I’ll be honest – I’m late to the game with Dickinson, having only just discovered it during my recent holiday quarantine. But I watched it, beginning to end, in a single day. Then, I rewatched it again the next day. Then, I rewatched the ‘Wild Nights’ episode and ‘We Lose – Because We Win’ episode two more times. In short, it’s probably a good thing I waited so long, because I don’t think I could’ve stood the wait for season two, which finally debuted on January 8th.
If you’re still sitting on this Apple TV+ genre-defying show, here’s what you’re missing: Created by playwright Alena Smith and starring Hailee Steinfeld as the titular character, Dickinson takes a radical look at the formative years of the infamous American poet, Emily Dickinson. To be clear – this is not some dry bio-series, and you don’t need to love her poetry to fall madly in love with the show (although you might after you’ve watched).
Dickinson is a wild, modernized story of the woman who was ahead of her time, and who mostly hid her greatness from the world. The characters and basics are rooted in facts, but from there, Smith and Steinfeld, who is also an executive producer, lets Emily’s poems act as the starting points in creating an immerse, hilarious, sexy interpretation of her life. The show is a delicate threaded needle, weaving between period and modern melodrama, with clothes coming straight out of the 1850’s, but language and music carefully curated from the generation of today.
The show is sharp and funny, but it’s also weird, experimental, and, most excitingly, unpredictable. And with season two, things go to a whole new level. The cast is exceptional, grounded by the extraordinary talents of Steinfeld, who can transition from charismatic to crushingly sad with astonishing ease. Then, the show is really brought to life by a captivating, up-and-coming young cast: the quiet scene-stealer, Adrian Blake Enscoe, the comedic heartbeat of the show, Anna Baryshnikov, and Ella Hunt, who deserves to be a household name after her incredibly layered performance this season.
The audience returns to Emily’s life many months after she watched her best friend and secret love, Sue (Ella Hunt), marry her brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and quite literally fly off together. In the final moments of season one, Emily also finally confronts her father to insist that she is a writer, and vows she’ll fight to be published. And so, we find her in season 2, on the precipice of change. Let’s look at the first 3 episodes:
Episode One Recap : Before I got my eye put out
When we first meet up with Emily again, it seems the start of her life-long sight affliction is just beginning to take hold of her in 1859. But apart from sensitivity to light and blurriness, she’s also seeing strange things – specifically, a strange man/manifestation of her poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, simply dubbed, ‘Nobody’ (Will Pullen).
Much has changed for the Dickinson siblings. As Emily works tirelessly on her writing, despite doctor’s orders it will hurt her eyes, Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov) finds herself being wooed by the family’s new boarder, Henry “Ship” Shipley (Pico Alexander), Austin’s college pal. As he settles in, Ship announces his intention to marry her — the “most pure, simple, quiet, traditional girl I ever knew”. Clearly, he doesn’t know the true Lavinia we all love, but learns pretty quickly what he’s in for when she takes him to bed.
Meanwhile, Austin’s new ‘pimp’ home, the Evergreens, has become the talk of New England, thanks to the parties thrown by his young wife. Perhaps no one has changed more than Sue: she’s well dressed, an eager social climber, and visibly, not a mother of newborn baby. When Emily arrives at her salon, her face covered in ink, Sue steals her away to the library to clean her up. There, Emily grills her muse about the poems she’s written her in secret and Sue confesses how much she loved them, how much they moved her – but also, how much they make her feel things she doesn’t want to feel, like the pain of losing her child. Emily comforts her, the moment charged with feelings neither of them, even the prolific poet, knows how to put into words, their love affair clearly having been inhibited since Sue married Austin. But Sue breaks away from Emily before anything more can happen, and explains that she actually threw the party for Emily, so that she could meet someone who will change her life.
Enter Sam Bowles, played by the dashingly handsome Finn Jones. History confirms that Sam, the editor of the Springfield Republican, was a real friend of the Dickinson family at the time, and his arrival in season 2 is give Emily a push towards fame. Sue seems particularly interested in helping her sister-in-law get published, so she drags Emily back to the parlor to recite one of her poems for Sam and her guests. There, Emily sees the mysterious ‘Nobody’ again. Fear overtakes her and she leaves, stealing a glance back at Sam, who seems more intrigued by her than ever.
Episode Two Recap: Fame is a fickle food
The central theme of this season focuses on Emily’s struggle with the decision on whether she wants to be famous. Her father has been adamant for years that he forbids it, but Sue practically demands Emily let her work be seen by the world.
But Emily does have other interests, which becomes clear when the annual Amherst Cattle Show rides into town. Determined to win the baking competition – yes, our girl has a domestic side after all — Emily goes overboard and gets a bit ‘extra’ with a decadent, sky-high chocolate cake. (Note: The song playing in this scene is ‘Make That Cake’ by Doja Cat. I’ve had it stuck in my head since watching the episode and I’m not mad about it.)
Emily triumphantly wins, and who is on hand to congratulate her, but Sam Bowles, who announces her name and recipe will appear in his paper the next day. Emily’s momentarily distracted from her achievement when ‘Nobody’ pops up again in the crowd, but then again, he’s gone. As the family heads back home to celebrate Emily, everyone seems happy – except Sue. She very quickly kills the mood, practically insulting Emily by calling it ‘absurd’ that she’ll be remembered as a baker, not a poet. Feelings hurt, Emily leaves the house and runs back into Sam in the yard. They head off on a walk, all with Sue watching from the window, looking oddly pleased with herself.
