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Spoilers for the first three episodes of Dickinson Season 3 past this point.
Though Apple TV+’s Dickinson isn’t necessarily a show filled with jaw-dropping surprises, there is one moment in the Season 3 premiere that is shocking — unless of course you’re aware of what happened in real life. That’s because after dealing emotionally with a miscarriage in Season 2, Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt) is first seen at Emily Dickinson’s (Hailee Steinfeld) door in the premiere, titled “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”, visibly pregnant.
Again, if you’re a student of history, you know that Sue Huntington Gilbert Dickinson had three children over the course of her life: Edward, Martha and Thomas. But for fans of the series, it’s a joyful repudiation of the grief the character has wallowed in since her introduction way back in the series premiere, and Season 2 in particular. It’s also a surprising turn for someone whose marriage was predicated on never having a child.
“The pregnancy is huge for Sue,” Hunt told Decider while visiting the set of Season 3, during the filming of the series’ final episode. “When we pick up with Sue at the beginning of Season 3 she is pregnant and finding herself surprisingly thrilled by it. She’s just elated by bringing a child into the world, which can be confusing for people around her because we’re in the middle of this Civil War.”
Complicating matters is the fact that Sue’s husband Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe), who just so happens to be Emily’s brother, has hit rock bottom when Season 3 opens. In Season 1 Austin agreed to Sue’s terms of marriage: never have a baby. In Season 2, Austin was dealing with the repercussions of that, unaware of Sue’s miscarriage. As Enscoe noted, also on the set of the series, “By the time that we get to Season 3, Austin’s kind of worked himself into a black hole, and so we see him finally get that thing that he’s wanted and really be unprepared for all of the responsibilities that it entails.”
There’s a third, highly important part of Austin and Sue’s relationship, though, as well as the job of raising the new baby — who is born in the season’s second episode, titled “It feels a shame to be Alive -”. That would be Emily, who has entered a committed relationship with Sue at the end of Season 2. When we pick up, despite Austin and Sue’s marriage, Emily and Sue are still going strong. While Austin and Sue are legally wed, Emily and Sue are in what Hunt calls a “spiritual marriage.” But once the baby is born, Sue wants more than that.
“Sue has this idea that she basically wants Emily to be Dad,” Hunt said. “She wants Emily to be completely involved in parenting this child. And that is complicated for Emily for a number of reasons.”
Though those reasons will continue to unfurl over the course of the season, it’s clear in Episode 2 that Emily is pretty much freaked out by the birth, and what it means for her relationship with Sue. While Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) spends most of the episode doula-ing Sue like with the sheep she used to help birth as a young girl (it’s all pretty purposefully ridiculous), Emily is drinking with her friend Frazer Stearns (Will Pullen). And though Emily confronts a completely falling down drunk Austin about missing his child’s birth at the end of Episode 2, it’s clear Emily is in a similar place when Episode 3 (titled “The Soul has Bandaged moments”) picks up: when Sue asks if she wants to hold the baby, Emily panics.
“It’s a big turning point for her and Emily,” Hunt continued. “They do spend the season working and figuring out how to nourish each other, and their work life balance, and the baby throws a lot into the mix.”
It also leads ultimately (without getting into spoilers) to an interesting and what Hunt calls “unconventional” parenting relationship between Austin, Sue and Emily.
“Sue is keen to shut Austin out of being the father of this child for a number of reasons,” Hunt noted. “He’s not, at the beginning of this season, in a place where you would trust him with a child. But I think also, Sue and Austin are grappling with the patriarchy’s impact on their understanding of what being a parent is. And so Sue thinks that the ideal father is this distant, cold, absent father, and there’s real work to be done for Austin and Sue through the season, to learn to listen to what each other are craving… I think that is a particularly poignant conversation for the LGBT community because we have to carve out family in unconventional ways.”
And for Austin, part of the issue may certainly be knowing that he’s married to Sue, has a child with Sue, but Sue will always be in love with his sister Emily.
“It’s an interesting shift because there’s a difference between being aware and accepting it,” Enscoe said. “It’s really easy to say outwardly, ‘I know this is happening,’ and really making peace with something. That’s what Austin’s work is this season, is really to try to find a new kind of relationship with Sue that doesn’t have to involve romance, like what American people are told a marriage should be. It doesn’t have to be that, it can be a different kind of partnership.”
Dickinson streams every Friday on Apple TV+.