“I don’t need my eyes to see,” Dickinson’s titular poet tells her worried family at the start of the Apple comedy’s second season. All she needs, she says, is her soul. “That’s what I see the truth with.”
It might seem odd to begin Emily Dickinson’s journey back to our TV screens with a trip to the eye doctor (who her father later decides is a quack). But as this season unfolds, it becomes clear that Emily’s iritis is a poetic device in its own right—and that comment about her spiritual sight is more than a fanciful proclamation from a young woman with a known flair for the dramatic.
This season finds Emily grappling with the question of fame. Part of her, like any artist, desperately craves validation. But another part, somewhere deeper, sees that notoriety can destroy as much, or perhaps even more, than it nurtures. Hailee Steinfeld’s masterfully calibrated performance once again provides a gravitational center for the show’s many interwoven themes—questions of who gets to be seen, the power the disenfranchised can seize within their own invisibility, and the liberation one can find through spiritual connection. And her fellow performers, particularly Ella Hunt as her love interest slash sister-in-law, Sue, and Anna Baryshnikov as her eccentric, girlish sister Lavinia, make spectacular work of meatier material.
No one will be shocked to learn that Emily, a poet who certainly contains her multitudes, is both enamored with and terrified by the prospect of fame. This season, that inner conflict manifests as “Nobody”—a mysterious figure Emily continually bumps into around town, uncannily familiar but invisible to everyone else. “I’m nobody,” he keeps repeating. “Who are you?”
It’s a question Emily has been asking herself, in one way or another, since Season 1—but this time around, another character has stepped in to try and provide an answer. Sue, Emily’s longtime lover who is also now married to her brother Austin, has become a popular socialite. (“It is so crazy! Sue is an influencer,” Lavinia says, keeping the show’s anachronistic dialogue alive.) A proud member of America’s blossoming salon circuit, Sue introduces Emily to prominent, real-life newspaper publisher Samuel Bowles (brought to life by Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones). Sam, counter to sexist tradition, makes it a point to publish women in the Springfield Republican.
Season two, premiering Friday with three new episodes, takes place in 1859—a time that Dickinson creator and playwright Alena Smith notes was not so different from our own. An information boom, fueled by America’s feverishly growing print landscape, flourished alongside innovations in printing technology—flooding society with more news than it had ever seen before. Alongside this media frenzy comes a wave of new opportunities for writers like Emily.
Underneath the idiosyncratic dialogue and ironic needle drops, Smith says that Dickinson’s aim has always been to use history, as well as Dickinson’s work and the literary theory that emerged when she lived, to reflect on our lives today. And fame, as she notes and fans know well, “is a biographically complicated issue for Emily Dickinson.”
“Obviously we know that she would deny vehemently that she wanted fame,” Smith said. “She would portray herself as somebody who was actively disparaging of the impact that fame could have on an artist. But at the same time, you sort of have to ask, ‘If you keep bringing it up so much, why are you so fascinated by it?’”
Equally important to Emily’s relationship with fame this season is the exploration of who actually gets to ask themselves these questions at all. A civil war is coming, although not everyone in the Dickinsons’ circle is prepared to admit it yet—and Henry (Chinaza Uche), a Black man who works as a servant for the family, is running an underground publication of his own, one that aims to bolster and fund Black Americans in their quest for liberation. Henry and his fellow authors—including Hattie, played with delightful, irreverent wit by Big Mouth’s Ayo Edebiri—must publish anonymously for their own safety. Henry’s story, and those of the writers he publishes, provide a counterpoint to Samuel and Emily’s travails.
“I was… trying to ask in this season about visibility and invisibility, and who gets to be seen, and what is the power of not being seen,” Smith said. “It’s interesting because that whole storyline about Henry is fictional, but… even if it was real, we wouldn’t necessarily know it because histories get erased intentionally. The work of Black radicals throughout American history has been erased, and it continues into today.”
