Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Anna Baryshnikov and Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (Photo: Apple TV+); Alena Smith (Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images)

Dickinson creator Alena Smith on the second season’s influences, from Instagram to Naked Lunch

Anna Baryshnikov and Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (Photo: Apple TV+); Alena Smith (Photo: Brian Ach/Getty Images)

Apple TV+’s Dickinson returns January 8 in more assured form but with the same irreverence and inspired anachronistic touches as before. Season one ended with heartbreak for a young Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), who was not even allowed to attend the wedding of her brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe), to her best friend and soulmate, Sue Gilbert (Ella Grant). When season two begins, though, that rift seems to have been mended, as Emily feverishly writes to Sue, awaiting feedback on her latest poem.

But Sue is not interested in (or prepared for) being Emily’s only reader—from her own vaunted place in Amherst society, she nudges her friend into the spotlight, creating a new divide that is just one of several in season two. Series creator-writer Alena Smith mines these personal and political divisions to deliver incredibly moving, ever more topical storytelling. The Dickinson enclave in 1850s Amherst is intruded upon by presences both welcome—Finn Jones as a rakish editor and wannabe disruptor—and undeniable, as the U.S. tips ever closer to civil war. Ahead of the season two premiere, The A.V. Club spoke with Smith about creative freedom, the season’s most important influences, and the character who provides the most compelling counterpoint to Emily this year.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said your goal with Dickinson is to use Emily’s life and work as “a kind of fun house mirror for what we are going through as people today.” Given everything we’ve experienced in 2020, how closely do you think season two aligns with what’s going on in the world?

Alena Smith: I think that there’s a lot of uncanny parallels and resemblances between the world that Emily finds herself in in the late 1850s, on the eve of the Civil War, and the world that we are all trapped in [Laughs.] right now. We do have this feeling of living through history, and obviously, when you set a show in the past, you sort of make that literal because there are quote-unquote historical characters. There’s a lot to unpack about season two and what it’s speaking to in our contemporary landscape.

I think that the core of it is built around issues of media and technology. In 1859, the world of New England is being sort of saturated with media, and the sense of always getting the news from the whole globe instantaneously has now been made possible because of the invention of the telegraph. There’s sort of a proliferation of print journalism in this time. So, we in the writers room were very much thinking about our own world of push notifications and Twitter timelines, and the sense that you can’t really escape from this accelerating case of events. At the same time, there’s this kind of birth within that of celebrity culture, and the option becomes very real for Emily to seek fame and put herself “out there.” This is something that all of us can relate to right now, where you can just use your phone and broadcast your life. You can do it for the ’gram—you can self-consciously construct an image to be consumed by the public almost in real time, and the question is what does that constant pressure to be seen, to be visible, do to an artist who has a very private inner voice, and who needs to perhaps go into the darkness to find her own truth? I think all of that relates to the world that we’re in today and in some ways has only been accelerated by this pandemic, where suddenly, our entire lives are happening online.

AVC: There’s a preface to the second season that teases the idea that the new episodes aren’t quite as grounded in history, because this period of Emily’s life was less documented, and that the “truth is hidden perhaps in her poems.” This potentially gives you much more creative freedom, but did you give yourselves any boundaries or guidelines in approaching season two? 

AS: The purpose of that introduction is a little bit deceptive because, actually, the truth of the matter is that season one is as much a blend of fact and imagination as season two. A lot of things in season two are also grounded in fact. There really was this guy, Sam Bowles, and he really did come to Austin and Sue’s house. He did publish one of Emily’s poems in his newspaper, and he and Emily corresponded for years. But I think the key is less to do with “this happened and this didn’t,” and it’s actually more of a question about the techniques we used in telling Emily’s story. In other words, we are really pushing the boundaries of surrealism in season two. I wanted to set that introduction up so the audience themselves can be open to perhaps blurring the lines or losing the distinction between what is real and what is a dream state of a great artist. I think Emily’s internal world for her can be more vivid than her external world. What we’re saying is there are types of emotional truths that can be accessed through poetry that could never be accessed through any other medium.

AVC: That blurring of the line between reality and fantasy really does run through the season. Even Edward Dickinson, who is much more grounded than his daughter, starts to have these dreams that suggest he’s not quite as bound to earthly ideals.

AS: Yeah, I think all the Dickinsons are actually very creative—in their own ways, Austin and Lavinia have very artistic souls. They just didn’t quite nail it the way Emily did [Laughs.], but all these Dickinsons exist in a pretty rarefied atmosphere of books and music and art, and they’re all wrestling with complicated inner lives.

AVC: It’s great to see the show widen the scope and really start to flesh out all these other characters, but the focus often returns to Emily and Sue. Their storylines here both speak to what was expected of women in those days, including limitations. But they both find ways to maneuver within these very tight confines. We see Emily poised for fame, while Sue is already kind of a big fish in a small pond. Does this cause friction for them throughout the season, and is this going to be the only source of conflict between them?

