Apple TV Plus launched in November with four main titles. All four were renewed before the launch, a lucky break given their collectively mediocre stories. But in the case of “Dickinson,” it’s Apple that got lucky. The quirky, female-led series was the least promoted of the four, and the only half-hour comedy of the group. But it quickly became the streamer’s most talked about hit. “Dickinson’s” second season offers up more of what made it shine in November, delighting audiences with a cheeky spin on the traditional period piece.
“Dickinson’s” second season offers up more of what made it shine in November, delighting audiences with a cheeky spin on the traditional period piece.
Technically, “Dickinson” is a biographical exploration of the life and times of one of America’s most famous poets of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson. But it’s as much a fantasy of who Dickinson might have been. What most people know about Dickinson is that we don’t know much about her. She lived with her parents in their attic for her entire life, pouring out poems from her late teens in the mid-1840s to her death in 1886. Of her work, less than a dozen poems were ever published during her lifetime. It was only after her death that she became famous, when selections of her over 1,800 poems were found by her sister, Lavinia, and published posthumously by her brother, Austin, and his mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who is regarded as Emily’s first editor.
We do know Dickinson was considered eccentric by the Amherst community where she lived, for instance. We know Emily loved to bake, and was better known for that than her writing. There are also more recent discoveries that give us some insight into why her life was such a mystery for so long. Many of her love poems were not addressed to a mystery man as previously believed, but to a woman named Susan — the very same one her brother married. (Mabel is believed by historians to have erased Emily’s passion for Susan from the narrative to protect the family name.) Though this decision means the true nature of Emily and Susan’s relationship has now been lost to history, “Dickinson” went all-in on the notion, creating a portrait of a passionate but repressed Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who was heartbroken when Sue (Ella Hunt) married Austin (Adrian Enscoe), making her into the poet she became.
“Dickinson” may walk and dress like a period piece, but this show is no “Wild Nights With Emily,” last year’s Molly Shannon-led biopic that played up Emily’s sexual identity. Instead, it’s a series aimed at young women who are Emily’s age and feel similarly brimming with repressed passions they channel into fanfiction on AO3 and Tumblr. The show is filled with modern language, 21st-century cultural references, pop songs and related detritus. (It’s a similar strategy to what Shonda Rhimes is doing in her new hit “Bridgerton.”)
The show revels in the hilarity of its juxtapositions, highlighting the ridiculousness of both our world and theirs. But most important, it celebrates Dickinson’s poetry, giving the full screen over to her writings sometimes, penned across the camera like beautiful works of word art.
The first season also used up a lot of the known fragments of Emily’s life. As the show itself admits in season two’s opening moments, there is little to go on in terms of surviving letters and journals once Austin and Susan marry. But showrunners use these unknowns to their advantage. As far as the series is concerned, the whole town knew Dickinson was an artistic oddity. (Or as one character drawls to Mabel, “Emily is so extra.”) So what held her back? Perhaps her siblings would have been supportive of publishing poems in her lifetime, had they known about them.
To that end, Emily and Sue may now be held apart by the inconvenience of being sisters-in-law, but Sue is still pushing Emily to get her name out there. The new season begins with her inviting newspaper magnet Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones) — who spouts lines like “I’m at all of the balls; I’m a baller” — to meet with Emily in hopes of getting her published. Bowles is a real-life figure who ran The Springfield Republican, the newspaper that published most of the poems that appeared during Emily's lifetime. But even as Bowles courts Dickinson, Emily hesitates, for fear that fame will be the ruin of her, even as she wants it.
There is little to go on in terms of surviving letters and journals once Austin and Susan marry. But showrunners use these unknowns to their advantage.
Bowles isn’t the first real-life figure who has passed through this fantasy take on Dickinson’s life. (Season one featured the most male privileged version of Henry David Thoreau ever committed to screen, among others.) But though season two also features the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (Timothy Simons), it’s more interested this time in the politics of the era (John Brown raids Harper’s Ferry partway through the season). That means expanded roles for servants Henry (Chinaza Uche) and Hattie (Ayo Edebiri), who Austin allows to print an abolitionist newspaper. And Nick Kroll’s turn as the horny ghost of Edgar Allan Poe is not to be missed.
The season also pays much more attention to the extended Dickinson family. As Austin becomes a high-powered businessman, Sue becomes an influencer. Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) falls for wannabe tech-bro Henry “Ship” Shipley (Pico Alexander). (Considering the real Lavinia never married, she’ll later have her own change of heart.) This second season also gives space for Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski to shine as Emily’s parents, creating an atmosphere where Emily would believably choose to stay cocooned, baking her prize-winning cakes and tucking away her burgeoning collection of poems under her nightdresses.
Season one was the only one of Apple TV Plus’s initial series to drop all episodes at once. Season two is more confident, with three episodes arriving on Friday and then releasing the remainder one week at a time. Apple has reason to be optimistic; Season three is already greenlighted, promising even more of the delights of this delicate production. Like Dickinson’s poems, this show's gentle fleeting soul is a balm for our long winter.