment of Othello.
“A man of his kind shouldn’t be here acting with us,” George interjects. “Get out,” Emily bellows at that, and modern America cheers, “Say that again for the back of the room!”
Lo and behold, Emily has no choice but to follow George out because he forgot his book. At last alone, the suitor finally admits to Em that he is acting strangely because he asked her father for her hand. Because he “loves her.”
“You don’t love me. You don’t even know me! All this time we spent together, and you weren’t listening!” Emily seethes. “It’s not up to my father to decide my fate, and it’s not up to you. I don’t belong to him, and I never belong to you!”
The question of lawful ownership in marriage and slavery is explored further when Emily later says to Henry that “life shouldn’t be like this.” He gets annoyed by Emily’s self-pity because if anyone’s a true slave to their situation, it’s him: “What should it be like? You’re sitting here eating cakes and reading Shakespeare trying to say this isn’t what life should be like, but your life is easy,” Henry replies.
The conversation strikes her, and later that night she composes the words, “I am afraid to own a body, I am afraid to own a soul. Profound, precarious property, possession not optional.”
- TBH, I was rooting for George and Em together until he decided to be a pushover.
- If George was born in the 21st century, he would be that teenage boy who basically showers in Axe cologne.
- Austin playing Desdemona is the highlight of this episode.
Episode 6: “A Brief But Patient Illness”
The household is sitting at the breakfast table contemplating Emily’s impending death, as she has a headache “like thunder.” But like most youngsters, she’s just playing sick to take a day to herself.
In the meantime, Lavinia has commissioned artist Thomas Elliot Moody to paint a portrait of her, and my money is on it being for Joseph.
“Your vanity astonishes me, Lavinia. Your sister is ill, which means there are extra chores to be done and you’ll need to tend to her,” Mrs. Dickinson says while choking back tears.
“Do you want me to get sick and die without having a beautiful portrait ever painted of me? It would be like I never existed at all!” Priorities, Lavinia, priorities.
Emily briefly leaves her sick room to fetch a book from her father’s office. There she meets Benjamin Newton (Matt Lauria), Mr. Dickinson’s new law clerk, who is quite the looker! He also recites poetry, so what are you waiting for, Em?
“Most people quote love poems,” Emily says, impressed with Ben’s spooky choice of recitation.
“I prefer Dirge,” he answers. “It’s a different kind of love poem.”
The dapper fellow realizes he’s met his match once Emily makes one of the most profound points about the definition of poetry:
“If I read a book, and it makes my body so cold no fire can warm me, then I know that’s poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it.”
The two share such a connection that she admits to Ben that she’s not ill, just playing hooky so she can write her poems. He expresses interest in reading them, but “only if it takes the top of my head off.”
Speaking of losing heads, Emily’s nearly rolls off when a doctor visits her bedside. He asks if she hallucinates and she responds, “Not more than usual, sometimes I see death.” Bad idea. Now he thinks she’s going to meet her maker and informs the family of his diagnosis. Before she supposedly passes on to the next life, her family decides to unburden themselves with their long-held secrets. This includes Austin admitting that he’d “rather spend my life not understanding Sue than marry someone who made sense to me.”
Emily says, “I get it,” as we see a flashback to a secret meeting she had with Ben earlier that night by the lake. Is it true love?
It may be so: Emily begins to write poetry about someone other than Sue and admits to Ben that when he speaks it’s “like you are reciting my own thoughts.”
Once her poem, “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” is complete, she gives it to Ben to read. Then Emily “makes a miraculous recovery” and joins her relieved family at the breakfast table.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Em then heads to a gazebo to ponder whether Ben loved her poem or not. Things get slightly complicated when Sue shows up at her house worried sick (no pun intended) about Emily’s health.
“Dying is not a metaphor to me. Everyone in my family died, so I take death literally,” Sue says wearily.
The dramatic poet admits it was all a rouse and that she thinks Sue should marry Austin.
Spoiler alert: Ben loved the poem. Pretty sure Emily loves him.
- When Lavinia requests the painter to “make me look plump? It’s fashionable. No one wants to look skinny,” I was half expecting Lizzo’s “Juice” to start playing.
- Why does it take Emily’s possible death for Mrs. Dickinson to show affection toward her?
