“Dickinson”: New Life for a Dead Poet
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Spoiler alert: this is not the Emily Dickinson you know from Poetry Workshop.
The new Apple TV Plus series, “Dickinson,” centers on rebellious poet Emily Dickinson during her teenage years, aptly portrayed by Hailee Steinfeld. In the first three episodes, Emily shuns traditional female roles of the 19th century by publishing a poem, attending a college lecture, refusing marriage, and ignoring household chores. Silenced by her father (Toby Huss) and ridiculed by her mother (Jane Krakowski), Emily’s only encouragement comes from her best friend Sue (Ella Hunt) and her male suitor George (Samuel Farnsworth), while all along seeking refuge in her poetry. “Dickinson” is the only original young-adult series currently streaming on the Apple TV Plus platform.
Like “Hamilton” the musical, “Dickinson” uses anachronistic elements to spice up a historical biography, mixing period-perfect costumes and sets with modern music, phrases, and bold cinematography. Though set in 1840s Amherst, creator Alena Smith’s take on the period biopic often feels less like “Little Women” and more like “Riverdale.” The genre-bending mashup even seeps into the dialogue, with characters blending words and phrases from both now and then, like when George announces his arrival to the party by yelling, “Let’s get this party commenced!” sending the cast into a twerk-infused, opium-enhanced rave to the tune of Andrew Applepie’s “I’m So.”
The writers further infuse Dickinson’s poetry into the show by titling each episode after an actual Dickinson poem. This format proves to be a very successful tool for building the tone and theme of each episode as well as outlining the plots and story arcs. As each episode opens, Emily tries to write a new poem, but she only successfully writes the first few lines. As Emily grows as a person, so does the poem, allowing her to finish her prose through her experiences. This technique is so prevalent that the poems almost become a character in the story.
Episode one, “Because I Could Not Stop,” named after the poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” speaks to Emily’s inability to stop both writing her poems and being true to herself. Throughout the episode, Emily is haunted by a hallucinatory dream-carriage that she can’t seem to catch a ride on, paralleling her own inability to finish the poem. At the end of the episode, Emily is finally able to board the carriage driven by the personified character of Death himself, surprisingly played by Wiz Khalifa, and complete her poem. In episode two, “I Have Never Seen ‘Volcanoes,’” Emily and Sue disguise themselves as men to attend a lecture by a professor returning from a lab on Mount Vesuvius. While there is a literal meaning to the title—it is indeed true that Emily has never seen a volcano—the more figurative idea of a volcano erupting is expressed through a romantic night spent with Sue, Emily’s secret lover and best friend, when Emily discovers that true passion feels like a volcano erupting inside her.
One of the standout lines in the show is when Emily tells Sue, “Maybe they're scared if they teach us how the world works, we'll figure out how to take over.” During this low moment, Emily not only acknowledges how trapped she is, but also recognizes that there is hope for future generations who may harness the power that she couldn’t have. Emily’s feminist ideas and her desire to transcend her “place” in a patriarchal society are just two of the reasons why “Dickinson” is so relevant today and why it resonates with teenage girls. Though now we have a way to express our thoughts without them being totally shut down, Emily’s feelings toward the societal norm of a woman’s place are felt by millions of women worldwide. Steinfeld’s superb performance is the perfect storm of a pre-women’s suffrage teenager and a thoroughly modern young woman.
Because I could not stop watching, Apple kindly renewed “Dickinson” for a second season.