How to rewrite history will always be the question Dickinson must answer. That is, after all, what the show is trying to do, and there’s not exactly a set method for its drastic revisionism. It refutes the widely held view that poet Emily Dickinson was a reclusive spinster, and its very pointed and very frequent breaks with this narrative and the realities of life in 19th century Massachusetts indicates that a rigorous, stuffy history lesson was never going to be its answer.
Quite the opposite seems to be the case, what with all the modern vernacular, song drops, and meta jokes (a character remarking “print journalism is the future” was a favorite of this season). Creator Alena Smith is mixing the modern with the period in a way that reaches out very deliberately to today’s audiences, especially young people, to say that the world of yesteryear wasn’t as different as you’ve been led to believe.
Emily Dickinson has become a semi-popular figure for this observation in recent years, what with the rise of queer culture into the mainstream and the simmering theories from academics that she had a long-term relationship with her best friend/sister-in-law, Sue. An article published in the New York Times in 1998 details how parts of her personal letters were erased, largely around Sue’s name. This detail became the defining point of Madeleine Olnek’s playful 2018 feature Wild Nights with Emily, where themes of revisionism and suppression leave you on a melancholy, enraging beat.
The parallels between that film and Dickinson goes far beyond the assumption that Sue was a long-time lover of Emily (a factual aside: it’s near impossible to say now what the true nature of their relationship was). Both share a certain flippancy towards biographical standards, instead hitting on a freewheeling, messy take on her life. I doubt anyone would argue that either is a polished work, but what you get instead is something far more valuable: a sense of life not as it was but how we would view it today, and through that comes a breakdown of how history itself is a story, not a regurgitation of facts.
But certain immutable facts do remain, and these must be woven into any version of history. One of those is that Emily was rarely published in her life, and it’s this fact that the second season of Dickinson not very satisfactorily contends with.
The first season had built her up as a staunchly progressive young woman with poems bursting from her brain. She constantly bashed against the old-fashioned views of her father and was decisive (some might say rash) in her decisions. Far from the reserved, trembling figure you were told about, this woman let out her passions and joys, and not just on paper.
It’s difficult to imagine this person choosing not to be published, so while the first season established an Emily that popped vibrantly off the screen, it also kind of wrote itself into a corner. The show would inevitably have to tone her down, and the second season does this so swiftly that she, Sue, and their entire world feel disconnected from what came before.
Part of that is due to a tonal shift that took place between the two seasons. Most well meaning critics felt the first season was a little jumbled, spinning wildly from drug-fueled conversations with bees to tender negotiations between Emily and her beloved father to a crossdressing montage set to Lizzo’s Boys. The second season notably smooths things out, sticking closer to pure plot and getting less distracted by bizarre scenarios and asides that mine both the oddities of 1800s America and life today.
Obviously, I’m a big fan of just how unhinged that first season was, preferring the sensation of such a consistently surprising viewing experience to the neat but ultimately less memorable struggle with a shifty newspaperman that the second season gives us. There’s still moments, flashes to show that its initial sensibility hadn’t been lost (basically the whole episode at a horrifying period spa is what I had been waiting for), and the way the season wrapped up indicates that this may have been more a detour than a true course correction.
Stumbles do happen as series progress, and this was far from a total misfire. A vital hurdle in Emily’s life is overcome and the cast still brings its delightful breadth of skills to the table: Anna Baryshnikov (yes, of those Baryshnikovs) can turn a line like no one’s business, Ella Hunt shows off her singing chops in a moving break from reality, the inimitable Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski make Emily’s parents complex foils, and Hailee Steinfeld is one of the few actresses of her age that could pull off everything required for this Emily to tick.
And moving forward, the deficiencies of this season should help answer its central question. How does one rewrite history through television, or perhaps more accurately, why? The first season’s screwy, boisterous energy provides a perfect answer: we rewrite as an act of compassion and hope. We see people for who they were and then loosen the world’s grip on them, letting them be everything they dreamed of. Contending with hard facts, well, it must be done, but spend too much time in reality and you’ll stifle your subject. We all exist, to a certain extent, in our imagination, even more so if you’re an artist of Emily’s caliber. She dreamed up ways of seeing the world that still moves us today, and to imagine her even less encumbered by the rigors of her day is a small but thrilling kindness.