Remember what it was like to be a teenager, pent up with so much pulsing emotion it felt like it might come gushing forth from your guts at any given moment? Or, then, a twentysomething trying to embrace adulthood without losing your every scrap of raw nerve? “Dickinson” does, with the kind of visceral urgency that’s harder to portray than meets the eye.
The series, now in its second season on Apple TV Plus, casts Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson, the legendary poet who until recently was as well known for being a recluse as she was for being a writer. “Dickinson” acknowledges her reputation even as it dismantles it. The show’s Dickinson is Emily, a flesh and blood teenage girl brimming over with more feelings than she can process, first. In the first season, “Dickinson” was promising in much the same way as teenage Emily: ambitious and so eager to reinvent its medium that it sometimes ran ahead of itself before planting its feet more firmly on the ground. In its second, though, Alena Smith’s show and heroine alike have grown up, and fully come into their own passionate voices.
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Case in point: “Split the Lark,” this season’s sixth episode and one of the series’ best overall. Written by Smith and directed by Silas Howard, all 30 minutes take place in an opera house as the core cast takes a rare night out to see “La Traviata” (or “The Fallen Woman”). Not everyone loves the high culture they’ve shelled out for — Emily’s parents (Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss) sneak out during the first number in a fit of giggles — but Emily is spellbound by the emotions vibrating off the stage up to the box where she’s sitting, with a man who loves her writing as much as he fears the chaotic force behind it.
After spending the first few episodes of season 2 agonizing over whether or not she should publish her poems, thus muddying the waters of her artistic intent, Emily’s now been thoroughly convinced to go for it by newspaper editor Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones). Sam’s flattery enraptures Emily, who’s spent most of her life being overlooked, misunderstood and discouraged from expressing herself too visibly. When she spots him across the room at the opera, Emily’s so overcome that she can hardly keep her breath inside her body as Sam walks over to her in slow motion to a swaggering synth beat. They end up sitting together in a box with champagne, it’s a dream — until he admonishes Emily for writing to his wife, calling it “violating.”
Emily’s genuinely taken aback. She didn’t mean to be that romantic, she insists. “Sometimes when I write, I lose control.” The explanation placates Sam for a moment — he’s not unfamiliar with artist temperaments — but he can’t overlook her later outburst, which rushes forth from her mouth before she realizes it’s happening. Swept up in the performance from soprano Adelaide May — costumed rather slyly in a gold dress that echoes one worn by Emily’s beloved sister-in-law, Sue (Ella Hunt) — Emily whips around to Sam, grabs his hand, and gasps, “my heart feels like it could split right open!” That’s it for Sam, who swiftly stands up and leaves Emily alone in the box. Reeling from the rejection and raw with the rush of it all, Emily turns back to the stage and loses herself in the performance so completely that the soprano turns into Sue, singing one of Emily’s poems back at her in an eerie minor key. “Split the lark — and you’ll find Music,” Sue sings, locking eyes with an astonished Emily. “Loose the Flood…Gush after Gush.” It’s a gorgeous way to bring the Dickinson poem to life, a scene as vibrant and melancholy as the words behind it.
Steinfeld, also an executive producer on the show, is extremely good at depicting this kind of barely suppressed, exquisite agony. Before “Dickinson,” she turned in a similarly ferocious performance of a raging teenager in “Edge of Seventeen,” a spiritual precursor to her portrayal of Emily Dickinson. Whether she’s hurt, thrilled, furious or determined, her Emily is constantly bursting at the seams. That, far more than the anachronistic music drops and lines like “a quiet night in — novels and chill,” keeps “Dickinson” fresh. Not everyone will agree with the show’s characterization of the historical figure, but its characterization of a young woman who wants more than she’s got and feels more than she knows what to do with? Spot on.
To the second season’s credit, that doesn’t just hold true for Emily, but across the board. Sue, now married and restless, commits to a lavish lifestyle of hosting salons that she can’t really afford, but which makes her feel important for the first time in her life. Sue’s new Black maid Hattie (a scene-stealing Ayo Edebiri) grits her teeth into a smile for her eager white employers, but has no problem fleecing them for all they’re worth while hosting secret abolitionist meetings in the Dickinson barn. Emily’s sister Lavinia (the very funny Anna Baryshnikov) has a brief romance with handsome dummy Joseph (Gus Halper) while firmly rejecting his attempts to define her as a sensible, chaste option. “I am not the boring Dickinson sister…I’m wild and creative,” as she tells him in the previous episode (“Forbidden Fruit a flavor has”). “So if you think we’re going to have a quiet night in, you’re wrong. I need stimulation.”
In the moment…well, yes, it’s an overtly sexual wink. But it’s also a neat encapsulation of how “Dickinson” approaches its young female characters, who are rarely happy to just sit back and let life happen to them. They’re wild and creative and need the freedom to act on their desires, even when it blows up in their astonished faces. They’re splitting themselves open to find the music therein, loosing the flood of their want, gush after fervent gush.
The first six episodes of “Dickinson” season 2 are now streaming on Apple TV Plus.
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