How ‘Dickinson’ became one of the most daring TV shows

In Dickinsonthird and final season of, the titular poet (played by Hailee Steinfeld) travels through time and meets author Sylvia Plath (Saturday Night Liveby Chloé Fineman). It turns out that Sylvia has a deep knowledge of the legacy of her predecessor. Apparently, Emily Dickinson lived a ‘miserable life’, should be considered ‘the original sad girl’ and, Sylvia murmurs scandalously, ‘was a lesbian. “A weird scene like this could only happen on the incredibly surreal cult hit Apple TV +. The series takes an unusual approach to portraying its protagonist’s coming of age in the 1800s: the characters speak In millennial parlance, the soundtrack is populated with today’s hits, and more often than not the scenes resemble feverish dreams where what is figurative in Emily’s poems is literally portrayed.

Dickinson, which now broadcasts the finale of its series, is part of a small but growing collection of anachronistic period pieces. After films such as The story of a knight and Marie Antoinette, the show and others like it look at the past through a decidedly contemporary lens. Yet compared to similar projects such as Great and Bridgerton, Dickinson was less interested in rewriting history; instead, he zoomed in on the life of a single character. He spent three seasons recontextualizing Emily Dickinson’s reputation as an avatar of creative recluses, wondering how a woman who so vividly captured the specter of human emotions with her words had come to be known only as a locked up depressed. By probing this riddle, Dickinson pushed the boundaries of anachronistic storytelling and became one of television’s most daring series.

Dickinson did more than just include modern language in its dialogue and Mitski in its soundtrack. The show has often traveled out of time and space, venturing into Emily’s imagination to bring her words to life. Sometimes her ingenuity has taken her away from home and into, say, her own version of Dante. Hell– inspired hell, as the lines of his poems scrolled across the screen; her thoughts seemed to spring from her head and burn the air even around her. The concepts she personified in her work, such as “Death” and “Nobody”, became characters themselves. His poems involve a romantic relationship with Sue (Ella Hunt), his brother’s wife, but the show made their affair explicit; in the series, Sue was both Emily’s love interest and Emily Leaf, a woman leading a version of a life – as wife and mother – that could have been Emily’s if his brain hadn’t been so inflamed with poetry. Some historians have called Emily Dickinson a mere eccentric, but Dickinson did not decrease it. He boldly imagined how his mind could have worked, zealously mixing reality and fantasy and inviting his audience to be on this journey.

Despite all of its trippy frills, however, the series still cared about telling the truth. Emily from Steinfeld has never been far from Amherst, Massachusetts. Many scenes showed her sitting in her bedroom at the office facing the southwest window and scribbling on slips of paper. Her family was represented as she described them in her letters: her father, Edward (Toby Huss), was a politician with a critical attitude towards his literary ambitions; her mother (Jane Krakowski), also named Emily, cared more about keeping the house spotless than looking after her daughter’s talents. And in casting the series, which takes place amid the build-up and the onset of the Civil War, creator Alena Smith and her team aimed for historical accuracy. While Bridgerton chose not to take into account an actor’s race, Dickinsonthe creations of using black actors to play black characters, for example by having comedian Ziwe Fumudoh appear as activist Sojourner Truth. The move underscored how even artists as brilliant as Emily couldn’t imagine the reality of the conflict.

By juggling sounds and transcending genres, Dickinson guest analysis: His jokes elicited more than easy laughs. Showing 19th-century teens rebelliously running a salon as if they were Millennials or Gen Zers, twerking in their hoop-shaped skirts, helped the series take a clever point of history, watching how youth rebellion can persist across generations if not language, style, or no dance. In one of the funniest scenes of this season, a white Union army colonel overseeing the development of a black regiment, who presents himself as the “brother” of a black abolitionist, is worried. out loud about not being a good “ally”, then concludes by insisting that he “will do better”. The footage, which weaves DCI keywords into a Civil War-era reunion, is obviously absurd. But even though he mocks the White Colonel, the dialogue is subtly resonant, reflecting how many Americans today continue to find race a difficult subject to discuss.

Other projects in recent times have also incorporated modern sensibilities to produce humorous moments, but overall they use this frame with less nuance. Take, for example, Great, a Hulu series that bills itself as “an occasionally true story”. The first season of satire drew contemporary relevance from the story to good effect, but its second season invented an almost entirely new biography for Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), portraying her as a woman who, against her will, falls in love with her husband. , Pierre III (Nicholas Hoult), although having overthrown his reign. (In real life, Peter III died about a week after the coup.) While the cast continues to shine, the show, at the end of the second season, feels more empty than before. The show had once challenged Catherine’s image as Russia’s Western savior; now that has reduced her to a royal sweetheart, a woman whose romantic inclinations hamper her ability to rule.

The arc reminded me of projects such as Cruel and that of Amazon Cinderella, films that also added a modern, revisionist bent to tales set in bygone eras. These films were made to reimagine iconic characters for a new generation, but rather than complicate their portrayals, they flattened them into, for lack of a better word, girlbosses. These films blur the line between past and present without revealing any new insight into why the characters in their stories became classics in the first place.

Dickinson expanded Emily’s legacy by focusing on her struggle to understand herself. Each season dealt with her personal dilemmas – whether she was to be a poet, whether to claim ownership of her art, what kind of impact she hoped her work would have – with the same importance as, say, the conflicts that come with dealing with it. ‘a country. . And by taking care to incorporate the story while playing with time, the show understood that while Emily Dickinson was ahead of her time, the time she lived in was indicative of who she had become. Not once in DickinsonEmily’s run frees itself from the constraints of the times, except in her mind, and as playful as the series can be in showing off her limitless vision, it draws depth from that tension. “You don’t have the power to change anything because you don’t have an imagination,” she tells her father in one of the show’s most touching scenes. His genius, Dickinson poignantly illustrious, could only take him so far.

Ultimately, the series wasn’t just a whimsical take on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. He wondered why it became a myth – why even today’s audiences, who live in more tolerant and progressive times, can still lack imagination like their peers. Yet the spectacle was not gloomy either; his flights, evoking the same intensity of feeling as his poetry, breathed life and beauty into the series. Dickinson was a writer who validated the strength of every feeling, but seldom was in turn validated by the times in which she lived. “The future never comes for women,” warns Sylvia Plath Emily during their curious meeting. So Dickinson brought him the future.


Hear Sophie Gilbert, Shirley Li and Spencer Kornhaber discuss Dickinson to The article, a new podcast from Atlantic.