'Dickinson' Season 2: TV Review

Dickinson
Apple TV+
A thinking-woman's sex dramedy.
1/8/2021

Hailee Steinfeld returns as the celebrated poetess in Apple TV+'s arch multi-hyphenate series.

Dickinson is a study of genius. Not necessarily the individual genius of its protagonist, virtuosa poet Emily Dickinson, but the cultural constructs of genius and all the jubilation and despair associated with possessing that kind of talent. The magical realist antebellum dramedy speckles its story with Dickinson's writing, of course — artful chyrons here, lyrical recitations there — but Dickinson is more interested in grappling with young Emily's process than her output.

Throughout the first and second seasons, she encounters a number of eminent artists, such as Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (Timothy Simons), who briefly mentor her, sharing trade wisdom or warning her of the dysphoria of fame. They can only do so much: Emily may not always feel in control of the words that pulse through her, but it is ultimately within her power to select her audiences. Can genius flower in the dark?

Admittedly, I came away from the first few episodes of the series with mixed feelings. I still don't always grasp the show's irony-dense comic rhythms, which are more likely to elicit knowing smirks than throaty laughs, but I do now better understand its sapiosexual allure. (By far, the funniest lines are the historical footnotes written into the dialogue, which allow various characters to fleetingly explain the mores of the Victorian era.)

By the end of season 1, creator Alena Smith had developed stronger command of her storytelling, and the show's tone settled into something a little less brassy and a little more tender than its opening episodes conveyed. No longer solely relying on dizzying tonal juxtapositions, the series flourishes in ten-episode Season 2 thanks to this revamped balance between 21st-century absurdity and 19th-century poignancy.

Given the recent popularity of Netflix's Regency romance Bridgerton and Hulu's royal comedy The Great, teen-centric feminist revisionism seems to satisfy many viewers' desire to watch creamy costume confections beautify modern political acidity. Dickinson, too, is sweet and sour, presenting Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) as a teen fulminating with esthetic brio and social uncertainty.

The series remains meticulously researched, many chapters inspired by real-life details from Dickinson's life as a member of Massachusetts' rural bourgeoisie, including her fondness for baking black spiced brandy cakes and the shattering Civil War death of a family friend. Smartly, the writers continue to explore Amherst beyond Emily's creative sturm und drang, providing more screen time this season for its growing ensemble. Her incessant bewailing is necessary but narrow in scope — exactly how many times can we watch a teenager sulk about her artistic destiny, even if she is Emily friggin' Dickinson? "I don’t need my eyes to see!" she squawks after a doctor's appointment. "All I need is my soul."

Dickinson, at least, recognizes its protagonist's penchant for self-seriousness. The show makes up for it by surrounding her with a coterie of buoyant flibbertigibbets, among them her burgeoning aesthete sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), and my favorite characters, a quadrant of bitchy townies played by Gus Birney, Sophie Zucker, Kevin Yee and Allegra Heart. If the first season showcased Emily questioning middle-class domesticity, the second depicts her embracing giftedness as an identity.

Emily's relationship with Sue (Ella Hunt), her former lover and current sister-in-law, continues to anchor the pathos, but their romance only simmers as the new Mrs. Austin Dickinson assumes the mask of an improvident socialite. Feeling burdened as Emily's only confidante and reader, Sue convinces Emily to widen her circle of critics and introduces her to Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones, Game of Thrones), the slick owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican newspaper. Smarmy and swaggering as a tech bro, he drips sweet honey into Emily's ears and soon he (and his promises) become the "sun" to her. "I gave my poem to him and now it’s like he holds my life in his hands. […] And without the warmth of his approval, I can’t grow."

Publishing is sex, death, fame and love all at once for Emily, who spends the season wrestling with what notoriety could mean for her. (Anonymity keeps her words flowing; immortality tempts her ego.) She twists and contorts herself into existential knots attempting to unravel these mysteries of the universe.

As such, the season leans further into phantasmagoria. As her health begins to falter, Emily starts to be followed by a specter who calls himself Nobody ("I'm Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you — Nobody — too?"). She still consorts with Death (Wiz Khalifa) himself, occasionally getting picked in his black stagecoach so they can spar about the nature of fate like a couple of high-school freshmen.

The best of these new episodes sees Emily encountering the uncanny on earthly ground. In one, she hosts a séance to draw her haunting spirit forward. In the other, she loses her visibility to the world around her, allowing her to inhabit physical spaces where she could not otherwise roam. This hyperreality can be disorienting, but it's also satisfyingly unnerving.

New cast members include Pico Alexander as Ship, a new boarder at the Dickinson household, and Ayo Edebiri as Hattie, a household employee of Emily's brother and his wife. Edebiri, who was recently chosen to replace Jenny Slate on the animated comedy Big Mouth, is a particularly splendid find. ("You have no idea how many white secrets I’m keeping," Hattie boasts.)

Along with circumnavigating Emily's philosophical crises, Sue's multiple betrayals and Lavinia's feminist awakening, Smith and co. delve into Black abolitionism on the eve of the American Civil War. A tonal sister to Showtime's similarly surreal historical dramedy The Good Lord Bird, Dickinson covers John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid from the perspective of the underground activists who funded it and the pampered literati who undermined it.

Dickinson may dehydrate history into digestible chunks, but as one character murmurs to another, "Well, who cares if it's real — as long as it looks good, right?"

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Hunt, Anna Baryshnikov, Adrian Enscoe, Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss, Ella Hunt, Finn Jones, Ayo Edebiri
Created by: Alena Smith
Premieres: Friday, January 8th (Apple TV+)