‘Dickinson’: How Mermaids Inform Emily’s Wild Night Out With Walt Whitman

Dickinson Season 3 - Billy Eichner and Hailee Steinfeld
Spoiler Alert
Apple TV+

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Dickinson, Season 3, Episode 4, “This is my letter to the World.”]

Dickinson continues to enchant in its third and final season, and despite the continuing horrors of War, the latest episode saw Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) transported to New York City where she meets Walt Whitman (Billy Eichner) and ends up having a magical time.

“Emily was reading Leaves of Grass, and [in] this fantasy sequence, she goes to a Civil War hospital in New York City and meets Walt Whitman, who then takes her to Pfaff’s beer cellar,” production designer Neil Patel shares. And just like most of the show’s elements, which are based on historical fact, the beer cellar location and its dreamy free-thinking crowd were in fact inspired by the real Pfaff’s.

Dickinson Season 3 Emily

It “was a famous intellectual [hotspot], often called the first New York hipster bar, which was located in lower Broadway above Bleecker Street,” Patel adds. “So, we had to recreate our imagined version of what that space would look like.”

At the bar, after following Walt around the hospital tent with Louisa May Alcott (returning guest star Zosia Mamet), Emily descends into the cellar with the poet and they discuss pain and inspiration. It’s here that Walt pushes Emily to be honest about the things in her life that ignite passion, particularly when it comes to her best friend and lover Sue (Ella Hunt).

“I love Sue,” she screams after Walt pushes her to speak her mind. “Okay? I love Sue and I want her and I can’t get enough of her.” The open floodgates make way for a night of dancing and fun in the cellar that also utilizes visual motifs that pop up in Emily’s experiences this season.

One partygoer that Emily hits the dance floor with is dressed as a mermaid (played by singer Beth Ditto), an element that pops up in other parts of her life. “I have little etchings in Emily’s room, next to her desk,” set decorator Marina Parker says. “My thought was that would sort of seed in her mind, and therefore, become these fantasy worlds that she explores at Pfaff’s.”

Dickinson Season 3 Beth Ditto

(Credit: Apple TV+)

“We also bring in other nautical imagery,” Patel echoes, hinting at the visual element’s use. But why mermaids in particular, you might ask? “There’s the symbolism with mermaids of not quite fitting in, of [being part of] this world but not quite of this world,” Parker reveals.

And while Emily was of this world, she was certainly ahead of her time, making her utterly unworldly to the people around her. In the show, these fantasy-type sequences have become a signature aspect of sharing Emily’s coming-of-age story, and Patel promises, “We’re much deeper into her mind than we’ve ever been before.” Stay tuned to see just how deeply Season 3 will go into Emily’s mind.

Dickinson, New Episodes, Fridays, Apple TV+