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Civil War setting brings poignancy to final season of ‘Dickinson’

Hailee Steinfeld in a third-season episode of "Dickinson."Apple TV+

The third and final season of “Dickinson” has premiered on Apple TV+, I have seen it all, and I am grieving hard. At first, when it premiered, I rejected the show, which is about the life of mid-19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. It seemed like an awkward mash-up of period-piece atmosphere, silly comedy, and the drugs, sex, and romantic tropes of contemporary teen shows such as “Euphoria” and “Riverdale.”

But a friend urged me to reconsider, and I did, and I fell in love. Created by Alena Smith, “Dickinson” is not devoted to historical accuracy so much as to evoking her spirit, as a woman, as a writer, and as a daughter. You have to let go of any expectations of seeing a familiar biopic and just let it work on you. The genre is hard to categorize, which I ultimately find refreshing, and the surreal and over-the-top elements, including the likes of Billy Eichner as Walt Whitman and John Mulaney as Thoreau, are a kick.


The third season features the Civil War, including Emily’s literary correspondence with a Union commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who will later publish her poems. Many of the young men in Emily’s circle are dying in battle, and, in a subplot, a Black family friend is teaching an all-Black regiment led by Higginson. The season also digs into the break between the Dickinsons and Emily’s brother, Austin — another kind of Civil War that causes a lot of angst all round. The break causes particular stress between Emily and her sister-in-law, Sue, who are passionately involved.

The ending is pitch perfect, and I’m grateful those behind the scenes decided to leave on a high and leave us wanting more. The cast is extraordinary all around, most notably Hailee Steinfeld as Emily and Toby Huss as her father, Edward. But the real star is, of course, the poetry, whose lines run across the screen at times during the show, taking on new facets and fresh meanings.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.