Dickinson returns to Apple TV+ for a season 2. Complete with a matured protagonist, brand new love triangles and of course, a lot more poems.
The opening scene of the second season shows an 18th century working newspaper press office, this later mirrors the individual newspaper press of a black man selling papers about the Abolitionist Movement in the South. The trials of Emily printing her poetry as a woman and the struggles of slaves secretly sharing papers wordlessly set the timing of the show.
It’s clear that Emily (Hailee Steinfield) is the reason why so many people fall in love with the show. Her wit and easy relatability – bridging the gap between the historic writer and the modern-day audience – in regard to her out pouring of emotion is endearing and from season 1 the audience had no choice but to embrace her. The significant change to her character in the new season was her unquenchable need to be famous. Her journey to fame was her only quest, helped along by editor Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) who in true Emily Dickinson fashion, she falls in love with, leading to a standout scene in episode 6 ‘Split the Lark’ in which the 30-minute episode revolves around the core cast attending the opera. Emily gives Bowles a poem only to be met with anger from the married man. She replies, “Sometimes when I write, I lose control” – this line perfectly encapsulates the character of Dickinson but unfamiliar with her passion, the editor leaves her sitting with her poem in an outstretched hand.
Emily in season 1 was the epitomy of a teenager; rebellious, ambitious and somewhat of a recluse which is the opposite to the young woman we see in the second season. Instead of staying in her room and scribbling poems furiously about her brother’s lover, Sue (Ella Hunt) or sharing carriage rides with a handsome embodiment of death himself (Wiz Khalifa). Now Emily has become a woman with a clearer understanding of human emotion and a stronger grasp on reality.
The creator of the show Alena Smith used her writing to show Emily’s new outlook on the world. We learnt more this season about the marital relationship between Emily’s parents and of her sister’s unwillingness to get married. The audience began to see more of the world as Emily did, almost like we matured with her.
Season 1 resembled a bizarre fever dream with a queer lead in both aspects of the word. In one way Emily was frankly weird and rebelled against the lady-like ways imposed on her, on the other hand she was obviously in love with Sue and in that right a queer woman. But there was a weird shift in season 2 where the normally ever-present Sue hardly featured, she was creating a new life for herself as a socialite in the New England scene, escaping Emily’s words and feelings, and stunting their relationship.
A part of the show that has always been highly praised by critics and fans alike is the portrayal of Emily’s mental stability and therefore giving the audience an unwillingness to trust her as she is an unreliable narrator. In season 1 the use of household flies helped show when the poet was in her own fantasy and a carriage pulled by ghostly horses with death riding only happens to someone with an intense imagination. The poet lives in these dreams and it becomes difficult for the viewers to tell what is real and what is not.
A stand-out episode from the 10-chapter catalogue displaying this extreme disassociation was episode 8 in which Emily finally had a poem published in the newspaper and instead of being met by praise and applause from her family or friends as expected, no one could see her. She was completely invisible. An odd way for her to cope with the idea that she was finally published, she got to see everyone’s true reactions, regardless if they were good or bad.
Admittedly, I struggled with season 2 of the show. It didn’t hold the same rhythm as the first and the narrative was fixed on Emily’s climb to greatness only for her to realise her creativity would only flow if she wrote for herself alone. The draw of the show for me was always Emily – her wild and weird ways. The stories she would tell each episode and the rest of the cast trying to fit themselves into this dramatic teen’s life. We didn’t see as much of Emily, instead seeing the world around her, and frankly I got bored. The love story between Emily and Sue was beautiful and an integral part of the show but an artistic choice of the creators was to distance the two women in the latter season as a build up to the final episode where Sue confesses, she loves Emily and the pair share a montage of loving moments, such as feeding each other food and soaking together in a bath – which would have been a perfect insta shot had it not been the 18th century. This was only possible due to the undeniable chemistry of Ella Hunt and Hailee Steinfield, which sold the love story and had viewers watching with eyes glued to the screen.
This series became an instant favourite of mine and began my love and appreciation for the real Emily Dickinson. Steinfield has done a marvellous job of showing a vivacious, strong and powerful writer, that defied all norms that were presented to her. The quirky episodes and comedic timing of the cast sets it apart from Apple’s other original series and is undoubtably the reason that it has been renewed for another season.
In the words of Emily Dickinson herself “The heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care” and all my heart cares about is this spectacular show.
By Jessica Matthewson