- Is Thomas Elliot Moody’s refusal to paint Lavinia “prettier” because he “paints what I see” a comment on modern society’s obsession with photo retouching?
Episode 7: “We Lose – Because We Win”
The circus has come to Amherst, but oh it’s not a “suitable place for young ladies!” Nothing is suitable for young ladies, according to Mr. Dickinson.
Simultaneously it’s election season, and Mr. Dickinson’s biggest competition is the “Know Nothing” party, and they are hell-bent on holding immigrants responsible for all the country’s problems.
“It turns out people like being told who to blame,” says Mr. Dickinson’s campaign manager.
Again, sound familiar?
Mr. Dickinson will not stand for this. “At the end of the day, the good guys win because we love America, and when immigrants come here to join us, we throw our arms wide open and say, ‘Welcome, take a seat, eat a hot dog, we don’t kick people out.’”
For someone so politically open-minded, Mr. Dickinson is a real dictator dad toward his daughters. No reading, no swimming, no circuses? Well, he did not say a thing about boys! Ben and Emily are hanging out together in Mr. Dickinson’s office discussing the patriarch’s ridiculous rules when Ben suggests that Em enter a local poetry competition. “We seek the undiscovered, lyrical genius of Amherst. That is you,” Ben encourages with those twinkly blue eyes of his. Swoon.
Emily decides the loophole to her father’s unsavory views of women with literary ambitions is to ask Austin to publish her poem under his name. She requests as much while they’re chatting in a graveyard. Super on brand for Emily. What isn’t? Letting Austin take the credit for her genius!
And now, back to our regularly scheduled Lavinia programming: The younger Dickinson daughter hosts a sleepover with Jane Humphrey and company, much to her father’s vexation.
“I’m in deep contemplation of our national situation. I cannot bear another moment of their inane chatter!”
But inane chatter it is not, as the girls are discussing American policy like the Kansas-Nebraska act and the Missouri Compromise. To quote Lavinia, they’re “so woke.” They even predict the Civil War. So, take that Mr. Dickinson. No need to “Whig” out.
Okay, this would be the time to wig out: Austin takes it upon himself to announce to the entire household the next morning at breakfast that he “wants to ensure that I and Susan spend no less than eternity by each other’s sides. So, I am digging up a dead baby so you can be buried next to me.”
But wait, there’s more! The morning paper finally arrives to inform everyone that Austin (Emily) won the poetry contest with the poem, “Nobody knows this little rose.”
The true author flees the room upset about not being recognized, even though she promised she would not be. Ben follows Emily to the garden for emotional support, and she assures him, “It’s not your fault. It’s not [Austin’s] fault either. He didn’t choose to be born a man.”
The man of the house, Mr. Dickinson, certainly gives his daughter recognition, but maybe not the kind she wanted. He barges into her room and shouts that he will not be “taken for a fool.” He knows his daughter wrote the poem and blames her for humiliating him again on the day of his congressional election. Since he thinks his political career took a hit, he feels compelled to hit his own daughter. Hard. The blow is so shocking that Emily hallucinates that she is the main act of the circus in town, the “greatest freak of them all: a female poet.”
- You thought period dramas were outdated and not groundbreaking? Think again!
- “The men of honor and decency have prevailed,” Mr. Dickinson says about winning, but like two seconds after hitting his daughter? Hm… I’m with Maggie on this one.
Episode 8: “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”
Mr. Dickinson heads to Washington for the next few months as he won the congressional seat. The whole family on Christmas Eve is there to see him off, except for Emily. Shocker.
The patriarch goes to her room and asks if she’s upset that he’s leaving, and she coldly tells him, “No, I am upset that flowers don’t grow in winter.”
Due to some neuralgia over her husband’s departure, Mrs. Dickinson ends up “shirking her housewifely duties. This is unheard of!” as Austin says. But guess who’s planning on picking up the slack to cook Christmas dinner? Plot twist: Emily! Ensuring the Dickinson Christmas party prevails as planned is her way of making sure Ben stays for the holidays. The things we do for those we love.
As if the poet-turned-kitchen-hand needed more reasons to be taken by Mr. Newton, he offers to help her in the kitchen. “See? Men should spend a little bit more time in the kitchen,” he tells Emily while whisking batter like a pro.
