'Dickinson' Creator: Civil War-Set Season 3 Will Explore Power of Written Word

Hailee Steinfeld in 'Dickinson'
Courtesy of Apple TV+

[The following story contains spoilers for the second season of Apple TV+'s Dickinson.]

The second season of Apple TV+'s Dickinson ends with Hailee Steinfeld's version of the eponymous poet choosing to write only for her beloved Sue (Ella Hunt), who incidentally is still married to Emily's brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe).

But as Emily and Sue have a romantic, intimate reunion, the Civil War is brewing. And it's during this great war that, according to Dickinson showrunner Alena Smith, Emily's approach to her poetry will change once more.

The second season, as Smith previously teased, gets close to the Civil War, ending with the Dickinsons and their neighbors learning of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, which Smith previously referred to as a "9/11 moment."

"I was hoping to portray the John Brown Harper's Ferry moment as a defining moment, in the way that 9/11 was for my generation, where everyone knows in their bones that nothing's ever going to be the same again — there's a real sense of history starting to speed up and come for us, in a sense," Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that having viewers learn of the raid through characters quickly hearing of it via telegram fits with the second-season theme of the "spread and accelerating pace of news and the media."

As the Dickinsons learn of Brown's raid so too do Henry (Chinaza Uche) and a number of the show's Black characters who were secretly working on an abolitionist newspaper that was raising funds for Brown's proposed revolution. As Brown fails, Henry runs away, but his work raises the question of the larger impact of the written word, which stays with Emily into season three.

"Within the context of season two, we're looking at Emily is struggling with the question of whether or not to publish her work and whether or not to pursue fame as an end in itself. Henry, who is doing huge amounts of work as a writer and publisher doesn't have the option of being known for his work because his life would actually be at stake if it were to be discovered that he was publishing this underground magazine," Smith says. "He kind of is bringing up the question of, there has to be some kind of value to writing that goes beyond just publicity and that is something that Emily is also going to be able to take with her into season three. Her whole relationship to writing really changes into a question of can I make a difference in the world."

And viewers will see Henry again in season three, Smith teases, as his story connects with that of Thomas Higginson, a member of the Secret Six, who supported Brown and who Smith calls a "very important person in the Dickinson story," that viewers "will meet quite centrally in season three."

Smith, who has previously spoken about how she hopes to use the past of Emily Dickinson to illuminate the present, is particularly aware of the parallels between the Civil War era and the current, divisive climate, saying that being in the show's Zoom writer's room during the 2020 election and the Capitol riots felt "almost a little on the nose how much the Civil War was reminding us of our own times."

And she says the third season will explore a timely theme.

"I think that season three really brings this question of in order to build a better future, you need to confront the damage of your past and that's true for a country and a nation as much as that's true for a family or an individual," Smith says. "So that's really the central theme of season three: how can we build a better society without being honest about how we got here."

Beyond her plans for next season, Smith further spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her choice in season two to personify Nobody from Dickinson's famed I'm Nobody! Who are you? poem; the love triangle between Emily, Sue and Sam Bowles (Finn Jones); how Bowles' final fight with Emily shows the limit of her power in a patriarchal society and what Emily and Sue are thinking as they recommit themselves to each other at the end of the season.

How much do you want to explore the Civil War from the perspective of Henry and other Black characters?

There's this amazing piece of Dickinson family history, which is that in the middle of the Civil War, Emily decides to write a letter to this man Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who is one of the Secret Six. Emily, who has never met him, writes him a letter saying, "Will you take a look at my poems and tell me if they're any good?" She writes this letter to Higginson, who is stationed on a battlefield at an occupied plantation house in Buford, South Carolina where he's part of something called the Port Royal experiment, where basically before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they occupied this plantation, liberated all of the enslaved people and Higginson started building a regiment of Black soldiers. So when Emily reaches him with her letter, he is actually trying to get Black men into the Union Army and has raised this group of soldiers in this occupied space. We are going to get to see in season three a whole storyline that includes Higginson, Henry and this whole group of Black men who have until recently been enslaved on the plantation and are now basically fighting for their rights to be fully, recognized members of the Union Army.