AS: I think that when we come into season two, we very quickly realize that Sue has changed. She has gone from being this quiet, shy orphan dressed in black to this glittering socialite who has a huge house. She’s married to Austin and is throwing these lavish intellectual salons, where she invites all of the VIPs of New England to come through her doors. For Emily, this immediately raises some red flags. And we, the audience, along with Emily, are kind of asking the question, What happened to Sue? Where’s the real Sue? Does she exist anymore? What’s going on here? That really is sort of the central mystery of season two, and I think that the audience is definitely seeing through Emily’s eyes and sort of trying to resolve these questions about Sue as Emily is trying to.

Hailee Steinfeld and Finn Jones
Hailee Steinfeld and Finn Jones
Photo: Apple TV Plus

AVC: The world of Amherst gets bigger this year—literally. We have the Evergreens now, which is just a much bigger setting than the Dickinson home. But we also see how the outside world kind of invades Amherst through characters like Sam Bowles. What sort of role does he have to play in the lives of the Dickinsons and their friends?

AS: Sam Bowles is this young progressive newspaper editor, who’s a real person from history who was in Emily’s life. He was somewhat of a prominent figure in American history, as he became the editor of The Springfield Republican, which was an important newspaper of its time, thanks in part to his own ambitions. We kind of paint him as a bit of a familiar figure from our times, which is the media disruptor, the entrepreneur, the BuzzFeed editor, you know? Someone who wants to move fast and break stuff. [Laughs.] And he is coming in with all this energy, almost like a new technology himself. He is throwing open doors for Emily that she thought were sealed shut forever. But with new opportunity comes new dangers and new threats. The question I think that Emily is asking is, “How do I hold on to what’s real in this fast-paced land of appearances?” That’s kind of what we’re doing with Sam, and at the same time, the pace of the news is picking up, the pace of events in American history is picking up as [the story] marches ever closer to the onset of the Civil War. It’s a feeling not that different from life in America today, where we are so divided and there does feel to be a sort of constant threat of everything falling apart around us.

AVC: Like The Queen’s Gambit, your show does a wonderful job of bringing a very internalized process to life. In this case, it’s not chess, but writing and being inspired by the things around you. We see words burned into the screen, representing the fire Emily often describes. What kind of directives did you give your team for lending an almost physical form to something that’s entirely in Emily’s head?

AS: This is actually why it’s so important that in this show we blur the boundary between the internal and the external, because we represent the process of writing as an active, visually alive thing. One of my inspirations for this was the movie Naked Lunch, where William [S.] Burroughs is sitting at his typewriter, and it turns into a lobster. I think letting the imagination come into the physical world and be just as real—it’s just as real for Emily when Death picks her up in a carriage as it is when she’s having a conversation with Lavinia in the kitchen. That’s the way that you make writing poetry active and cinematically engaging—it’s just as real and alive as anything else.

AVC: In exploring the onset of the Civil War, Dickinson, like the recent Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, looks at the work of abolition through the eyes of the Black people who are most imperiled. This is no mere theoretical debate for people like Henry, who has a much more prominent place in the overall story this year. What can we expect to see from Henry in season two?

AS: Henry, much like Sue, has a bit of a secret life or new persona that we’ve never seen before. In Henry’s case, he becomes the editor and this prime instigator of an underground abolitionist journal that is written and printed entirely by Black radical activists, who, because of the politics of the time, need to be working in secret. Unlike Emily, who’s out here wrestling with this question of “Should I seek fame as a writer?,” Henry doesn’t even have that opportunity because if it was discovered that he was publishing what is literally illegal material at the time, he could be in serious danger. So Henry provides this counterpoint for Emily on the question of what makes someone want to write: What is the value of writing for society? What is the value of journalism for society? It’s interesting how we have these two newspaper editors—we have Sam Bowles, who’s a white man and very much in the public eye, and we have Henry, a Black man who is working underground.

Henry and Betty’s relationship becomes complicated by Henry’s activism because for Betty, it’s not worth the risk that he’s putting their family through to be pursuing this work. But for Henry, if liberation is not achieved, there’s not going to be much hope for their family anyway. So it’s a very complicated story, and one that is sort of happening in places in history that we haven’t spent enough time looking at.

AVC: The show has shifted its schedule where, after the three-part premiere, a new episode will be out every week. That feels especially appropriate right now, when TV has become an even more communal experience than before.

AS: I’m so excited about the fact that we’re doing it that way this year, because this season is constructed as a little bit of a thriller. There’s definitely cliffhangers, stuff to come back week after week and find out the full picture of the story. We have such an engaged fanbase online, one that hopefully will just grow and grow once the season is out. We’re also in this moment where everyone is still, unfortunately, trapped in their houses, and I am just so excited to be able to offer the space for people to come together and have a lot of fun. There’s a lot of parties in season two, and I really want to create a party vibe online, where every Friday when the new episodes drop the fans can get together with some of us and really talk about it. The challenge for us is going to be not spoiling anything, because it’s definitely a ride that we want people to go on.