“Tell all the truth but tell it slant-” wrote Emily Dickinson, in one of the almost 2,000 poems, scribbled on scraps of paper, that were found in her bedroom upon her death. Born in the 1830s in Amherst, Massachusetts, it is said that in the last years of her life, she would rarely leave her room, and always dressed in white. She’s one of my favourite poets ever, if not the favourite, and so I greeted the news of Apple TV’s retelling of her life with some apprehension.
In those 4 walls of her bedroom, held in silence like a fly in amber and secluded from the hustle of revivalist 19th century New England, Emily Dickinson managed to crystallise the deepest range of human emotions – where it always seemed that she’d reached enlightenment and been cut off at the last minute by a dash. Apple TV, if their recent offering The Morning Show (streaming to mostly bad reviews) is anything to go by, are not characterised by subtlety.
Single words, earmarked by dashes, exclamation points – Emily Dickinson’s poetry channeled the telegraph decades before it was invented. “Some of the strangest, most fascinating poems ever written”, opens Apple TV’s Dickinson. This respect for its subject and her output reassured me at once, and it really does provide the emotional core to this dreamy and feverish retelling of what Dickinson’s life could have been.
To keep this spoiler free, I’ll just focus on the first episode. Hailee Steinfeld (of “Most Girls” fame) plays the titular poet, while her complicated and strict father, Edward Dickinson, is played by an excellent if sometimes wooden Toby Huss. The opening scene sees Emily wake up, lights a candle and write, visibly shaken and twitching with inspiration, breathing heavily. It reminded me of Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria remake, when the young girls are possessed by a witch’s spirit as they dance. Dancing is erotic and euphoric in Suspiria and so is writing in Dickinson – her sublimated emotions and anxieties poured forth into poets like “Wild nights – Wild nights!”, allegedly about her sister-in-law, Susan, here played by the sweet-faced Ella Hunt.
Dickinson (which has met with largely positive reviews) is a sprawling, ambitious take on a complicated figure. It’s certainly not what people expected – modern, funky, made for social media. Emily says “bullshit” within the first five minures. Vaguely old-timey and quite beautiful graphics and drawings adorn the title sequences of each episode, while bass-heavy backing tracks punctuate scene changes, including A$AP Rocky and Skepta’s Praise The Lord . The dialogue is halfway between general period drama formality and a 2000s teen movie. “What up sis,” says Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) as he rides up to tell her he’s marrying her best friend and (in the show and probably in real life) secret lover. “Nothing bro, just chilling,” she replies, lackadaisical – it really is a show carried by its visuals and storyline, rather than dialogue.
But striking imagery was crucial to Dickinson’s poems too – just look at one of her most famous lines, “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me –/The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/And Immortality.” Each episode is named after a poem, and it is this poem that the show opens with. Lines of Emily’s poems appear as she composes them, embossed in gold on tree trunks and water buckets.
It’s really a show about the power of escapism. Every night, Emily retreats inside her mind to drive around with Death (an excellently relaxed Wiz Khalifa) in a red velvet dress. In life, Dickinson wrote with feverish imagination, probing deep at death, repression and trauma, all the while ensconced in staid respectability. In Dickinson, Emily is powerful, supremely confident in her status as a misfit. Her poems here are not published anonymously – whereas real-life Dickinson was said to be afraid of being published, obsessed over mysterious men (writing a series of letters addressed to a mysterious “master”) but never finding real love. We’re so used to this idea of a life experienced through the mind, through letters, being “less than”. But in Dickison, Emily is young, and has not yet become a recluse. As the show takes pains to stress, whatever life Emily built for herself, it was the one she wanted.
Many criticised the show online and on Instagram comment sections for the liberties it seemed to be taking with the truth. Emily didn’t run wild in orchards, or kiss women, or smoke opium, or even want her poems published! Films like Terrence Davies’ 2016 biopic, A Quiet Passion, portray Dickinson in a more expected light, a quiet, terrified woman, unprepared for the real world. But as Rachel Handler explored in a wonderful article for Vulture, it is really not so clear that Emily actually was such a homebody. Madeleine Olnek’s 2018 film Wild Nights With Emily turns that assumption on its head and showed Dickinson as a fun, queer (perhaps a lesbian), exciting and ramshackle woman. Apple Tv’s Dickinson does similar things; it teases out what’s already in the source material – a loud passion for life, for nature, a life deeply felt and experienced.
Her relationship with Susan is explored beautifully and is truly one of the shows’ greatest strengths. Meet me in the orchard, Emily asks in a letter dropped down in a basket. It’s a beautifully shot scene, and a visual pleasure to watch them watching each other, framed by red apples, one dressed in white and the other in black. You’re not sure if they’re just friends – until Emily asks “Sue” to promise her she’ll always love her more than her brother, and they kiss.
This relationship has been theorised on extensively by literary scholars, but largely discarded by the academy, especially during the years of the “Lavender Scare” of the mid 20th century. Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart published a book in 1998 called Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, a compilation of Emily’s letters to Susan, undeniable expressions of romantic love. “I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens.”
Dickinson really marries well the nods to the poet’s extensive literary output, with excellent TV. A particular success is Emily in a blood-red dress, leaving behind the virginal white for her nightly carriage ride with death. Later on, as Billie Eilish plays, discussions of the afterlife – “publicity is not the same thing as immortality” – reference one of her most famous poems: “The Carriage held but just Ourselves – /And Immortality.” The scene is charged as Emily – literally – flirts with Death, and the whole show drips with vivacity and sex. There’s competition, romantic and physical, for Sue’s affections by Emily and her brother, against the backdrop of Susan’s sister’s funeral – their youth is inevitably tinged with loss and death. Even as we see the preparation of a bountiful feast, the audience is treated to a close up of a chicken being killed.
Again, anyone reading Dickinson’s poetry would notice her fascination with death (“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –”) but there’s the sexy, flirtatious side to her isn’t fictional. She once mailed Kate Scott Turner a poem alongside a pair of garters. Kate Scott Turner is believed by many to have had a brief fling with Dickinson. She ended up living an openly gay life in Europe and is in the only existing daguerrotype of Dickinson
It’s by no means a perfect show, of course. The dialogue is often awkward, and there’s a weird interplay between archaic and modern language: lots of “I shall” followed by “I’m pretty psyched about it”. It seems to be a point about age – the younger characters use slang, while the parents are stilted and formal. But it doesn’t quite work. There’s slightly too many slick gimmicks, it’s a bit too instagram-generation in its aesthetics – it needs more soul, something Dickinson’s poems never lacked.
The greatest value in Dickinson is the way it reminds us of the power of our own imagination to soothe and to fulfill us – something we should all keep in mind in the midst of Week 5. Don’t limit yourself to writing what you know, write what you feel. Emily Dickinson may have lived out the end of her life in one room, but she travelled in her mind. Vivid emotions, despair and trauma run deep in Dickinson’s poems; “‘It was not Death, for I stood up” is a delicate meditation of what we are capable of surviving. But there is also a deep lust for life – “I taste a liquor never brewed/From tankards scooped in pearl”.
The show as a result seems to be more about what Emily Dickinson’s life could have been, if it had been more fair. It’s an assumption that in society as it is today, there is more to offer, to “fearless” women like Emily. She “dwells in Possibility”, as she wrote herself, and so does Apple TV’s Dickinson.