Going back to season two, there's a voiceover at the beginning of that season that says the records leading up to Sue and Austin's marriage are pretty complete but beyond that perhaps the truth comes from Emily's poetry. Why did you want to include that introduction to season two, and what does that say about the truth of what's shown in those episodes?

There are a few different answers. I would say the most important one, so I'll start with that, is that I wanted to actually usher audiences into a space where we were going to push the formal surrealism of the show even more than we did in season one. In episodes like the hedge maze or the opera you really are on these psychedelic trips with Emily Dickinson and you don't know where her poetry stops and reality begins. And even more than just her talking to a bee, it's almost like the whole fabric of reality itself is being interpreted poetically. That was the first and most important thing. The central relationship that we're looking at in season two is this love triangle between Emily, Sam and Sue and this is a relationship that is based in fact, because there was this guy Sam Bowles who was this progressive newspaper editor that used to come to Sue and Austin's salons and did actually publish one or two of Emily's poems although anonymously and under somewhat mysterious circumstances. We don't know what was really going on inside of these dynamics and there are these letters known as the master letters that are just a fixture of Dickinson scholarship because nobody knows who they were written to and they're these kind of erotic, strange letters that just start out saying "Dear master," and we don't know who that is. Some people have speculated that it's Sam Bowles. Other people have other ideas and others think maybe it was never a man at all and that these letters were just another form of experimental poetic fiction that Emily was playing with. I definitely think that the figure of Sam Bowles seems to carry with him a sense of trouble into Emily's world, and I was jumping off of that in order to build a season that in some ways is constructed sort of like a psychological thriller. I was very inspired, for example, by the work of Patricia Highsmith (Talented Mr. Ripley). Highsmith is a writer that wrote queer narratives in which that word is not used. In a certain sense the narratives are so closeted that they twist themselves into these deeply fractured human psyches and the pressure of withholding the truth about yourself, that feels very alive for her as a theme but also for Emily and Sue, and this really is the season about Emily and Sue. It's really the quest to find Sue again that brings both Emily and the audience along with her on this complicated journey about love and fame and desire and what it means to step into the spotlight vs. how you can sort of lose yourself when you do that.

One element of magical realism this season is the personification of Nobody from I'm Nobody! Who are you? Why did you decide to depict that poem that way?

Who Nobody turns out to be is this guy Frazar Stearns (Will Pullen), who is this true person from history who was a college classmate of Austin's and he was actually the son of the Amherst college president, so he was an important person in the town. He knew Emily, Austin and Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and he was killed in the Civil War and it was a very big deal for all of them. At the same time, I had learned about how in the Civil War, there was frequently this situation where somebody would die in the war and they would basically be — they were completely anonymous because the Army didn't have extremely regimented ways of identifying and keeping track of people. Like there weren't tags that soldiers wear or anything, so many families were suddenly in the position where they didn't know if someone was alive or dead, and it was almost in a certain sense the most anonymous you could be is a dead soldier who no one knows his name. So I had this idea that Emily is haunted by sort of the future ghost of this dead soldier who doesn't know his name and Emily wants to solve the mystery of his identity, but he keeps pushing back and saying, "Please don't. Let me be a nobody. Let me be anonymous. Why is it so important for everybody to have a name? Why is it so important to be known?" And when she finally solves the mystery of who he is and knows that he's Frazar Stearns, now she knows that Frazar Stearns is doomed to die in the Civil War. It feels like by giving him an identity, giving him his fame, she has basically assured his death, so it might've been better to be a nobody. And I think the season is asking the question of what's wrong with being a nobody and is it possible that in some cases there's power in invisibility and that you actually give something up when you are seen — there's a freedom in being unknown.

When Emily's poem is published, she spends a lot of time with Nobody and also finds herself to be invisible. Why did you want to have her be invisible very ironically on the day her poem is published?