Sue witnesses the whole flirtation in the kitchen and casts the shadow of envy on the exchange. She even takes a jab at Em for acting like the “frugal housewife herself.”
The guests begin to arrive and among them is one of Jane Humphreys’ friends, Louisa May Alcott. Yes, that one. At this point, Louisa’s a published writer, but only gets the idea for Little Women after realizing that people will “get hooked” on it and it’ll help with “raking in the cash.” I mean, her father spent all the family money starting a commune, and she doesn’t want to be a governess, so girl’s gotta eat!
Jane previously informed Louisa that Emily is a writer too, so she offers to help her get published. The two women of the written word go for a run before dinner to chat about it:
“Write what sells. Bodice rippers, ghost stories, stories about ravens, keep tabs on the marketplace!” Louisa advises Emily while sprinting. She also tells her not to get married and to ditch poetry for prose.
After that exhausting run — for more reasons than one, Emily returns for dinner and some entertainment. You’d think tipsy Mrs. Dickinson stole the show with her intoxicated singing and dancing, but it’s Sue’s performance at the piano (dedicated to Emily) that’s really the main act.
Later, Sue admits that she is jealous “of a man stealing [Emily’s] heart” and asks her why Ben.
“I guess I can trust that when I speak a word, he hears it,” Emily answers dreamily. “He gets its meaning.” Sue eloquently labels it a “poet’s definition of love.” And like the good poet she is, Emily composes another poem about Ben called, “There’s a certain slant of light.” The two share a kiss on Christmas Day, but it’s interrupted when Ben lets out a nasty cough. He thinks it’s just the flu, but death’s carriage pulls up, so that’s concerning.
- Modern men should take notes from Ben on how to win a woman’s heart.
- That line Alcott throws out there about mentioning a soap company in Emily’s writing to see if they’d sponsor her has got to be a jab at influencers.
- I laughed out loud when Aunt Lavinia (Lavinia’s namesake) said she has widow’s euphoria because her late husband slash cousin died, and Jane retorts, “Is that what happens when you marry your cousins?”
- Lavinia’s montage of opening gifts is me every Christmas.
- Ben better not die.
- This show is the gift that keeps on giving.
Episode 9: “Faith Is a Fine Intervention”
Nothing like a Sunday morning sermon to kick start the week, especially when the message is all about death, accompanied by a flashback to all the moments Emily and Ben have ever spent together. Ben’s still alive (how dare this show scare me like that?), but still with that dreadful cough.
When Ben shows up at the Dickinson doorstep later that wintry day, Emily insists that they stay inside by the fire instead of going out to see the eclipse. “The only fire I want to see is that ring of fire around the moon.” So this guy’s a poet himself, but he’ll be a dead one soon if he doesn’t take care.
Sue heads to the dressmaker to get fitted for her wedding. She finds that her “appetite” has caused some thickness around her middle. The dressmaker promises to leave some room around the waist in case her “appetite doesn’t subside.”
Here’s some food for thought in case your appetite for drama isn’t satiated: while Emily and Ben are reciting William Blake’s “The Garden of Love” to one another on their way to view the eclipse, they run into George Gould and his new lady.
Ben immediately picks up on the boy’s affections for Emily, and her lack thereof for him. “You kicked him out of the garden of love, huh?” he laughs. “I never said he could enter it in the first place.” Emily rejoinders.
“Sometimes I want to ask you to marry me. I mean, not to marry me, forever.”
“I would do that,” Emily says and then she proposes to him. “Till death do us part” is definitely around the corner.
Ben’s illness goes from bad to worse as he doubles over and coughs blood. Emily takes him in to care for him, and he says what sounds like final words: “You’re going to be a great poet. You’re a true genius. You’re going to write things the world will never forget.”
While letting her beloved rest, the budding poet finds Maggie in the barn praying. The kindhearted, Irish maid asks if Miss Dickinson wants to pray with her. Emily can’t get herself to because of a scarring experience she had at a women’s seminary where the headmistress rendered her “hopeless.”
“Perhaps the headmistress had a flee up her arse. No one is hopeless in God’s eyes,” Maggie says in her warm Irish way, “Maybe you should give it another go.”
