Great Scott! In season 3’s best episode, in my humble opinion, Emily finally gets to see what her legacy will come to — by time traveling!
As we round the bend with the final episodes of season 3, Dickinson‘s final season, Alena Smith and Co. take a moment to reflect not only on where the show began, but also where Emily Dickinson’s legacy will lead. Episode 7, The Future Never Spoke, once again pushes the barrier between reality and Emily’s subconscious to deliver one of the best episodes of the series, if not the best of this final season.
Safe in her room, Emily opens a new letter from her “dear friend” Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Gabriel Ebert), who is so enamored with her writing, he begs to meet her in person. As she finishes her note from her “friend”, Vinnie barges into the room, a bucket in each hand, looking at her sister to go fetch water. It’s a small, yet sweet throwback to the opening scene of the pilot. Emily’s comeback is just as pointed now as it was back, “Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong century.”
On her walk to get water, Emily passes through the orchard, and who should be waiting there, but Sue. It’s another throwback to the pilot, but the roles are reversed, with Sue waiting up in the tree, anxious for Emily’s arrival, and still angry about their fight during Edward’s birthday sing-a-long. Emily tries again to explain that her letters to Higginson have nothing to do with their relationship, but Sue pushes back. “You once told me you wrote for me and me alone, but I guess my thoughts aren’t enough for you anymore.” Things take a turn for the worst when Emily accuses Sue of ignoring her poetry since the baby came, and Sue lashes out, insisting its Emily who has been shutting her out.
That’s when Sue gets real honest, and gets to EmiSue’s real problem: the two of them can’t really be together, not the way they should be, not the way they want to be. “It’s so unfair living like this,” Sue confesses, and you really feel the pain behind that. In 1862, there was no way for Emily and Sue to be a real couple: to live together, to sleep together, to raise a family together. The orchard is the one place they’ve always been able to completely be themselves, unseen by society, and now, it’s where Sue feels strong enough to challenge Emily to give her more.
Emily tries to remind her that she still writes for Sue, that she pours her heart out for her in every line. But Sue wants the mess, she wants all of Emily, not just the parts she can perfect on paper. But mostly, she wants to feel like Emily still wants her, like she did before the baby and before the war. Emily insists she does want her, but it doesn’t change anything about their lives. Sue almost dares Emily to kiss her then, a challenge to prove that their love is stronger than the obstacles in front of them. But Emily can’t do it, and runs off.
Things are not going any better for the rest of the Dickinson family. Austin’s off getting drunk, again, this time at the local bar with a friend, after finally receiving his draft letter to the Union army. Having made peace with Sue and getting closer to his son, the last thing Austin wants to die in the Civil War. It’s then that his equally privileged companion reminds him that Austin is rich. “There’s a way out of any situation, if you can afford it.” And with that, Austin pays off the man behind the bar to take his place in the army, though he seems to regret it almost instantly.
Meanwhile, Emily’s parents are dealing with their lot in life a very different way. While Mrs. D remains in her bed after their trip to the asylum, Edward has been going through Emily’s greenhouse. And what should he find, but — devil’s weed! At first, they’re both appalled, but after being told that smoking the stuff will provide them ecstasys and delusions, they decide to give it a try. It’s an exceptionally funny scene, but just like in real life, the high doesn’t last, and soon Mrs. D is curling back up into her bed again, with no intention of leaving her room.
But if there’s anyone who can relate to what Emily is going through right now, it is her sister Vinnie. Emily finds her practically balling her eyes out over being “terminally single” in the family gazebo and Emily feels her pain, and she admits that she would just like to skip over all the mess and get to a “brighter future”. Be careful what you wish for, Emily!
Just then, the gazebo’s struck by lightning, spins out of control, and lands the girls in the future: May 1, 1955, to be exact! Luckily, they’re still in front of their own house, and who should be there to help them get inside — and fill in some blanks along the way — is Sylvia Plath, played by Chloe Fineman. Finally, Emily is “meeting” a female poet, perhaps her best modern contemporary.
At first, Emily is excited to hear about the future: there’s all women colleges, advancements in technology, and oh yeah, she’s thought of as a “great American poet”. There’s a sweet moment where Emily lays eyes on her full collection of poems that, in 1955, had just been published. She calls out Vinnie for not burning her poems as she asked, and with a smile, Vinnie says back, “I wasn’t going to let everyone forget my sister.” But Sylvia bursts their bubble once they get inside Emily’s bedroom. While Emily’s poems are published, she’s far from “famous;” in fact, in the 20th century, the poet is best known as a dried up, virginal spinster, who was depressed, alone, and never fell in love.
Emily understandably becomes frustrated with the idea of her legacy being that of the “original sad girl”, and pushes Sylvia for more information. Sylvia then shares the rumor that Emily was in love with a man who didn’t love her back, hinting at her letters to Samuel Bowles. But when Emily insists she has “never in her life loved a man”, Sylvia drops the truth bomb: in the future, it’s also been uncovered, though still rumored, that Emily was a lesbian.
The term is so foreign to them that Vinnie answers back, “No, she was definitely American.” But once it’s explained, Emily can’t hide the truth from her sister any longer. Moreover, Emily is shook that her private life is being discussed more than her poems, but Sylvia insists you can’t pull the two a part. The girls leave Sylvia just as she starts to get into a very dramatic reading of her poem, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song,’ resigned to find a way back home.
But Vinnie wants answers first, and asks Emily directly if it’s true about her being gay. It’s a great scene for Hailee Steinfeld and Anna Baryshnikov, because when Emily admits her truth to her sister, there’s no shock or shame, as there usually is in coming out stories. On the contrary, Vinnie admits she kind of knew all along, speaking to the depth of their sisterly relationship, and how much Emily’s sister understood her back in a time when no one really did.
As they make their way back to the gazebo, Emily realizes she had everything she needed in the present, back with Sue, and with that they travel back to 1862. While all of this is going on, Henry and Betty are on their own journeys of discovery. Back in Amherst, Betty is still pining for her husband Henry, who she now hasn’t heard from in months. Her house guest Sojourner Truth – yes, Ziwe is back – is sipping lemonade, speaking Dutch and giving some perspective. Maybe Henry has just moved on with another woman, and if that’s the it, Betty should do the same. Truth convinces the mailman Freddie to take Betty on a picnic, which sounds like a swell idea at first, until Freddie reveals he knows where Henry is. He explains that her husband has enlisted in the Union Army, and his chances of coming home are slim. Betty is, of course, devastated.
But unbeknownst to her, there is hope for Henry and his comrades. After storming into Higginson’s barracks and starting a heated fight with the colonel over arming the black soldiers, Henry is given the information he needs from his Colonel on the sly to get the men guns against the President’s orders. They may have to steal them, but it’s either that or line up to perish.
But while Henry has a fighting chance to survive, Emily receives some terrible news from George upon her arrival back from the future. Chalking up her Sylvia Plath encounter to be just her imagination running away with her, Emily learns that Fraiser Stern, the man’s death she had foreseen in season 2, was in fact shot in killed in battle. “I guess I did see the future after all.”