This review of Dickinson is based on the first three episodes of season two. Thank you to Apple TV+ for providing the screeners.
The first season of Dickinson left audiences wanting more. Emily’s growth as a poet had just begun as she boldly told her staunchly sexist father that she is a poet and there is nothing he can do to change that. As we followed Emily coming to terms with her place in her home, in the eyes of her father, and finding the courage to claim her truth–being a poet, there was uncertainty. The narrative revolved around Emily’s eagerness to be published but that her father would simply not approve, now that isn’t an issue anymore.
In season two, Emily is singularly focused. She is no longer adhering to a traditional role in the household and her mom has seemingly ceased nagging her to do chores. Her father is not overly approving of Emily’s writing, but he acknowledges it. However, her excuse for not being published becomes an issue once again. Based on the first three episodes, the season is rooted in Emily’s reluctance and fear of being published and garnering fame. As we know, Emily Dickinson was not famous until after her death. She had had a dozen of her poems published in her lifetime, but that is only a dozen out of thousands that were later discovered after her death. So creator and writer Alena Smith must contend with this fact in this season which is navigating Emily’s difficult emotions regarding fame, her writing, and whether or not having a readership is even something she desires.
The narrative sets up interesting roadblocks and detours that will eventually result in Emily closing herself off from people and relying solely on letter correspondence. Most films and TV shows about famous people often depict that inevitable high of being discovered or accomplishing fame, Dickinson season two directly challenges the rather vapid and exhausting consequences of that. Emily’s anxieties about her work and those who will seek fame for her take centre stage and present a fascinating portrait of someone who at some point becomes content with not being a famous published writer. With season three already greenlit we can further explore the ethos of Emily Dickinson, but season two promises to delve into these complicated and fascinating themes of fame and fulfilment.
Once again Hailee Steinfeld is astonishing. The show’s anachronistic approach to depicting the 19th century gives Steinfeld the freedom to be far more expressive and impactful, whereas a more faithful approach would stifle her exceedingly raw charm and warmth. Much of what we know about Emily Dickinson paints a picture of an individual who willingly cast herself off from society and preferred a life of being a recluse, which feels quite sad. However, Steinfeld brings a genuine heart and fire to Emily that portrays a wild and rich imagination that is perhaps infinitely more comforting and enjoyable than the real world. There is a sadness to Emily because of her circumstances of being a woman and the expectations that come with that, but both Smith and Steinfeld do not allow this to define Emily entirely.
Season two not only expands the rich and complicated inner world of Emily’s mind, but it also expands upon the environment and community around her. Amherst is not only her home, it is also the home of her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) and sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), and her friend and soulmate, Sue (Ella Hunt). Their stories are explored further, creating fully realized individuals that are not just a set of characteristics designed to counter Emily’s. This gives Enscoe, Baryshnikov, and Hunt a lot more to do and explore as actors. Specifically, Sue goes through some serious changes which give Hunt the ability to push the boundaries of Sue’s restrained personality from the first season. There is also a new crop of characters that all play significant roles in Emily’s personal life and literary journey.
The expansion of the town also brings to focus characters that were largely sidelined, like Betty (Amanda Warren) and Henry (Chinaza Uche), which at the end of season one are revealed to be a married couple with children. Their roles are expanded specifically for the series to tackle the impending Civil War.
Season one was perhaps too cautious with portraying Blackness on a deeper level and folding Black characters into the cast. Season two takes deliberate steps to have Blackness included in the narrative to not only meet inclusive and diversity standards that were set up in the prior season but to also reflect the times within the narrative itself. The anachronistic approach and the assortment of Black and brown background actors suggested that this version of Amherst is a somewhat integrated society–although Emily and her friends do not directly engage with any Black people that don’t work for them.
On many occasions, there are explicit attempts at reminding the audience that this is an affluent white society, and despite Emily’s progressive tendencies, those around her do not share them. Even though the show does have diversity in the background (suggesting a certain liberal approach to representing this era) the writing expressly highlighted that this show is largely written and directed by white people who are keenly aware of their perspective limitations. The show is not blind to the serious issues of this society and is not afraid to point the finger at its characters, and expose their flaws and blind spots.
Season two, however, seems to be addressing this and folding in characters that could offer a clearer picture of what life during this era was really like for people who are not the Dickinsons. Henry becomes a key figurehead for Black liberation in Amherst. As the series progresses we will see how his narrative thread is treated and how well it is folded into Emily’s narrative. It is admirable that Smith is engaging with the realities of slavery and the Civil War head-on because it is impossible to separate these things from Emily’s experiences and writing. It’s now all about the execution and whether this story can be respectively told within the confines of a rather light-hearted and comical retelling of Emily’s life. Season two is about to get a bit more serious.
Dickinson is finally back and bolder than ever; with superb acting and production to liven up the world of one of America’s greatest poets. In a genre that is filled to the brim with prim and proper period pieces, Dickinson is a refreshing take on the genre that opens up the narrative to be relatable, funny, and more importantly, creative. Season two is off to an ambitious start and it can only get better.