A giant bee, the personification of Death, and Henry David Thoreau walk into Emily Dickinson’s imagined funeral. To make things stranger, the unlikely trio of attendees is played to perfection by Jason Mantzoukas, Wiz Khalifa, and John Mulaney, respectively. There’s no punchline here. In fact, this isn’t a joke at all but a pivotal scene from the first season finale of Apple TV+’s comedic drama series Dickinson.
An ambitious, strange-hearted, wryly funny series from showrunner Alena Smith (The Affair), Dickinson clearly takes the go-big-or-go-home approach to historical anachronism. While other stories that dabble in anachronism tend to drop in cheeky modern references or pop songs played on the strings, Dickinson does something more complicated, weaving a modern sensibility into every scene while still staying true to the pre-Civil War era with integral and sometimes minute historically accurate details.
In one scene from Season 2, a character reads a poem in a newspaper and declares, “That slaps!” In another, a contemporary of Dickinson appears and, like Thoreau before him, is skewered via several highly era-specific literary in-jokes. When the series makes fun of the spoiled, ignorant white kids of 19th century Amherst, it’s also poking fun at the Instagram influencer generation. When it portrays the casual chauvinism of the town’s patriarchs, it’s also exposing the insidious sexism of modern-day America. As with many of the real Emily Dickinson’s best poems, the series can often be read for two or more meanings.
Dickinson’s ability to live in dual worlds makes it a rare gift, an achievement in both satirical comedy and heartfelt drama. The series follows the life of prolific yet unrecognized eccentric poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), and Season 2 sees the young woman struggling to come to terms with both her notions of fame and her lover Sue’s (Ella Hunt) recent marriage to her brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Emily increasingly finds herself in two different worlds, as well. She’s overcome by her dreams, visions, and imaginings, and whereas the first season clearly demarcated fact from fantasy, the sophomore season begins to eerily blur the lines.
Steinfeld, as the dynamic emotional center of the series, is marvelous. Her Emily has the type of artistic soul that is cursed to feel everything deeply, to endlessly want but to never feel completely satisfied. She groans and cries and screams and laughs and dances, busting the pervasive myth of the quiet spinster poet with her relentless effervescence. This fictionalized version of Emily is by no means perfect, and that’s clearly by design. She can be annoying, obsessive, and selfish, and she imagines herself the center of every story, even the important ones — like the abolition movement — that exist far beyond her own need for personal growth. As the town’s resident mean group says when she enters a room in the first episode, “That’s Emily Dickinson.” “She’s a lot!”
It’s Emily’s ability to be “a lot” that, along with its other strengths, makes Dickinson such a powerful series. Hers is a creative coming-of-age story illustrated in full, intense color with every new emotion and experience adding another blindingly vibrant streak to the rainbow. Just as the series’ comedy succeeds based on its specificity, so does its drama. The poet’s sometimes excruciating sensitivity makes each intimate moment — from a stolen kiss to a meeting with Death — feel heightened and personal. Steinfeld effortlessly brings life to these highs and lows, anchoring a series that’s prone to tonal quick-changes with a steadily emotive performance.
While Dickinson deserves the usual period-piece praise for its detailed set and costume design, the show would be nothing without its pitch-perfect casting. Each of the main players in the Dickinson household seems to have relaxed into their roles between seasons. Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski, who play Emily’s parents, and Anna Baryshnikov, who plays her sister, seem to be having a blast whenever they’re on screen, but there’s not a single weak link in the ensemble. The cast’s chemistry and comedic timing elevate Dickinson beyond the novelty of its biographical plot, making it the kind of show viewers could enjoy watching for years to come. And while some of last season’s literary icons sit this season out, this latest batch of episodes is not without its comedic cameos.
Dickinson doesn’t sound like it would work on paper, and it probably shouldn’t work on screen, either, but the show tackles conflicting tones and disparate themes to inexplicably coalesce into something great. Take the funeral scene, for example. It reads like sheer lunacy, but in actuality, it juggles multiple preoccupations that take up space in Emily’s mind, from the surreal naturalism of the bee to the alluring imminence of Death to the mixed-bag of fame represented by Thoreau. In the end, it shows us that Emily’s biggest fear is being forgotten, of leaving the earth without making a mark. The real-life poet certainly never could’ve imagined making a mark quite like Dickinson, but it’s an indelible and welcome one nonetheless.