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The Old, the New, and the Queerly Magical World of Dickinson

in Reviews

By Tereza Walsbergerová

Due to the specific blend of genres, styles, and themes it chooses to highlight – all wrapped up in a wildly anachronistic package – Alena Smith’s Apple TV+ historical comedy-drama Dickinson (2019–) will never have the same mainstream appeal as the likes of Downton Abbey, Outlander, or The Crown. That said, there probably has not been a better time for shows that explore the tumultuous past of the West (be it Britain, Canada, or America) through contemporary optics, least of all the optic of a young woman. Similar to Moira Walley-Beckett’s coming-of-age period drama adaptation of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne with an E , Dickinson offers a view of the old world through the eyes of a young woman so ahead of her time it seems only natural that her opinions be blended with today’s perspectives. 


19th-century young adult angst

Since Dickinson is a show about Emily Dickinson – the poet, her poetry plays a significant role in the narrative. It becomes fused with the main character’s perspectives on various topics and issues of her time, the biggest topic by far being the coming of age. By the second episode, watching Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) make sense of the world through the lens of her poetry as she enters adulthood seems to be the perfect way to portray the emotional arc of growing up. This emotional arc is, of course, common in any kind of American show featuring young adults, and Dickinson makes this clear by merging its period setting with modern language and music, using elements of magical realism to tie it all together.

Emily’s obsession with death and sorrow is the epitome of the connection between the past and the present when it comes to young adults. Emily Dickinson is sometimes referred to as the world’s first ever “emo kid,” which can be seen as both a positive and negative comment. Though the other characters call Emily “weird” and sneer at her love of “angst,” the show ultimately leans into and celebrates this side of her personality, which makes it (just like Dickinson’s poetry itself) relatable to Millennials. The show embraces Emily’s need to work through her tumultuous feelings of confusion, (bi)sexual yearning, and general frustration stemming from her position as a young queer woman, demonstrating that her fascination with death represents a natural tool she can use to learn about herself.


Let the party commence

Emily’s obsession with death is only one of the examples of the coming-of-age arc. The major themes and topics that come into play in “Wild Nights,” for instance (e.g. clique culture, the physical struggles of womanhood, mutual pining, fear of abandonment, and fear of entrapment) would not feel out of place in shows like Glee or Riverdale. Dickinson uses a modern lens to comment on these issues as they play out in the past, highlighting the painful position of a character that is historically often overlooked in favor of Emily herself – Sue (Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Dickinson’s sister-in-law), played by Ella Hunt.

When the Dickinson siblings decide to throw a secret party, Emily is excited about the prospect of an opium-induced “wild night.” Since Dickinson’s actual poem “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” uses the motif of the sea, Emily’s mindset in the episode is portrayed through the camera frequently moving to and fro in a dizzying motion and the sound of waves audible in the background any time she experiences anxiety. Clearly, the “thee” in the poem (“Wild nights – Wild nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury!”) refers to Sue in the context of this episode. 

When Emily and Sue end up alone in a room together (after Emily runs upstairs when she unexpectedly gets her period) and share a kiss, Emily’s voice-over recites the final stanza of the poem (“Rowing in Eden – / Ah – the Sea! / Might I but moor – tonight – / In thee!”). Thus, it seems that the episode concludes with Emily being “anchored” by her relationship with Sue (both sexually and emotionally), no longer in danger of drowning. However, it is Sue who is revealed to have been the one rowing on a storming ocean all along after Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) catches them together. She cannot marry Austin because she does not have the money or the class-standing to be a desirable prospect and she cannot even entertain marrying Emily as they are both women. 

Though the party is a merger of period dancing and modern music (incl. Carnage’s “I Like Tuh”) and the characters use modern youth slang (when Lavinia [Anna Baryshnikov] asks Joseph [Gus Halper] “You think I’m pretty?”, he responds with “Yeah, you look hella ripe.”), Sue being a queer woman of low social class with debts and no dowry reminds the audience that the show is, in fact, set in 19th century New England. The question that Dickinson poses is, has the society progressed enough since then that young adults like Sue would not end up drowning if the show took place in the 21st century?


The queer and the queer

The Emily/Sue relationship remains central to the show until Sue finally decides to marry Austin and Emily turns her attention towards Ben (Matt Lauria). That said, Emily’s queerness remains as inherent to the story as her identity as a poet. While the terms “queer,” “bisexual,” or “lesbian” (or any other LGBTQ+ identity label people might wish to ascribe to the real Dickinson) are never used in the show, there are enough examples of queer-coding on top of several instances of performed homosexuality (Emily and Sue share several passionate kisses and even have sex in “I Have Never Seen ‘Volcanoes’”) to emphasize that the show does not see the character as straight in any way. Although it is impossible for Dickinson to take that relationship further (either to the women’s explicit coming out or actual marriage) – not even through the modern lens – that does not stop it from “queering” everything else about Emily’s world.

