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.