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[The following story contains spoilers for the first season of Apple TV+’s Dickinson.]
While Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily Dickinson began the first season of Apple TV+’s Dickinson, about a young version of the acclaimed 19th century poet, in a fairly intense romantic relationship with her best friend Sue (Ella Hunt), by the second half of the season, Emily has a new love interest in Ben Newton (Matt Lauria), one of her father’s law clerks and another real-life figure from Dickinson’s life. The two quickly bond, and Ben strongly supports Emily’s poetry. They even vow “not to marry” each other in a wedding-like moment. But before they can live happily ever after, Ben dies of tuberculosis.
In the traumatic episode in which he succumbs to the disease and Emily futily prays for him to be spared, she also gets another visit from Wiz Khalifa’s death, in which he scolds her for romanticizing death and indicates she doesn’t truly understand the end of life.
According to Dickinson showrunner Alena Smith, Ben dying gives Emily a better sense of the reality of loss.
“Emily’s coming of age story is in part about a maturing relationship to death,” Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter. “In the beginning of the season, she sort of glamorizes death, and it’s also part of why she glamorizes Sue, because Sue has had so much loss and death but Emily really hasn’t, and she’s been sort of protected from that. It’s only when she loses Ben that for the first time she experiences what it means to lose someone who’s really important to you, and I think that something about that both shifts her perspective on death and also allows her to come to terms with the maturing relationship with Sue. At least for the period of time of Sue’s marriage, Emily thinks that perhaps she can accept Sue into her life as a sister.”
While Dickinson wrote frequently about death, Smith says Dickinson‘s recently announced season two will explore another frequent theme of her poetry: fame and the poet’s “deeply ambivalent relationship to it.”
Smith adds that Dickinson’s feelings about fame, which viewers get glimpses of in the first season episode with Zosia Mamet’s Louisa May Alcott, are part of the series’ goal to answer the question of why the vast majority of Dickinson’s work wasn’t published while she was alive and why she wrote such, now revered, poems in secret.
“Season one gives one answer, which is it was a patriarchy and her father was opposed to women publishing. Season two is going to completely turn that on its head or inside out and give a very different answer, which is that Emily herself had a deeply ambivalent relationship to fame. Season two is really all about fame and the attention economy, which was a central concern in Emily Dickinson’s poems. She wrote many, many poems about fame and about running from fame or rejecting fame. But she definitely had an obsession about fame even if she was subverting it,” Smith explains, adding that, in keeping with her goal for the series, that’s also an issue of concern for a present-day, millennial audience. “People who have come of age in this era of social media, where everyone has the opportunity to get famous, it’s really interesting to think about the fact that — and this is something that I’ve had conversations with the cast and the writers room — anyone who wants fame in this day and age can get it. Like it’s not that hard. And we have these people called influencers, where that’s like their profession is getting enough fame that they can sell product, and like what would it mean to choose being a nobody, to borrow a key word from Emily Dickinson? What would it mean to choose being anonymous, being invisible, being unseen and what kind of power is there in being a nobody?”
While the future of the series beyond season two is unknown, Smith says that the second season doesn’t quite take the show into the Civil War, the time period she hopes to reach, saying that that would be explored in a potential season three.
“We get a bit closer to the Civil War [in season two]. We get right up to the brink of it,” she says. “The season kind of builds up to the event of Harpers Ferry, of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, which we are kind of figuring in our show as kind of a 9/11 moment or a moment when war becomes inevitable and the society that has held itself together so far knows that it’s not going to work anymore. If and when we have a season three, that would be when we were in a Civil War.”
Smith spoke to THR about memorable moments from season one, including memorable guest turns from John Mulaney and Mamet as Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott, respectively; Emily’s father (Toby Huss) slapping her; and some seemingly anti-Trump political comments that are also a critique of centrist Democrats.
One episode that really stands out is the election episode, especially the scene in which Emily’s father slaps her, which was a shocking moment to watch. Why did you want to have him react in such an extreme manner?
The show in general is about the patriarchy and the violence inflicted by the patriarchy really on everyone, not just on women but on everyone. I think it personalizes that story by focusing on one father and his rather extraordinary daughter. And in this episode the irony is that Edward is running for Congress, positioning himself as a moderating, genteel influence, hoping to actually be able to stop the growing levels of violence and conflict in the country. And, in fact, he also doesn’t allow Emily to go to the circus that day, because he says the circus is too violent. Circuses in that time were quite violent. It was a dangerous place to go. Of course the irony of both situations is that he is the one who brings violence into his own home and inflicts it on her. The conflict between them about Edward’s fear that Emily’s poetry is going to damage his reputation comes to a head because his election, which was supposed to be a shoo-in, is suddenly called into doubt, and the same day, Emily wins a [poetry] contest that she enters in the newspaper under Austin’s name. Both out of, I think probably, resentment of her victory as well as this need to continue controlling her when his own political future seems so in doubt, that causes them to rise to this pitch where he actually hits her.
A couple of times in the episode Edward refers to himself as a man of “honor and decency,” including shortly after he slaps Emily, which is kind of chilling. Do you think that he sees himself as still being a man of honor and decency and doesn’t see hitting his daughter as a contradiction of that?
I actually think that in that moment, when he has this confrontation with Maggie the maid (Darlene Hunt), who has overheard the act of violence, I think Edward knows that he messed up and I think that is a tragedy for him because he really does want to be a man of honor and decency. People commit acts of violence in moments of extreme tension and feel ashamed about them later. The whole central paradox of Edward and Emily’s relationship is that he loves her more than anything on earth and yet he is also deeply threatened by certain aspects of her creativity and her desire that he can’t fully control.
