‘Dickinson’ is not what you expect but everything you want

Sunday, November 3, 2019 - 4:26pm

Hailee Steinfeld in 'Dickinson'

Hailee Steinfeld in 'Dickinson' Buy this photo
Apple TV

Emily Dickinson, the notoriously reclusive and prolific American poet, goes on hot dates with Death. At least, she does in “Dickinson.” 

In “Dickinson,” Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, “The Edge of Seventeen”) faces a life of literary obscurity and domestic boredom as she grows up in Amherst, Mass.. Her father (Toby Huss, “GLOW”) prohibits her from publishing her beloved poetry and encourages her to remain in his household as a proper lady. Her mother (Jane Krakowski, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) would rather have all the chores to herself and see her wild and difficult daughter marry as soon as possible. 

Emily has other plans. Determined to become the greatest poet who has ever lived, she seeks adventure and sets off to break as many rules as she can. She publishes a poem against her father’s wishes, sneaks into Amherst College to attend the male-only lectures, throws extravagant opium parties and protests the construction of an environmentally harmful railroad with Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney, “Big Mouth”). 

While Emily strives to cross boundaries and create change, she still struggles against the overwhelming pressure and strict social standards of her New England life. Her closest friend and secret lover Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt, “Anna and the Apocalypse”) announces her engagement to Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe, “Seeds”). The news sends Emily into a downward spiral and motivate her to fight back against the very systems that suppress her. 

“Dickinson,” however, refuses to restrict itself to simply retelling the story of Emily’s life. Instead, it commits wholeheartedly to the poet’s unconventional style and explores her world of creativity with anachronistic flair. 

This show isn’t interested in tired period piece tropes or pretentious dialogue to make its points. At the end of the season’s first episode, Emily runs to join Death (Wiz Khalifa, “Bojack Horseman”) in his ghostly horse-drawn carriage while “bury a friend” by Billie Eilish plays in the background. Despite how unconventional it may seem, it makes perfect sense. Nothing is off limits for “Dickinson,” and its subject material is only improved because of it. 

While the show revels in its outlandish moments and off-kilter humor, “Dickinson” still knows that its fun comes at a cost. Limited by her gender and sexuality, Emily’s attempts at causing mischief in the name of poetry is always tinged by her deep sense of loneliness and otherness. Constantly referred to as “weird,” Emily accepts the label happily to display her unique talents, but the separation of her inner world and those around her is undeniable. Her alienation is evident in every hallucination of Death, every Mitski song on the soundtrack, every moment of twerking in a hoop skirt and corset. 

“Dickinson” understands its own mythology so well that it doesn’t feel the need to reflexively prove its sincerity. Emily’s legacy speaks for itself, and this depiction of her living days doesn’t attempt to explain her technical poetic genius. The show focuses on the poet’s life as she is not often remembered: A brilliant, witty writer who felt true devotion to her friends and family, a far cry from the hermit persona that has defined her place in history.

Through this new series, Emily Dickinson has her own story rewritten without the burden of her stuffy, historic reputation. “Dickinson” seamlessly constructs a world where Emily can reclaim her own narrative and, in its brilliant execution, grants her the immortality she deserves.