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The Surprising Success of an Irreverent Emily Dickinson

It would be easy to make fun of “Dickinson.” But the new Apple TV+ show is stranger and more charming than it has any right to be.

Courtesy of Apple TV+

Here is a show that looks at Emily Dickinson—one of the greatest poets in American literature, a woman infatuated with death and dying, queer and forced to hide or kill her own desires, a near-recluse for many years and dead at 55—and asks the question: What if Emily Dickinson was in fact 100% That Bitch? Its Emily believes that the gendered division of domestic labour is absolute “bullshit,” and that marriage is a prison. Its nineteenth-century lads describe their homes as “pimp,” or hail their friends by yelling “sup!” There is some Sapphic sex between the poet and her sister-in-law, though not quite enough to scare the horses, or to make it titillating. On the soundtrack, Beethoven appears alongside Mitski; in the screenplay, conversations about the potential abolition of the slave trade appear alongside a storyline about Emily Dickinson getting her period. Death, who Emily describes as “a gentleman, sexy as hell,” visits her nightly, and is played with supreme dopeness by the rapper Wiz Khalifa. As is so often the case in revisionist historical dramas, à la Marie Antoinette, there is anachronistic dancing; in this instance, the kids twerk to modern trap.

To put it more succinctly: Dickinson is like The Favourite, retooled either for the YA audience of Gossip Girl, or for literature nerds looking to tune in, turn off, and drop out. Whether or not this sounds like your personal idea of a good time will depend on several factors, not limited to your age, your interest in messing with history, and your belief in the sanctity of literary figures and their lives. Dickinson’s framing of its heroine as a trailblazing feminist is at times curiously adjacent to what is defined as “girlboss feminism,” meaning a very specific brand of activism that relies on being sassy, brash, and unapologetic, and on owning branded merchandise that says things like “YASS KWEEN” or “FEMINIST A.F.” (“Poet. Daughter. Total rebel,” is the show’s tagline, sounding not unlike an Etsy mug itself.) No sane adult woman I know enjoys being described as “sassy,” “spunky,” “quirky” et cetera, just as no man I know has ever had such adjectives applied to him. Still, it’s undeniable that this would have been the easiest way to sell the show to executives in a boardroom, and this would not be the first time a show’s better qualities came hidden in a faintly embarrassing Trojan horse.

With this in mind, Dickinson is both stranger and more charming than any historically-revisionist show about a badass, twenty-something incarnation of Emily Dickinson has any right to be. Part of this is down to Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Emily as an agreeable alembic of bad-tempered adolescence and grown-up artistry, sounding at times as if she has been struck by divine inspiration, and at others as if she is ordering an Orange Julius at the mall. Her passionate obsession with her own mortality is sometimes played off like the nineteenth-century equivalent of modern kids tweeting about wanting celebrities to murder them, or run them down in cars. “You know I’m not gonna marry you, right?” she tells her friend George, primly. “I’m in love with Death.”

Like her contemporary Florence Pugh, Steinfeld has one of those rare faces that’s entirely out of time: Her arciform brows and her round, cherubic cheeks are perfect for expressing sweet befuddlement or wacky disbelief, giving the general impression that what’s happening is bogus. “You dropped a dead mouse in that poor man’s lap,” her mother chides in the first episode, reminding her of the last time a suitor called. “You are not a cat, Emily.” Steinfeld’s delivery of her character’s response, deadpan and dry as a pressed flower, is divine: “No—tragically, I am a woman.”

Stripped of its you-go-girl marketing, Dickinson is still not without flaws. The show commits the nearly unforgivable period-drama sin of having a character cough ominously in one episode, then die in the next, and does not bother to subvert the cliché by making it meta, or commenting on its obviousness. Jane Krakowski—who does not have one of those rare faces that’s entirely out of time—is miscast as Emily’s mother, her extreme modernity anachronistic in entirely the wrong way. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the most interesting thing about the show is its unmitigated weirdness, a full season of programming put out by a major streaming platform whose intended audience cannot be major in its scope. In episode three, Emily Dickinson hallucinates a man-sized bee who speaks with the very distinctive voice of the comedian Jason Mantzoukas; the bee’s whole vibe is both unsettlingly sexual, and entirely at odds with the way the real Dickinson described bees as being “chivalrous.” In the fourth episode, John Mulaney appears, playing Henry David Thoreau as a shirtless, fame-enamored babyman whose mother does his laundry. In the eighth episode, Zosia Mamet, as a jaded Louisa May Alcott, offers Emily some writing advice. “[Nathaniel] Hawthorne can eat a dick,” she shrugs, “am I right?”

Does the Emily Dickinson of Dickinson have much in common with the real life poetess? I could not confirm or deny it. Dickinson’s work is remarkable not simply for its genius, but for its spookiness, its prescient freakiness; this Dickinson, other than when she is quoting from her poems, does not give the impression of an unusually towering intellect, nor an unusually intense connection to the natural or divine. I would assume this is intentional, since plenty of smart women in their early twenties happen to be, like, colloquial in their language, and most writers are far better on the page than they are at the dinner table, or at parties, or when shopping for a dress. In the pilot episode alone, Emily is thrice referred to as a genius. Still, how many times have I been told by cinema or literature or television that a man is a great genius without actually being shown the proof? How many times have I believed it, or suspended disbelief enough to play along? It is in some ways a delight to see a life like hers play out without the usual worthiness, without cultural reverence weighing every scene down like lead, even if she does call things “hella tight.”

At the close of Dickinson’s finale, Emily stands before her father in the doorway of her room. She weeps, defiant. “Father,” she informs him, “I’m a poet. I’m a poet, and I am not going to die, I am going to write hundreds, thousands of poems right here, in this room. The greatest poems ever written, by Emily Dickinson. And there is nothing you can do to stop me.” “I know,” he dutifully replies. The mood is one of quiet triumph, a reversal of one of the show’s most interesting dynamics. Half of this triumph is true: it’s true that Emily Dickinson stayed mostly in her homestead bedroom in the last two decades of her life, and that before this, she spent most of her time writing. It is true that in her lifetime, she wrote roughly 1,800 poems. She did not, however, leave that bedroom to attend her father’s funeral when he finally died. (“His heart,” she said, “was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.”) There was no great, cathartic father-daughter moment, and there was no living hour for her in which she was recognized as being the author of “the greatest poems ever written,” having only published ten or twelve of them before she died. Rather than pursuing fame, she asked her sister Lavinia to burn all her poetry after her death, which arrived after a period of ill health. Sue, the sister-in-law she once said she loved the way Dante loved Beatrice, was the one who washed her body to be buried, sending the most sacred details of their mutual adoration to the grave.

“Celebrity,” Dickinson once wrote, “is the chastisement of merit, and the punishment of talent.” This is not an ideal slogan for a mug, nor a particularly empowering sentiment if we believe that what empowers women is a hunger for success. The point that Dickinson is trying to make at its heart, I think, is more or less the same point as numerous Shakespeare-inspired, high-school-centered rom-coms made in the late nineties: that the ways in which it is impossible or maddening to be an unusual person, and particularly an unusual woman, have not changed so much in the last five-odd centuries, and that love—in this instance queer love, specifically—is not so different, either. It will be interesting, if the show is renewed for a second season, to see how it applies its liveliness and its teen language to the poet’s life as it further unfolds, her poems still unpublished and her romance still in secret, or left unfulfilled. Rising and grinding every day in tireless service of your art—“hustling,” as the show’s Louisa May Alcott calls it—is harder to spin into irreverence if it does not get you anywhere, or if eventually, it grinds you down.