Welcome to Previous On, a column that tells you about our favorite recurring TV shows. This week Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the second season of the Apple TV + series Dickinson.
A giant bee, the personification of death, and Henry David Thoreau enter Emily Dickinson’s imaginary funeral. To make things stranger, the improbable trio of contestants is played perfectly by Jason Mantzoukas, Wiz Khalifa and John Mulaney. There is no punch line here. In fact, this isn’t a joke, but a central scene from the first season finale of the Apple TV + comedic drama series Dickinson.
An ambitious, weird hearted, ironically funny series from showrunners Alena Smith (The Affair), Dickinson clearly takes the go-big-or-go-home approach to historical anachronism. While other stories dealing with anachronism tend to have cheeky modern references or pop songs on the strings, Dickinson does something more complicated by incorporating a modern sensibility into every scene, including the pre-Civil War period with holistic and sometimes as well tiny, historically accurate details remain true to it.
In one scene from season 2, a character reads a poem in a newspaper and declares, “That claps!” In another instance, a contemporary of Dickinson appears who, like Thoreau before him, is impaled over several wedding-specific literary jokes. When the series pokes fun at the spoiled, ignorant white children of Amherst from the 19th century, it pokes fun at the Instagram influencer generation too. If it depicts the casual chauvinism of the city’s patriarchs, it also reveals the insidious sexism of America today. As with many of Emily Dickinson’s best poems, the series can often be read with two or more meanings.
Dickinson’s ability to live in double worlds makes it a rare gift, an achievement from the heart in both satirical comedy and drama. The series follows the life of prolific but unrecognized eccentric poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), and in season 2 the young woman struggles to come to terms with both her ideas of fame and those of her lover Sue (Ella Hunt) recently married to her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Emily is increasingly also in two different worlds. She is overwhelmed by her dreams, visions and imaginations, and while the first season clearly separates facts from fantasy, the second season begins to eerily blur the lines.
Steinfeld as the dynamic emotional center of the series is wonderful. Your Emily has the kind of artistic soul that is cursed to feel everything deeply, to want endlessly, but never to feel completely satisfied. She moans and cries and screams and laughs and dances and, with her relentless temper, destroys the omnipresent myth of the silent spinster poet. This fictional version of Emily is by no means perfect, and it is clearly intentional. She can be annoying, obsessive, and selfish, and imagines herself to be the center of every story, even the important ones – like the abolitionist movement – that go well beyond her own need for personal growth. As the town-based middle group says when they walk into a room in the first episode, “This is Emily Dickinson.” “She is a lot!”
It is Emily’s ability to be “a lot” that, along with his other strengths, makes Dickinson such a powerful series. Her story is a creative coming-of-age story that is illustrated in full, intense color with every new emotion and experience and gives the rainbow another dazzling, vivid streak. Just as the series’ comedy is successful due to its specificity, so is its drama. The poet’s sometimes unbearable sensitivity makes every intimate moment – from a stolen kiss to a meeting with death – heightened and personal. Steinfeld effortlessly brings these highs and lows to life and anchors a series that tends to change tonal quickly with a steady emotional performance.
While Dickinson deserves the usual praise for its detailed set and costume design, the show would be nothing without the perfect casting. Each of the major players in the Dickinson household seems to have relaxed in their roles between seasons. Toby Huss and Jane Krakowskiwho have favourited Emily’s parents, and Anna Baryshnikovwho plays her sister seem to be having a great time when they’re on screen, but there isn’t a single weak link in the ensemble. The chemistry and comedic timing of the cast lift Dickinson above the novelty of his biographical plot, making him something of a show viewers could enjoy for years to come. And while some of the literary icons from last season are sitting out there this season, this latest episode is not without comedic cameos.
Dickinson doesn’t sound like it will work on paper, and it probably shouldn’t work on screen either, but the show deals with contradicting tones and different themes to inexplicably merge into something great. Take the funeral scene, for example. It reads like madness, but in reality it juggles several worries taking up space in Emily’s head, from the bee’s surreal naturalism to the seductive impending death to the mix of fame represented by Thoreau. In the end, it shows us that Emily’s greatest fear will be forgotten to leave earth without leaving a sign. The real life poet would certainly never have imagined making a mark like Dickinson, but it’s indelible and welcome nonetheless.