That experience of being published and being invisible in some ways literalizes what it's like to put work out there and then be online, because you can see what everybody is saying about you. I don't know who would ever think that's fun. I guess it can be fun, but it's also awful to basically be able to read the comments section and it can make you want to run and hide and stick your head under the covers. Again there's this guiding question over the whole series: Why didn't Emily choose to publish in a traditional way and the introduction of Sam Bowles is really important to that question because Sam Bowles really was sitting there like, "I have a newspaper." Nothing would have been easier than for Emily Dickinson to publish and get famous—she could've done it. And clearly she kind of wanted to because she would write and wrestle with the question all the time, but it was like she was convincing herself not to and the question is why. It turns out when she does get the fame, she feels like she's never been less seen in some way. I think that these are experiences that all of us are having more and more when we're being faced with this constant pressure to show up in these virtual spaces to put ourselves out there for the comment section.

Why did you decide to have that reveal of whether or not Sam is faithful to his wife be that he's sleeping with Sue and how does that affect Emily?

For me what is going on there is that Sue has sublimated her love of Emily and pushed it so far down inside herself because she really wants to make it go away. But if it were to go away, she would really lose herself. That almost happens to Sue because we get right to the brink of Emily saying, "Get the fuck out of my life and I don't ever want to see you again," and I truly believe that if that had happened—if Sue had left at that time and they really had been separated, I don't think Sue would really survive. I think that she would survive but only as a zombie of herself. I'm very interested in — again this is sort of the Highsmith of it all — how there are relationships and dynamics where two psyches become embedded in each other and you kind of can't have Emily without Sue and you can't have Sue without Emily. And that operates on a level that is just a romance and a love story between these two women, but it also is about being a writer and being a reader. In a season that is really about Emily asking the question, "Why am I a writer? Am I just doing it to stick it in a drawer and have it never be seen?" No. Writers write to connect, but if you put yourself out there and spread yourself all over the whole world and you're getting all of that feedback, you can lose your connection to the quiet, most truthful core part of you that made you be a writer in the first place. So I think for Emily, for this particular person, the journey that she goes on leads her to a conclusion, which is that she wants to write for Sue—she wants to write for one person that she loves who can understand her. For her that is enough. These two women, they begin the season already fairly distant; they get pulled even more distant from each other, to a breaking point and then they come back together again, in some sense more strong and more honest than they've ever been. Their path is convoluted because society doesn't have a path just set out for them. I think that's part of what makes it such an enrapturing and complicated love story.

After Emily and Sue's reunion, what are they thinking in terms of how they are going to interact with each other going forward?

Sue and Emily end this season more committed than they've ever been, and Sue, who basically realized that when she was pulling herself away from Emily she was in danger of extinguishing her true self, I think once she comes back to her real self and realizes how close she came to that happening, she promises Emily and herself that she's never going to betray her again. When we enter season three, Emily and Sue are definitely in what we would call a spiritual marriage but that doesn't really answer any of the questions about how do you actually have a relationship that can function in any kind of sustainable way when one of them is married to the other one's brother. It's also the 1860s. So that becomes exactly the question that Emily and Sue are grappling with in season three. They're both much more grown-up and in some sense more committed to each other than they've ever been, but they still can't exactly figure out what a relationship could really be in terms of the day-to-day.

With Sam Bowles, I feel like by the end of the season, the viewers' perception of him has been kind of turned on its head. He doesn't seem like perhaps the great feminist that he was said to be earlier. When he and Emily are fighting he throws out some things about her being weird or too emotional and then, of course, shouts that he's a feminist as he's leaving. What were you trying to say with that shift, both in terms of the character and maybe making a larger statement about the patriarchy?

What Emily goes through in this season is a recognition of how she loses her own power when she tries to find that power in a man but also she lives in a society where men have the power. I think that Sam Bowles is happy to support Emily as long as it doesn't fundamentally threaten the power structure that keeps him in charge. As soon as something happens that he feels maybe a kind of tremor that maybe she's going to be so powerful that she's going to displace and disrupt my power is when his true colors come out, like he needs to be the one in control. And he is the one in control. The only way she can wrest power from him is essentially by withdrawing from society. What we're looking at in this show is the long-term trajectory of how Emily Dickinson became the woman she became, who was quite withdrawn and avoided society, avoided publishing. So I think we're telling that story and I think it's both tragic and victorious at the same time because she did manage to assert her own agency but only within this very constricted space of basically her own house and her own room.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.