Hope seemed to be turning up, but Death did instead, in his phantom horse-drawn carriage. Emily, dressed in her date-with-death gown, attempts to bargain with him for Ben’s life. But she calls Death “jealous” for “loving [Ben] more,” so death abruptly ends their date and possibly Ben’s existence. So, Emily decides to plea with a power higher than death.
- Maggie is the parental figure Emily deserves
- Joseph showing Lavinia’s nude self-sketch to the whole town of Amherst was the 19th-century version of revenge porn. Lavinia hanging her other nude sketches on every students’ easel was a classic way to take back her agency.
Episode 10: “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain”
This time, Emily stops for death. Ben passed away way too soon, and now she stops by his grave day after day. The grieving writer is forced to put these visits on hold for a “happier” occasion: Sue and Austin’s wedding.
Or at least, it should be happy. The bride grows paranoid that her dress fits less as the wedding draws near. She tells Em that she’s pregnant and asks her if her bump shows. Her friend assures her that she looks gorgeous. “I do?” Sue asks on the verge of tears.
“Don’t say, ‘I do’ for me. Save it for Austin,” Emily tells Sue halfheartedly and gives her a poem she wrote for her.
Sue can’t get over the fact that it won’t be Emily standing by her side at this wedding, so to compensate, the two girls frolic in the woods with bouquets in hand for one last hurrah.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Dickinson puts belladonna in her eyes, which is affecting her vision. It truly gives new meaning to the saying, “love is blind!” She blames this setback, and almost being set on fire, on the “old Norcross curse acting up again.” Legend has it that a series of bad things happen to the Norcross family (Mrs. Dickinson’s maiden name) on special occasions.
Speaking of things “acting up again,” George Gould swoops in not long after Ben’s death to whisk Emily away to California in pursuit of The Gold Rush. He admits that asking for her father’s approval was a mistake and that he has now come to ask for hers:
“I’ve come here today to ask you, as your own woman, with your own freedom. I’m asking you to make your own choice. Come out west with me.” She tells him that she can’t be his wife, but perhaps that offer will be more appealing after what happens next:
“I spilt the dew, but took the morn, I chose this single star, from out the wide night’s numbers. Sue – forevermore,” Sue reads aloud.
Austin walks in on his intended tearing up over Emily’s poem and becomes so furious that he uninvites his own sister to the wedding. He also calls Emily’s poems stupid and not real poems because “the only real poems are the ones in books.”
“You know what, Austin? Just because you are a man, it doesn’t mean you have to become a monster,” Emily chokes out.
And since we’re on the topic of male monsters, Joseph shows up to the Dickinson abode uninvited to apologize to Lavinia and give her a locket because he’s “ready to lock-it down.” But Lavinia isn’t. She breaks things off with him so she can focus on herself “and her cat.”
The surprise entrances continue when Mr. Dickinson arrives minutes before the wedding to walk orphaned Sue down the aisle. Everyone asks where Emily could be, and at Austin’s behest, she’s locked herself in her room.
Emily is devastated and wishes she could die, so she gets her death wish. Death himself gives her eulogy: “We’re here to say goodbye to some basic-bitch named Emily Dickinson.” No one attends her funeral except that pesky bee from her previous opium hallucination, David Thoreau, and Ben, who in death comes out about liking Austin. Thankfully it was all just a “funeral in [Emily’s] brain.”
Emily disrupts the wedding downstairs by screaming, “LET ME OUT! LET ME OUT!” Austin urges the clergyman to go on.
And Emily decides that she must go on too. She fashions a poetry book made of scraps of her poems to spite her brother’s previous comment, and when her father comes to her door post-wedding, she stands up to him once and for all too:
“Father, I am a poet. I am a poet, and I am not going to die. I am going to write hundreds of thousands of poems right here, in this room. The greatest poems ever written by Emily Dickinson, and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”
And he withdraws: “Yes, Emily. I know.”
- When Henry looks to his wife Betty (the dressmaker) and sarcastically says, “These white people really know how to throw a party,” I died.
- Austin and Sue’s “Just Married” hot air balloon looks just like Emily’s floating basket to Sue in episode 1. Pretty sure that’s no coincidence.