‘Dickinson’ Season 2: Success Is Counted Sweetest

Apple TV’s “Dickinson” returns with its cheeky and entertaining experiment for a second season. When first premiering last year, it was obvious that this series was not out to give an accurate sense of the 19th century or even a serious biography of the great American poet Emily Dickinson. The show’s dialogue is contemporary, with its young characters talking like Gen Z kids. They also have an awareness of “woke” attitudes way ahead of their time. However, this is also the show’s charm. It’s like a historical fantasia where the moods and ideas matter best. Dickinson, as played by Hailee Steinfeld, becomes a representation of genius, including all its clichés and aching romanticism.

Season two opens with the United States still feeling the coming tremors of the Civil War. Yet all is relatively calm except in the restless heart of our poet, Emily Dickinson, lovingly known as Em. She furiously writes daily poems to her love, Sue (Ella Hunt), who as fate would have it, is married to Em’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Sue receives the lush prose along with her daily copy of the local Springfield Republican. Writing is taking a toll on Em’s eyesight. But as Sue knows, what the young writer truly needs is to be published. Other developments are affecting the rest of the Dickinson clan. Dad Edward (Toby Huss) is nervous about the family’s debt, much accumulated thanks to supporting Austin and Sue, while Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) feels needy. A new lodger, Henry Shipley (Pico Alexander), surprises Em’s sister Vinnie (Anna Baryshnikov) by professing his feelings for her. Apparently when they hooked up the moment conjured deeper feelings, not to mention he needs a suitable wife.

From these threads of family responsibilities and yearning hearts, “Dickinson” kicks off a season that balances wistful teen daydreams with richer storytelling. Ever since Sofia Coppola filmed the court of “Marie Antoinette” to the sounds of Siouxsie and the Banshees, there’s been a trend to make history more relatable to us by making it sound and feel like our own time. Hulu’s “The Great” did the same last year, turning the world of Catherine the Great into a proto-feminist romp, although it avoided the Gen Z lingo. One trick to making these shows work is in finding the parallels to today. “Dickinson” may be set in the 1800s but it’s really about an aspiring writer at any time grappling with those eternal questions of loving dangerously while questioning if they should publish their work for the world to see. The way Em writes her daily thoughts into poetry is almost the equivalent of today’s Twitter or Instagram scribes, although many of them would do well to take heed from this show and crack open one of Dickinson’s actual books. This season is even more about writing as a craft than the first season. The real Dickinson’s poetry flashes across the screen in dreamlike text, connecting her words to life events. Em’s muse is Sue, but she can find inspiration in all developments, including her obsessive participation in a baking contest (“fame is a fickle food”). A new character, Springfield Republican editor Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), strutting like a Silicon Valley mogul, poses the biggest personal moment of decision for Em. Should she agree to be published and taste the fruits of fame? Shots of Bowles walking through a printing press have the lively sensation that we’re watching the equivalent of social media two centuries ago.

The theme of whether an artist should always work for self-fulfillment and never worry too much about the need for recognition connects nicely to the rest of the season’s big themes. Sometimes “Dickinson” can get carried away with overdoing the genius angle. Em is written to fill in all those clichés of the absent-minded talent. She doesn’t notice when she enters a party that she has chocolate smeared on her face, or when she goes for a walk with Bowles she stops, because the poetry keeps just flowing into her brain. Yet this is a fun exploration of the creative process, mixed with a young adult coming-of-age drama. Em still has time to hold séances and side plots involving romance, like Vinnie and Henry. The couple are written in a hilarious way with modern-day woke commentary. When Henry suggests Vinnie move away with him to be his proper housewife, she admits she would like a mutually respectful relationship that is “non-exclusive.” She also slams slavery the way a BLM-supporter today would condemn racism, lacking any 19th century terminology. When Hattie (Ayo Edebiri), a Black American who works in the Dickinson home, is asked to be a medium at a séance, she says she doesn’t have time to talk to more dead white people. The Black activism of the time also comes alive through Henry (Chinaza Uche), another Black worker running an underground publication calling for liberation from slavery.

At its heart “Dickinson” is really a tragic romance. Em loves Sue but the conventions of the day hold them back, not to mention the fact that she’s her sister-in-law. There’s a powerful and passionate tension in how Em can only express how she feels through words. Sue tries to help by getting her in touch with Bowles, because she knows that what Em needs above anything else, is to share her talent with the world. It’s a moving gesture which even Em doesn’t seem to realize, because when we are blinded by desire all else can turn into a haze. The finale is the best yet for this series as it all culminates in others beginning to realize what is going on between the two women and with their attraction coming unchained. It also has an incredibly moving scene where one woman tells the other with candor, “When I’m with you it’s the only time I feel alive.”

“Dickinson” never feels static. Its enjoyment is in the sheer energy of its undertaking and sincere performances. What it also achieves is a combination of accessible, teenage style that somehow still brings across all the high emotional power of a 19th century novel. It isn’t shallow, unlike other shows where it seems as if the writers believe the costumes and sauciness are what matter. “Dickinson” is about the craft of its main character, and how for her, writing is a matter of living. She has to keep putting it all down on paper because it is her vocation, and the only way she can survive the tempests of loving someone behind immense barriers. In that sense it gives viewers a very important lesson: Do what you love, because it may be all you truly have.

Dickinson” season two begins streaming Jan. 8 with new episodes premiering every Friday on Apple TV+.