Makeup Work: I’m a ‘Dickinson’ Fan! Who Are You?

The Apple+ series starring Hailee Steinfeld is ostensibly a fun, ahistorical romp through Emily Dickinson's life. But beneath the surface, deep questions are being asked about poetry, fame, integrity, and the ghosts that haunt us.

I don’t know why Emily Dickinson is having a moment, but I’m here for it.

In the last five years, the Belle of Amherst—best known for living that pandemic lifestyle 150 years before she had to—has been the subject of two movies and a streaming series. And only one of those projects (A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon) has the quiet gravitas one associates with Yankee spinsters who wrote poetry. The other two—Molly Shannon in Wild Nights With Emily and Hailee Steinfeld in Apple+’s Dickinson—are beholden to no time period or strict factual accuracy. And thank god.

In Dickinson, creator Alena Smith has conjured a version of the late 1850s that says everything about modern life, while also forcing us to re-examine the poet who gave countless editions of English lit textbooks “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” In Smith’s hands, Dickinson dons red gowns and clambers into carriages with Death himself for a moonlit tete-a-tete (Death being played by Wiz Khalifa); her sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), is in the throes of a friends-with-benefits relationship with a lodger in their home; and her sister-in-law, Sue (Ella Hunt), is her true love and muse.

Yes, the 21st-century Emily Dickinson not only fucks—she does it with other women.

That’s putting a very blandly naughty label on the series, though. If Season 1 drew attention for its frank sapphic flings, Season 2 weaponizes its fan base to ask thorny questions about fame, integrity, and the ways in which our childhoods inform who we are, either because we have established a personality long ago or because we rebel against what came before.

The true gift of the series, which ends its season February 26, is a ravishing new window into Dickinson’s poetry. All those dashes and elusive images can come across as stilted to casual readers. What Smith and Steinfeld capture so brilliantly is the sheer power and sensuality of Dickinson’s verse, the words appearing and fading in the lower third of the frame as Steinfeld whispers them in voiceover. The question ultimately may not be why Dickinson is having a moment. The question all along may have been why we ever thought she and her poetry deserved a staid retelling of her life in the first place.

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