It was on a gloomy Los Angeles evening in January of 2020 when I decided to use my Apple TV+ free trial to watch a show about the poet Emily Dickinson. It had come out a few months before, and I hadn’t heard much about it. None of my friends watched it, but there was something about it that called to me, so I pressed play on the first episode. That decision changed everything.
Dickinson was unlike any show I had seen before. I was honestly so surprised, because I was not expecting for the vibe of the show to be the way it was. Created by Alena Smith (who is an absolute genius), the show stars Hailee Steinfeld, who is also an executive producer, as Emily Dickinson. Other main cast members are Anna Baryshnikov as Lavinia Dickinson, Adrian Enscoe as Austin Dickinson, Jane Krakowski as Mrs. Dickinson, Toby Huss as Edward Dickinson, and Ella Hunt as Sue Gilbert. The reoccurring and guest characters are equally as magnificent and play an integral part in making this show as exquisite as it is.
An integral part of the show is the relationship between Emily and Sue, who were sisters-in-law, but according to scholars, also lovers. Alena Smith makes this romance central in the show’s storyline, exploring queerness in a time period where it certainly wasn’t accepted, much less mentioned. In fact, Smith celebrates it to its fullest extent, and doesn’t shy away from showing the intimacy and helpless attraction between two women. The pilot episode features a full on make-out session under an apple tree as it starts to rain. Imagine watching that, not knowing that this show would be queer, or that Emily Dickinson in real life was most definitely a lesbian. My jaw was on the floor, and my bisexual heart was racing. That was only the first episode, and even more glorious moments occurred in the episodes to come. Of course, this relationship wouldn’t be as intriguing as it is, if it weren’t for the incredible performances by Hailee and Ella. Their chemistry on screen is sensational, and their support for Emisue (the ship name given to them by fans) off screen has only caused fans to be even more enamored with this duo. However, it isn’t just Emily and Sue who embody queerness. The show itself is inherently queer, down to its structure, writing and costuming. There is a free yet rebellious nature set deep into its bones—something those in the LGBTQ+ community seem to relate to, which is why so many, like myself, feel connected to Dickinson.
Television, lately, has begun to break the mold of what it once was, especially with the introduction of all the different streaming services. When I was in high school and college, television was very procedural. It had a clear structure, stuck to certain rules, and stayed within the lines. However, in recent years, many shows have done away with all of those things, and Dickinson is one of them. But, what’s different about Dickinson, is that I think it has disrupted traditional television the best. I have watched a lot of incredible shows, but what Alena Smith has done with her team is so specific yet all-encompassing that it surpasses many prominent and award-winning shows. I think it’s because many of the writers are also past or current playwrights, and theater has such a particular approach to art. It’s insanity, though, that this show is as good as it is, and hasn’t reached the same worldwide recognition as other shows—for example, its Apple TV+ sibling Ted Lasso (which I also watch and love, but do not have as much of a connection to). Perhaps Dickinson is too niche for the wider audience, but I truly don’t believe that, because anyone I have introduced this show to has fallen in love with it. I don’t know, maybe it was meant to be one of those “cult following” type shows, and once it is over, it will gain recognition in the years to come—much like Emily’s poems. In a sense, that’s beautiful to think about, even if it would be nice for award shows to recognize the work put into it.
Alena has brought Emily Dickinson to life in a way no one else has before. I, surprisingly, as a student in southern New England, don’t recall learning about her or reading her work. I had even taken a poetry class in college (also located in southern New England), and did not learn about the greatest American poet. Myself, along with many other viewers, were then introduced to the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson through this show. She was resurrected in a way Death could not predict, and now there are countless millennials and Gen Z-ers out there reading her work, and reading about her life.
I truly want to thank Alena for this show. As a writer, it has provided me comfort, inspiration, and that the possibilities are endless when it comes to creating a television show. Dickinson has taught me that television can be liberating, filled with color and character, and held with such love and care. Every detail put into this show has a piece of a cast or crew member’s heart sewn into it. And when it is over, we will have a three-act masterpiece that will be on display for all to see. It will be bittersweet, much like a funeral. We understand its significance, love the departed with all we have, but are saddened that we will not create new memories with them. Yet, we hold on to the memories that exist, because they are incredibly special and cannot be replaced. They will live on, like these thirty episodes that we have been given in these last two years. Each are memorable and holding a space within our hearts.
In closing, thank you to each and every person involved in Dickinson. Alena, the writers, the directors (including the great Lynn Shelton), the costumers, the hair and makeup artists, the construction workers, painters, and props department who created the beautiful sets, Hailee, Ella, Anna, Adrian, Jane, Toby, Sophie, Gus, Chinaza, Darlene, Allegra, Kevin, Samuel, Ayo, Pico, Amanda, Finn, Will, Gus, Wiz Khalifa, and everyone else that would take quite a few pages to name, and use way too many commas. I know I speak for all who have watched this show when I say that we are so grateful for what you have created, and look forward to seeing what each of you do next.
Good-by to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!