It’s a really interesting relationship.
I would say in season one Emily and Edward’s relationship really is the central relationship of the show. Emily and Sue is perhaps the central relationship of the series, but I think in season one, it really is the story of a father and a daughter. That’s what the story is. It’s about a daughter who is claiming the right to be an artist from her father.
In that episode, there are also some more comments about the political situation in the country, including in the discussion Edward and his adviser have about the Know-Nothings and they talk about the Know-Nothings building a party based on “populist economic rhetoric and nativist anxiety” and blaming immigrants. And viewers hear about what happened to Maggie’s brothers. Were those a dig at the Trump administration immigration policies?
Well, yeah, but I think even more so, it’s actually a dig at centrist Democrats who have thought that they have been the good guys protecting this country, when obviously whatever they have been doing has not worked. There’s sort of a sense that the center cannot hold, and this glib, elitist liberalism isn’t — where people see themselves as the good guys, they at best have proved themselves rather inept and incompetent. That’s why we find ourselves in this position in America right now where things are scary. In the years leading up to the Civil War, there was a sense of a country dividing into two sides that couldn’t live with each other, and unfortunately we seem to be arriving at a very similar place in our politics right now. And Edward as a Whig, he believes in holding the Union together, more or less for the good of furthering business, so there’s a sort of business as usual platform that isn’t really good enough anymore. It’s not rising to the moment.
Viewers meet John Mulaney’s Henry David Thoreau and Zosia Mamet’s Louisa May Alcott in the first season. You’ve talked about wanting to introduce other authors from the community, but why Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott this season? How does meeting them help Emily?
There’s a different answer for each. For Thoreau, the grand arc of Emily Dickinson’s life journey is somehow she ends up becoming this recluse and somehow she began as this very social young person and she ended up alone in her room. Why did that happen and how did that happen are very big questions that the show hopes to explore over time. Thoreau is a person who in Emily’s day was getting a lot of celebrity media attention for his ostensible choice to retreat into solitude and his embrace of a life lived alone without the influence of other people. Emily admires that and wishes that she could also retreat into solitude, especially because at the moment when she’s picking up Walden, she has just had her heart broken by Sue, who has left to go to Boston. But when she goes to Walden and finds Thoreau, she finds that situation is different than he presented it in the book and in fact his mom does his laundry and his sister brings him cookies. There’s a way in which she calls him out as being a phony and is starting to recognize herself as maybe the real deal but nobody knows that but her at this point. Louisa May Alcott comes in in a way where as, I would say, Emily sort of punctures Thoreau’s bubble, Louisa punctures Emily’s because just when Emily has been telling herself and us this whole sob story about how she cannot publish because she is a woman and she lives in a patriarchy and her father won’t let her, Louisa comes along and says none of that is true. Women are writing all the time. You can be a writer. You just can’t be so precious about it. Louisa brings into focus a whole set of issues around class because Louisa May Alcott, who is a child of poverty, needs to write in order to make money to live off of and help her family live off of, which is why she, much like Jo March in Little Women, who’s based on her, writes these kind of potboilers and bodice rippers. So she writes this cheap commercial fiction, but she supports herself and makes money. And Emily is more perhaps the avant-garde artist who doesn’t want to lower herself to writing something that would sell, something bawdy, like Fanny Fern, who’s another writer that they talk about who’s a female writer who was published constantly. Louisa basically is saying, “Yeah there’s sexism, of course, but we’re out here pioneering and you could join us if you just took yourself a little less seriously.” I think we start to see in that moment with Louisa how what keeps Emily from publishing is more complex than what we’ve learned so far, and that is exactly what we will continue to explore in season two. I think Louisa’s little vignette in season one opens up some of the questions that we really run with in season two that are sort of about fame and the media and what it means for a woman to seek fame in this world.
Are viewers to believe that Sue is pregnant from the man she worked for as a governess? He’s seen touching her and locking the door behind them, and she quickly leaves and returns to the Dickinson home.
That’s funny because that was not my intention. And if you really, really pay attention to the chronology of the season, it doesn’t quite make sense, but I have to say I don’t hate the idea. It got brought up I think on set, and then in post when we started editing it, people said, “Is that what we’re supposed to think?” And I said, “Wow, no, I didn’t think of it, but I think it’s not the worst idea.” It’s kind of interesting. The scene where Sue and Austin (Adrian Enscoe) start kissing on Christmas, where he tells her that he never will ask her to have a baby, that was meant to go a bit farther. Like they were supposed to pretty clearly be having sex right there and it really was a kind of accident of production that we didn’t quite get all the way there. It also has to do with how hard it is to take those clothes off, like once these girls are strapped into their corsets, it’s really hard. But I think if we had shown that more clearly, that question wouldn’t have come up quite as much. … One fact that we do know about the real Sue is that she absolutely had a huge fear of childbirth and, at points, an aversion to sex in general. She also had a number of pregnancies that didn’t result in children. There was a very troubled relationship to her own reproductivity. In the end, she had a child who died, and that’s a decade into the future, but it’s one of the central tragedies of this group of people.
You said it wasn’t your intention but has it shaped your approach going forward or should viewers believe this is Austin’s baby?
There’s mysteries with Sue. It’s so funny, right, because I will tell you as the writer of the show, I think it’s Austin’s baby but how can I say if it is or it isn’t? Like, I don’t know if it is. But I wrote as if it is because that’s what the plan was. The important thing is how much trauma Sue is carrying with her from all of her experiences, including the one in Boston.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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