An Elegy for Dickinson, the Weirdest, Most Wonderful Show on Apple TV+

Apple TV+ was two years old when it joined the streaming horse race with a small stable of innovative originals. Morning ShowThe cast included Jennifer Aniston Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Steve Carell. For All Mankind paired Battlestar Galactica And OutlanderRonald D. Moore created an alternative-history scenario, in which the Soviets would win the race for space. Far-future fantasy epic Look! Spend $15 million on stunning shots of Jason Momoa running through trees. There was also the matter of DickinsonAlena Smith created a period piece called “The Deeply Odd and Anachronistic” that featured Hailee Stonefeld (singer) as Emily Dickinson.
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While the others had their partisans (though I’ve never actually met a fan of Look! Dickinson was the surprising early breakout, earning an instant, vocal fan baseAnd paving the way for Apple’s success in the comedy niche with shows like Ted Lasso and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet. In retrospect, I think Smith’s bizarre creation caught on—amid so many voluminous streaming slates padded out with interchangeable titles—because it felt so alive and impassioned, in all its messiness. That emotional momentum kept building, and now it suffuses the show’s third, final and most ambitious season.

Steinfeld’s intelligent, wild and sensuous performances are the foundation of this performance (he is also executive producer). Dickinson remixes facts, hypotheses, rumors and daydreams about the famously reclusive poet’s life into a buoyantly implausible family dramedy. We meet Emily in her hometown of Amherst, Mass., as she’s standing on the precipice of adulthood. She’s the favorite of her father Edward (Toby Huss), a prominent local politician who fears that allowing her to publish would bring disgrace upon his name. Her mother (Jane Krakowski), known only as “Mrs. Dickinson,” and sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) are traditional 19th-century women, fixated on marriage and housework. At least Emily has found the love of her life: her childhood best friend Sue (Ella Hunt), who’s destined to wed Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe).

AppleL-R: Hailee Steinfeld, Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss and Anna Baryshnikov in ‘Dickinson’

To her family’s great dismay, the rebellious Emily has no intention of marrying. She shouldn’t waste her time caring for a man or his kids when she can be writing poetry to her paramour. Anyway, she’s far too morbid and mercurial for most suitors’ taste. She sees things—like a human-sized version of the bee from her poem and a horse-drawn carriage whose passenger is Death, as personified by the rapper Wiz Khalifa. “You’ll be the only Dickinson they talk about in 200 years,” he promises, passing her a joint.

This detail shows that the show mixes fantasy and realism, both in the 19th and 21st centuries. Steinfield’s Emily has an antecedent (or descendant?) in “misery chick” Daria Morgendorffer, though she’s also prone to moments of exuberance. Alongside a pop soundtrack featuring artists that might appear on a modern-day Dickinson’s Spotify playlist, like Mitski and Courtney Barnett, Smith peppers the dialogue with contemporary phrases and ideas. “I just don’t know why this had to happen in our 20s,” one character whines in the new season, referring to the Civil War. Dickinson has a knack for casting the perfect guest stars—usually comedians—in the roles of famous historical figures. In that respect, season 3 over-delivers, giving us Billy Eichner as Walt Whitman, Ziwe Fumudoh as Sojourner Truth and (in a contrivance I’ve been asked not to explain but which you could probably guess) SNL’s Chloe Fineman as Sylvia Plath.

It can seem jarring to make these stylistic decisions. Scenes in which revelers fight at Amherst’s antebellum Amherst houses parties are something I initially mistook for cheap marketing tricks that Emily Dickinson could use to look trendy to younger viewers. But the anachronisms aren’t an empty gimmick. They recontextualize the poet and her work—which often appears on screen in illuminated lettering—scribbling over the stiff black-and-white portraits to reveal a truly colorful character.

AppleHailee Steinfeld in ‘Dickinson’

Smith was laying the groundwork for the Civil War’s final season in this last season. The new episodes follow a thoughtful second season where Emily wrestled with her feelings of insecurity about her ability to publish poetry and achieve fame. Physically safe but spiritually agitated in her New England bedroom, she processes, through her poems, friends’ deaths, a national schism, the destruction wrought by slavery.

The season offers satisfying resolutions to the Dickinsons’ interfamilial conflicts—which in some cases means illustrating why they can never be resolved. A rift between Edward and Austin forces Emily to confront her father’s flaws. The show is funny without losing its humor. It adds depth and humanity to Mrs. Dickinson’s characters, Lavinia and Lavinia who were comic relief in previous seasons. It is clear that traditional womenhood can be harmful to those who choose it. (Baryshnikov has become a particular asset to the cast, and this season she’s at her best, spinning her mourning for all the fallen soldiers she never got to date into avant-garde performance art.)

Smith has also increasingly worked to give this story a worldview beyond the Dickinsons’ cosseted household. In its final stretch, she ties the Amherst home front to the battlefield by entwining Emily’s story with that of her neighbor Henry (Chinaza Uche), a Black, abolitionist journalist from seasons past, who goes south to aid the Union cause and ends up teaching literacy to formerly enslaved soldiers (whom white abolitionists are suspiciously hesitant to arm). This is how she made the connection. Dickinson This leaves us with an important message for today. Words matter, even in darkest times.


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