Smith notes that she, like Big Mouth’s producers, first hired Edebiri as a writer. Before long, though, she was “just so captivated by her energy and and her sort of just delicious sense of humor.” Smith already knew she wanted to create a character like Hattie, and eventually decided to write it for Edebiri herself. After all, Dickinson already has plenty of overlap between writers and performers; Darlene Hunt, who plays the Dickinsons’ Irish servant Maggie, is also a writer on the show, as is the Brooklyn-based comedian Sophie Zucker, who plays the Dickinsons’ friend Abby and wrote for Season 2. (Smith noted that she’s also brought on 2020’s reigning comedy queen, Ziwe, as a writer for Season 3, and is hard at work figuring out the best way to put her on screen as well.)
But Dickinson is still Dickinson—so alongside these serious, carefully constructed juxtapositions, its gaze into this time also brings a hefty dose of humor. Emily and Lavinia host a seance, with guests clad in flower crowns as Vinnie piously instructs, “Please be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room.” (Hattie, the Dickinson sisters’ favorite medium, tells them, “I don’t need to talk to any more dead white people”—until they offer to pay for her services.) A spa day performs double duty as both soulful exploration and a hilarious display of olden-times treatments, many of which seem like torture. And the family’s outing to a newly constructed opera house allows each Dickinson to react to the provocative form in their own way. (Emily, naturally, is profoundly moved; her parents, not so much.)
That is the genius of Dickinson. Where other series’ anachronisms can feel forced, Smith and her fellow writers share distinctly internet-friendly sensibilities. (Lines like “She fainted!” “So cool,” feel like they could have come right out of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant webcomics.) Rather than window dressing, these modern flourishes are the architecture upon which Dickinson is built, allowing the show to emphasize common themes that stretch from centuries ago until now.
Consider, for instance, the show’s seance episode, “The only ghost I ever saw.” While researching for the episode, Smith said, she noticed “how feminism and abolitionism were growing along with and intersectionally with spiritualism and seances.” A similar connective thread exists in online liberation movements today, Smith noted, as queer astrologers infuse social justice into their work. (Consider the work of Chani Nicholas, a queer astrologer with almost 400,000 followers on Instagram and a wildly popular blog.)
“She would portray herself as somebody who was actively disparaging of [fame]. But at the same time, you sort of have to ask, ‘If you keep bringing it up so much, why are you so fascinated by it?’”
The questions Emily, Lavinia, and their friends ask are not all serious. While Emily wants answers for her spiritual angst over fame and relationships and Vinnie asks herself if she really wants to marry the traditionalistic Henry “Ship” Shipley and become a quiet, obedient housewife, their friends are looking for guidance on their food allergies and how best to de-clutter their homes. (Vinnie’s troubled relationship with Ship, it’s worth noting, is the show’s richest source of comedy this season—thanks to impeccable performances from both Baryhnikov and Pico Alexander, who plays the bro-y failed entrepreneur.)
But the seance, like the spa day, is meaningful as a safe space for the exploration itself. As Smith put it, “Women ‘in a trance’ can say things that they wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to say.” That, too, is a focus of this season—the spaces where women were able to safely explore their feelings about their lives and society without risk of retribution.
Still, Emily’s spiritual exploration extends past the walls of her at-home seance or the spa. She also, once again, takes a ride in “Death”’s carriage, chatting up both the embodiment of mortality himself, played once more by Wiz Khalifa, and, this time, a deceased Edgar Allan Poe—brought to “life” by Nick Kroll.
“We had to have both halves of Oh, Hello,” Smith said of Kroll’s casting, given John Mulaney’s appearance last season as Henry David Thoreau. “So that was just mandatory.”
And throughout the season, Emily’s interactions with “Nobody” begin to morph into something of a dark, prophetic vision about the deadly years ahead. It’s only after Emily discovers the true meaning of this hallucination that the season’s themes truly coalesce into something bigger—and it’s in that moment that this sophomore season truly outdoes its predecessor, illuminating what Emily’s story and the time in which she lived might tell us about our own.
As Smith puts it, “The past is the present. That’s the whole problem… We’re trying to find our way to the future while we are absolutely stalked and haunted by the past.”