Dickinson Season 2 review – wittier and more complex

January 6, 2021
Cole Sansom 0
Apple TV+, TV Reviews


The Apple TV hit returns with a buoyant second season that will please literature professors and Tumblr users alike.

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The Apple TV hit returns with a buoyant second season that will please literature professors and Tumblr users alike.

This review of Dickinson Season 2 contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the first season by clicking these words.

“The records of Emily Dickinson’s life, up to and including Sue and Austin’s marriage, are full and factual compared with what lies ahead. Over the next few years, just a handful of letters survive. The truth, perhaps, is hidden in her poems.”

The sophomore season of Alena Smith’s historical comedy opens with a declaration that can be interpreted as a pre-emptive rebuttal towards anyone who would malign the following episodes for not sticking to “true events.” Better, it states that the show is not simply an adaption of history. Much in the way that Seinfeld episodes depicted the scenarios upon which a stand-up routine could be inspired; each episode of Dickinson functions as a potential origin story for one of the protagonist’s poems. The above statement implies a certain freedom for Smith & co. to write the story they want to tell. Dickinson’s debut season did the table-setting work of depicting the biographical; now, the main course begins.

The result is an enrichment of everything that worked the first time around; using what we know of Emily Dickinson’s life from the present to expand upon the world of the first season and tell a more engaging, complex, and nuanced story. Smith wisely relocates the majority of the season’s main narrative thrust within the titular protagonist’s head as she struggles with the question of whether to share her poems or not.

While the first season’s conflicts focused on Emily vs. the world, Dickinson Season 2 deepens Emily’s internal conflict (I can only hope that the third season finds Emily fighting against God). Emily, more than ever determined of her calling as a poet, is torn by the possibility of fame; she could be a beloved author but at the risk of having her work passed through the hands of others (men) and be open to criticism.

It’s a theme that’s familiar to anyone who’s aspired to create (although most of us would not put consider ourselves anywhere near Emily’s level) and the writers work wonders creating new conflicts and scenarios that shift Emily in one direction or another. It’s a brilliant thread by which the season buoys along, never once feeling repetitive or out of ideas.

The push towards fame is represented by the Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) real-life editor of the Springfield Republican (which Dickinson amusingly likens to Buzzfeed). Sam wants to publish Emily’s poems but seems to have more on his mind than his newspaper.

This being a show about Emily Dickinson, the opposing push is, of course, represented by a ghost. Emily is visited by the mysterious specter of Nobody (Will Pullen), with whom she shares her reservations. It makes for a compelling arc that gives Emily space to work out her fears of criticism and anonymity, adding emotional depth to an already well-written character.

As always, Hailee Steinfeld is a delight, as is the rest of the cast. Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss are consistently hilarious, and Anna Baryshnikov’s Lavinia finally gets her chance to shine as she finds herself confronting her desire for more than what a traditional nineteenth-century marriage would offer her.

The only real shame of the season is that every supporting character is not given an arc as juicy as Lavinia’s. This becomes more apparent when the show focuses on Henry (Chinaza Uche), who begins publishing an abolitionist newspaper. The inclusion of Amherst’s black residents is welcome (as is the introduction of comedian Ayo Edebiri, who is, unsurprisingly, hilarious) but the subplot doesn’t get time to become more than a sideshow. It makes me eager to see episodes of the show focusing on characters other than Emily.

But if Dickinson Season 2’s only weak spot is an interesting subplot, then it must be a very good show. And indeed it is. Everything that made the first season great returns and in greater force. The twenty-first-century needle drops are perfectly chosen (one in the ninth episode had me cackling). The historical cameos are more deliberately chosen and with a greater impact on the story (such as Bowles).

It’s just as funny too (if not more so). The use of twenty-first-century expressions in the mouths of nineteenth-century characters is hilarious and revelatory; circumventing the emotional barriers that could hinder the audience from relating to and empathizing with them. Time and space are collapsed as a character saying “Emerson is canceled,” and the show’s immediacy comes through.

Crucially, the anachronisms never slide into winking irreverence. They’re clever and thoughtful, like the show itself, which has proven to be much more than a one-hit-wonder. It’s a hilarious, witty, and deeply moving exploration of an artist that’s engaging regardless of your appreciation for Dickinson’s poems themselves (although I can’t imagine anyone not appreciating them after watching the show). It raises all sorts of interesting questions about authorship and fame and makes the effort to dramatize them. As the Dickinsons would say — it slaps!

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