This post contains spoilers for the Dickinson episode “Sang from the Heart, Sire.” Read our latest review here.
“Family is all that matters” is a term uttered by Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) and refrain repeated during “Sang from the Heart, Sire.” As Dickinson’s third and final season tackles the larger fractures within the United States, is also is dealing with the one breaking the family in Amherst apart. In this episode, the latter takes a big hit in the middle of a birthday celebration.
After the life-affirming experience of reading Walt Whitman, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) gets an extra boost when Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Gabriel Ebert) responds to her letter with a positive response to her poems. “Wholly new and original” is his take on her work, which makes her push the niggling doubts to one side.
Poetry does take a backseat this week, however, as there is a feeling of betrayal in air that Emily shared a poem with Higginson she wrote for Sue (Ella Hunt). Despite telling Sue she loves her and can’t write without her, this new influence in Emily’s life is looked upon with suspicion by Sue.
Since she had the baby, Sue can’t help feeling invisible and when she finds Emily’s correspondence with another writer it deepens this wound. Sue sticks the knife in by comparing Emily’s actions to Austin’s (Adrian Blake Enscoe) telling her they’re both running away rather than fighting for something. As Emily’s biggest champion, Sue is furious that Emily is painting herself as meek, alone and in need of assistance.
Before things descend into chaos, Emily has a plan to cheer her father up with a family singalong for his birthday, and a montage depicts the temporary respite. Contemporary music is a feature of Dickinson — including last week’s joy-filled dancing in Pfaff’s — but using era-appropriate music during this sequence taps into the traditional elements of this activity. When Austin makes a surprise appearance, he harmoniously joins in with Emily’s rendition of “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Written in 1854, this song has been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris, and I really hope Apple TV Plus releases Steinfeld and Enscoe’s duet.
After demonstrably announcing his separation from his family at the start of the season, it is surprising to see Austin come back to the fold so quickly. However, he makes his true motives known after downing a few more shots — that he definitely does not need. Speechifying about the whole country being unhappy and in pain, he pouts about the way his life has turned out in the worst birthday toast of all time. Sure, he is in a loveless marriage and his wife doesn’t trust him to be alone with his son but his privilege makes him sound petulant. Rather than take Sue’s advice and join the war, he is taking steps to open a law firm that will specialize in divorce. Austin plans to split from Sue and take full custody of the nameless baby. The venom he spits is laced with alcohol and Sue doesn’t think he will even remember this in the morning.
Edward tries to speak some sense into his son, but Austin is not interested and instead dredges up the painful past. “Hit me like you used to hit her,” he challenges; the “her” in question is Emily. The relationship between father and daughter was in bad shape at the start of the first season and it has changed significantly for the better — though I don’t recall him being physically violent with her. Reminding his family of this repressed memory only pushes his sister further away. She was once his staunchest supporter and the bond between Austin and Emily was so tight in season 2 that he was the only person who could see her when no one else could. Now, with tears in her eyes, Emily chooses her father over the once-beloved sibling.
It is a heartbreaking scene that has a moment of surreal levity thanks to Mrs. Dickinson’s badly timed entrance in her wedding dress. She then proceeds to fall down the stairs and this causes Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov) to break her vow of silence — a vow she made in her latest step to honor the fallen troops.
“I just wanted to make everyone happy,” is Emily’s response to the chaos of the party. Between Mrs. Dickinson’s grief for her dead sister and Austin’s performance, it has been a net loss.
Mrs. Dickson depressed state over Lavina’s passing is raised at a quilting bazaar to raise money for Union troops, which highlights the delicate balance of comedy, grief and political commentary of Dickinson at its best. The bazaar is a hotbed of Amherst activity, which includes Betty’s (Amanda Warren) beautiful (and misunderstood creations).
Later, we see Betty and her daughter sewing by the fire while Henry (Chinaza Uche) attempts to write another letter, but that he probably won’t send.
We also learn more about the men Henry is now teaching, like Erasmus (Myles Evans), who has an eerie sense of what is to come, and Michael River Jordan (Curtis Morlaye), who asks “Can I spell ‘Where’s my gun?'” as he and his fellow Black Union soldiers await weapons. Henry notes the idea of confronting the darkness of the past to step into the light of the future is a paradox America has to deal with, which is why he believes education is important.
The conflicts running parallel between the Dickinsons and Henry are far from equal, but it doesn’t read like creator Alena Smith is equivocating the two like Edward Dickinson is in his letter to the editor. The ruptures have deepened and the optimism Emily was feeling at the start of “Sang from the Heart, Sire” has been snuffed out like a birthday candle.