This queering becomes pronounced for instance in “I Am Afraid to Own a Body” when the Dickinson siblings and their friends decide to put on a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello. Shakespeare’s female characters were portrayed by men in the Elizabethan era, which is a known fact, and so Austin opting to play Desdemona should not be seen as queer. That said, his enthusiasm about wearing a dress in addition to the fact that Emily opts to Play Iago and Othello is originally played by a gay-coded Toshiaki (Kevin Yee) – before Henry (Chinaza Uche) takes over from him – signifies that these character’s views of gender roles and gender in general is more on par with today’s attitudes than those of the 19th century. Ben – Emily’s love interest – is also queer-coded. In “A Brief, but Patient Illness” Ben admits that although he wears a wedding band it is only there to ward off  “prying questions and endless setups from the thousand Mrs. Dickinsons.” It is implied multiple times in the show that their queerness is what makes Ben and Emily soulmates rather than actual sexual attraction. 

On the whole, the show does a great job of blurring the line between what is queer (i.e. “of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation”) and what is queer (i. e. “odd,” strange,” or “weird”). This is especially visible in “We Lose – Because We Win” when a circus comes to town and Emily identifies with it to the point where she hallucinates that she is one of the circus freaks. Though she resists this idea at first, anxious about having to reveal herself as one of them (i.e. come out as queer) to an audience of her family and friends, she ends up accepting her identity in the end (in the hallucination represented by colorful tattoos on her shoulders and chest). Ultimately, it can be therefore said that the queering of Emily’s world allows her to exist comfortably within her (albeit unspoken) identity.


The female voice

Aside from sexuality, “I Am Afraid to Own a Body” also contemplates privilege and oppression when it compares the struggles of Henry (who is a black man in danger of being captured by slave hunters from the South) with the struggles of Emily who refuses to be any man’s property. While the show ultimately stresses that white women have more privilege than black men in this particular society because they are allowed to read Shakespeare and run around the garden freely, it is clear that the issue of a woman’s position in the world remains an important concern.

The fact that (white) men have it easier than (white) women is demonstrated in countless instances, including in “Alone, I Cannot Be” when Emily and George (Samuel Farnsworth) travel to Walden Pond to meet Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) only to discover that he is a spoiled mother’s boy and a liar as the pond and its surroundings are actually full of people. Meanwhile, back at home, Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss) asks Austin to compose a poem celebrating the construction of the railroad despite the fact Emily is the poet in the family (though she is forbidden from publishing her work), which parallels the Thoreau storyline by pointing out that perhaps not all voices that are amplified are worthy of attention.  

“We Lose – Because We Win” then discusses the position of women in the political discourse in relation to Mr. Dickinson’s political endeavours. Dickinson chooses to once again highlight the dismissal of the young female voice in a scene where Mr. Dickinson – while waiting anxiously for election results – complains about Lavinia and her friends being too loud with their “innate chatter” upstairs only to cut to the girls’ (“woke,” as Lavinia calls it) conversation centered around abolition, voting rights, and the future of the Republican party. 

In the same episode, Sue tells Emily to “eat shit” when she belittles her interest in being “the frugal wife.” It can be therefore said that the idea of a woman as a happy home-maker is not completely discarded in the show either. Though Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) at times feels like her husband does not respect her enough, she is excited about her role as a wife and a mother. Emily’s sister Lavinia resembles her mother though there are instances in which she expresses her need for agency (e.g. when she paints herself naked – a nod to the modern “nudes,” when Joseph secretly pleasures her at the Christmas dinner table, or when she discusses abolition with her friends while cross-stitching), which positions her somewhere in the middle, demonstrating that women’s ambition does not have to be binary or clear-cut. 


The moths and the bumblebees

While it takes Mrs. Dickinson a while, she ultimately learns to accept Emily’s lack of desire to get married and thus remain a spinster, acknowledging her free spirit. In fact, spinsterhood and singledom are strongly celebrated in Dickinson through the character of Emily. Though she is clearly capable of sexual and romantic attraction (whether it be to Sue or Ben), she ultimately prefers being alone to either of those options. True to the spirit of transcendentalism, she seeks to spend time on her own, surrounded by nature, for instance “hanging out with a moth”. Even when she is inside the house, nature always finds her. In “Wild Nights,” Emily hallucinates that she is slow-dancing with a giant bumblebee, which is deeply symbolic of that attraction.

Ultimately, Dickinson with its curious mode that merges the past with the present and satire with magical realism indeed provides a well-rounded reflection of the western world. It not only uses modern optics to comment on issues of the past (e.g. arranged marriage, slavery, and women’s rights) but also does the reverse by sardonically commenting on current events by comparing them to those seemingly resolved past issues (e.g. the discussion regarding the Republican party and immigration policies). This all from the perspective of a bright young woman who is also coincidentally one of the most accomplished poets that ever lived. 

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