The Apple TV series “Dickinson” seems to have a new freshly and stormy embodiment of the rebel poet Emily Dickinson.
One of the most famous Emily Dickinson poems :
““Hope” is the thing with feathers
The series, created by playwright Alena Smith, takes place in and around the Dickinson family home in Amherst in the middle of the 19th century. Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teenager, chafing under her father’s Edward (Toby Huss) refusal to let her publish her poetry, and her mother (also named Emily, played by Jane Krakowski) pushing her to master housework like sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), while their brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) gets away with everything.
The show finds Emily Dickinson in the 1850s as she struggles to follow her dreams of becoming a poet at a time when female writers were frowned upon. Her father Edward sours at the idea of people in Massachusetts finding out she’s a writer, afraid of the shame she’ll bring to their family. Only two people support her ambitious desires: George Gould (Samuel Farnsworth), a local literary magazine editor who also wants to marry Emily, and Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), her best friend turned secret lover.
Using period-accurate costumes and sets gives it a slightly prestigious feel, but the dialogue is deliberately contemporary. Characters speak to one another like they’re living in modern times, cursing at each other and saying things like, “What up, girl?” Though Dickinson feels like it’s nearing disaster at times, the show’s best moments come when it leans into its own absurdity: when a science experiment is used to simulate an orgasm, or a house party devolves into maelstrom as underage teens mess around with opioids, twerking to pulsating trap music.
Near the start of the series, Emily asks why Austin doesn’t have to slave away in the kitchen like she and Lavinia are asked to do. “Austin is a boy,” Lavinia explains helpfully.
“This is such bullshit!” Emily replies.
That scene and a few other early ones create the illusion that the series will depict Emily as a woman out of time — revolutionary not only in the way she structured her poetry (most of it published after her death), but in how she comported herself in this old, hidebound place. Her parents and sister speak in formal period vernacular; Emily casually swears and uses modern slang, like saying of a friend, “We hang out, like, all the time.”
But it quickly turns out that Emily isn’t the only one to talk or act this way. Nor is it just her and best friend Sue Gilbert, who is dating Austin but seems much more like Emily’s soul mate. No, almost every young person on the show (and occasionally some of the adults) seems to have wandered over from a CW show (if not from the set of Euphoria), to be squeezed into uncomfortable period costuming. Austin’s friend George tells Emily, “You are such a weirdo! Why am I so attracted to you?” Austin describes the house Edward is building for him as “a romantic Italian villa — so pimp.” When the kids throw a party at the house while their parents are out of town, one guest arrives with a cry of, “Yo, I run this town!”
Most brilliantly, Dickinson isn’t trying to be a teen show. That’s precisely why it works as one. It kind of stumbles into itself, finding its footing along the way. There isn’t any clear direction or structure to help it stay on the same path. Dickinson doesn’t shy away from ludicrousness, but leans into it unabashedly. It’s an “unapologetic, crying on the floor at two in the morning, flirting with the fetishization of death even when floating on the undeniable highness of life” type of disaster.
That’s especially true when it comes to Emily’s forbidden relationship with Sue. Steinfeld and Hunt charm whenever they’re on-screen together, excellent at playing up grandeur expressions of their love for each other while putting just as much importance into the small gestures that cement their relationship. They’re giddy when with each other, full of sneaky kisses and uncontrollable giggles that define first loves.
Although their relationship is forbidden, made harder by Sue’s engagement to Emily’s brother, Austin, it’s never tragic. Their obsession with each other is all-encompassing. Everything is carefree and in the moment. It’s not fraught with drama or cocooned in sadness the way other queer relationships on TV can be, especially with younger characters. Emily is upset by Sue’s engagement, but even that isn’t enough to drive them apart. They simply exist, together, now.
Here is one of the great letters Emily Dickinson wrote to Susan Gilbert:
“Will you be kind to me, Susie? I am naughty and cross, this morning, and nobody loves me here; nor would you love me, if you should see me frown, and hear how loud the door bangs whenever I go through; and yet it isn’t anger — I don’t believe it is, for when nobody sees, I brush away big tears with the corner of my apron, and then go working on — bitter tears, Susie — so hot that they burn my cheeks, and almost scorch my eyeballs, but you have wept much, and you know they are less of anger than sorrow.
And I do love to run fast — and hide away from them all; here in dear Susie’s bosom, I know is love and rest, and I never would go away, did not the big world call me, and beat me for not working… Your precious letter, Susie, it sits here now, and smiles so kindly at me, and gives me such sweet thoughts of the dear writer. When you come home, darling, I shan’t have your letters, shall I, but I shall have yourself, which is more — Oh more, and better, than I can even think! I sit here with my little whip, cracking the time away, till not an hour is left of it — then you are here! And Joy is here — joy now and forevermore!”
Dickinson certainly didn’t invent the idea of period characters using contemporary idioms. But by placing Emily in a world where some people do that and some don’t(*), it takes away much of what is meant to make her special. She’s a bit bolder than her peers, but largely seems no different from the rebellious lead of any other coming-of-age story.
Even her poems, which we hear snippets of in each episode, begin to lose their edges. When she recites the line (from “It’s All I Have to Bring To-day”) “This, and my heart, and all the fields,” it sounds like she’s saying, “All the feels.” Which is probably the intention in a comedy that, in addition to the dialogue, features wall-to-wall current hip-hop and pop songs. When Emily and Sue, for instance, decide to dress in men’s suits to sneak into a college lecture that (like most of society at the time) was male-only, they dance around to “Boys” by Lizzo.
Still, the mishmash of tone and slang give Dickinson an endearingly weird energy. And Steinfeld is already such a bundle of charisma that she papers over some of the sillier choices.
Does Dickinson capture the spirit of its title character? Not really. Is it a good show? Probably not. But it’s at least more interesting than most of Apple’s bland freshman class.
All 10 episodes of Dickinson premiere Nov. 1 on Apple TV+. I’ve seen the first three.
Watch the trailer: