This post contains spoilers for the Dickinson episode “A little Madness in the Spring.” Read our latest review here.
The idea that doing something over and over again and expecting different results is a definition of insanity is often misattributed to Albert Einstein, but truth can still be found within this sentiment. Mental health is central to “A Little Madness in the Spring” in that patented Dickinson fashion, which reflects practices from the past while shining a light on modern maladies.
In this third season, Henry (Chinaza Uche) has found himself stuck between those in power making promises they can’t keep and men who want a fighting chance at freedom. The First South Carolina Volunteers has been tasked with repeating the same pointless drills and uniform inspections, and even when they do break the cycle it isn’t enough. Higginson (Gabriel Ebert) uses his customary cringe greeting — he can’t stop saying “brother” — and asks Henry to postpone class so he can get the troops ready for a vital uniform check. Henry is told “one inspection could make all the difference,” and he passes this good news onto the men.
Unfortunately, the appearance of their clothing (mostly acquired from dead soldiers) means there is no chance they will meet the Union standards and the mood is they have been set up to fail. Henry won’t let the men be deterred and he pulls out the housewife kit (aka a sewing kit) he uses every night to keep his suit looking sharp. This is also the first time he mentions Betty (Amanda Warren) to the troops and they realize the letters Henry writes and never sends are to his family.
“Why keep poking at a wound that can’t ever heal?” is his reasoning for leaving them hanging as he doesn’t think he will ever see them again. “That’s tragic,” is The Wall’s (Wavyy Jonez) response, although Henry maintains some level of hope about society even if he thinks his relationship with his family is doomed.
Henry’s sewing skills can’t mend a broken community or heart, but he believes he can fix their garments. Cue the makeover montage and when Higginson performs the routine inspection he is surprised and touched by their efforts. It doesn’t matter, because even though the battle is heading in their direction the weapons they long to hold are still out of reach.
Higginson isn’t a bad person, nevertheless, he represents those who have their hands tied by power structures and don’t act beyond the flowery language and empty promises. The Wall mentions how scared he is by what awaits them if they can’t protect themselves, but Henry refuses to be trapped in this cycle. “We can’t wait any longer,” he announces at the end of the episode. The audience is left wondering how Higginson will respond to this pressure.
The housewife kit Henry uses earlier in this episode is his physical link to Amherst as we see the Dickinson women constructing these useful items at the start of the episode. “This is our family now,” Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) says to her mother and sister about the deep rift with Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) that refuses to improve. “It isn’t crazy to have hope,” she adds and this comment speaks to the theme of this week — and season.
When Edward (Toby Huss) announces a family trip to the Northampton Women’s Lunatic Asylum, both Emily and Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov) are thrilled by the “daycation,” whereas Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) is convinced her husband is trying to have her committed. The reason for this visit is to approve Edward’s trustee position, which is contingent on his family making a good impression. Of course, several obstacles present themselves when Emily’s enthusiasm for flowers and creative pursuits is viewed with suspicion by the head doctor — the armless glasses he wears dials up the sinister factor.
Exhaustion, overeducation, menstruation, laziness, being unmarried, acute mania, chronic mania, nymphomania and melancholia (aka grief), are all examples of “female sickness,” and the mention of grief only causes Mrs. Dickinson to fear her husband plans to abandon her at this facility.
These so-called conditions diagnosed at the time are probably a reason why so many horror movies and TV shows are set in this type of hospital. Dickinson shows the way mental health was wielded as a weapon against women — particularly young women.
Emily Dickinson has been scrutinized in the 100-plus years since her death for the time she spent alone in adulthood, but Alena Smith has portrayed a version of the poet that digs into who she was beyond the myths and rumors. Every single word that exits Emily’s mouth condemns her to the title of lunatic, but her father (thankfully) does not choose his so-called legacy over his daughter. This is an episode of compromise and a place that locks women up for protesting — Abby is at one point imprisoned in the basement — or grief is not somewhere Edward wants to attach his name. “Pardon my sanity in a world insane,” Emily announces and it is no surprise everyone is falling apart.
The war is a catalyst for much of this, including Vinnie reassessing her singledom and getting some closure thanks to the revelation that Joseph Lyman did really love her. Her grief is now entwined with regret (and some satisfaction). Meanwhile, Mrs. Dickinson takes to her bed when they arrive home and announces she will not get up until the war is over — she is going to be lying down for a long time.
One couple no longer repeating the same cycle is Austin and Sue (Ella Hunt), who come to a mature compromise regarding their fractured marriage. Sue proposes rather than divorce they take an unconventional approach to parenthood to match their unconventional marriage. She wants him to take an active role in the life of their son and this is a huge and heartening victory in a season of conflict. Unfortunately, Austin receives his draft letter and the timing hits him square in the chest. He snapped out of his toxic pattern, but this has not put a stop to the insanity of the world and Austin now must face that reality.