Yes, something’s up with Sue, but perhaps she’s merely still on edge after an uncomfortable conversation she’s just had with Austin back at the Cattle Show. Showing his vulnerable side, Austin confesses to Sue that he’d really like for them to start trying for a baby. He is, of course, blissfully unaware of her miscarriage, so he has no idea how much this ask truly affects her. She angrily walks off, reminding him that he promised her he didn’t marry her just for kids.
Back at The Evergreens, Austin is seen handing over money to Henry (Chinaza Uche), who has been secretly holding meetings in the family’s barn with other freed black slaves. It’s a bold move, for more than one reason. Austin’s father Edward (Toby Huss) had just told his son that morning that the family is in serious debt, though he has a plan to bring a new cashflow to replenish their funds. By night’s end, Mr. Dickinson’s brought home his two orphaned nieces, their sizeable inheritance, and their even bigger bad attitudes.
Meanwhile, Emily strolls the town with Sam, becoming ever more taken with him, even when she learns that he’s married. Sam continues to ask Emily how she wants to be remembered, and finally letting her guard down, she recites a poem for him on the spot. He compliments her, saying her poetry is much better than her cake.
Pleased with herself, Emily returns home and again faces ‘Nobody’ – but this time, he comes with a warning. “You shouldn’t be known,” he says. “Do not seek fame. Do not trust others who would seek it for you.”
Episode Three Recap : The only Ghost I ever saw
Remember I said this show was funny AND weird? Here’s where the best of both worlds collide.
It’s all about Anna Baryshnikov and Jane Krakowski in this episode, and yes, you might’ve noticed that I haven’t said one word yet about the incomparable Krakowski as Emily’s mother. Well, I’ve chosen my moment, as have the writers — the perfect moment to let Jane’s incredible comedic timing take center stage. Throughout the series, Mrs. Dickinson’s tunnel vision-like aspirations to be the perfect housewife and her pre-occupation with the love lives of children lead to some of the best deadpan comedic one-liners on the show. Now, Jane makes a move into some more physical comedy.
With her daughters wrapped up in their own lives and her husband committed to his work, Mrs. Dickinson is trying to distract herself with lavish baths and keeping up with the news of the day, like the sad account of a horrible shipwreck. One glance at the newspaper and she’s immediately smitten with ‘looker’ Captain Thomas Taylor, thought to be lost at sea. Maggie, the maid, jokes Mrs. Dickinson should keep an ear out for telepathic signs from the distressed Captain, as his body wasn’t found, and maybe he’ll send a message to her to save him.
Crazy as it might sound, this could potentially happen, as Mrs. Dickinson’s daughters are actually preparing to hold a séance in the parlor. For Emily, it will be a chance to consult the spirits on the right decision to make about being published, since her bestie Sue is continuing to flake on her. (P.S. – At this point, I don’t want to dislike Sue, but she is making it basically impossible).
Meanwhile, Lavinia is still trying to convince Ship that she wouldn’t be the prim, proper, obedient little wife he wants her to be for him. In fact, she’s obsessed with being more like his past love, Lola Montez *cue sexy guitar music*. She was an exciting woman from Nevada Ship once loved; an actress, a wild one – she once shot Ship with a gun! That’s who Lavinia wants to be, and she’s determined to learn from the spirits just how to become just that.
As night approaches, Jane and her Gang, the truly most spectacular quartet of secondary characters ever assembled, arrive at the Dickinson home. They are followed by Sue’s maid, Hattie (Ayo Edebiri), who is staple at the girls’ previous séances. “Classic Sagittarius” Emily implores the spirits for an answer to her publishing dilemma; Vinnie wants reassurance that her opinion that monogamy is BS is legit and that she should embrace her inner Lola Montez *cue sexy guitar music*. And then shit gets weird.
Upstairs, Mrs. Dickinson lounges by the fire, while Edward snores loudly from bed. A breeze blows through the room, and Emily’s mother starts to think on shipwreck captain. Suddenly, in the distance, she hears faint music and a strong man’s voice singing. Thinking this must be the captain, she cries out to him to send her his location: his latitude…his loooongitude. And just like that, Mrs. Dickinson is enjoying quite the raucous, sexual fantasy with a ghost two feet away from her sleeping husband. It’s funny as hell; who knew Jane could work a, erm, pole like that?!
But things are just as wild downstairs. A strange energy fills the room and spookiness ensues. Vinnie’s dead cat is heard growling from the beyond; the family instruments start flying in the air; Jane’s Gang gets possessed; Hattie’s eyes roll back in her head; and as their séance table levitates in the air, all the candles extinguish and the room goes dark.
Frantic, Emily goes searching for matches in the kitchen, but instead, she finds ‘Nobody’ — but he’s different. Drenched in sweat, he recites one of her poems to her, before being shot in the chest by an unseen gun and collapsing. Emily sees her poem drop from his hand to the floor.
Was it all real? Or just a dream? The great thing is, that question is never asked or answered. The next morning, Emily rushes to Sue’s house to tell her everything. She finally tells her about ‘Nodody’, calling him a demon that’s trying to stop her from achieving fame, but she knows now: she wants to be remembered. And she’s in luck, as Sue brings her into the parlor, and wouldn’t you know, Sam is there. With confidence, Emily hands over her most precious prize, the poem dropped by ‘Nobody’.
Sam takes the poem from her gladly – before mindlessly tossing it on a chair next to him, without even reading it. He remarks it will go to the top of his pile, with the other submissions, for consideration. And immediately, Emily regrets what she’s done.
Dickinson Season 2 premiered its first three episodes Friday, January 8 on Apple TV+. Episodes premiere weekly on Fridays thereafter.