However influential her work may be, the notion most people have of Emily Dickinson is that of an eccentric recluse, scribbling away in her bedroom about things with which she had very little experience. Alena Smith sought to shatter that myth with her Apple TV+ dramedy, the raucous and stylish Dickinson, which sees Hailee Steinfeld play Emily as more of a bon vivant than a hermit. This Emily has a great desire for meaningful connection—not least of which, with her sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt)—but she’s not opposed to debauchery in small doses, or literally hanging out with Death himself (Wiz Khalifa)
Dickinson’s anachronistic take extends beyond this more devilish Emily, to the other members of the Dickinson family and Amherstian society at large. The inclusive cast may seem a bit at odds with the antebellum New England setting, but it’s just one of the ways for Smith and her writers to live in the future.
The first two seasons of Dickinson saw Emily choose her path and then grapple with the obstacles of fame and having an audience. In the third season, Emily is more assured than before—she’s on a mission to heal a rift in her family, and to bring hope to the world. It feels like a natural (if open-ended) conclusion to the series, which Smith had always structured in three acts. The A.V. Club spoke with Smith about the show’s many creative risks, its continued social relevance, underappreciated artists, and when she realized she was ready to say goodbye to Dickinson.
The A.V. Club: You’ve never been afraid to take risks with the show, so it’s not surprising that there’s time travel this season. How long have you been thinking about doing something like that for Dickinson?
Alena Smith: Well, I don’t exactly remember when I got the idea that we would do a time travel episode; it was probably somewhere in the midst of season two. But it does make sense in a show like Dickinson where such a meta theme of the whole series is about time traveling, in a way. It’s about bringing the past into the present, bringing the present into the past, blurring the lines between the two.
And I also really wanted to write that episode because it’s an important story about the journey of our understanding of Dickinson and her legacy. In this episode where Emily travels to 1955 and meets a very hilarious caricature of Sylvia Plath played by Chloe Fineman, she is forced to confront how she is remembered, which turns out to be a real distortion of the truth. Yes, on the one hand, she has gotten published and she is known as a great poet. But on the other hand, everybody thinks of her as this shy, reclusive, isolated spinster who died of love for a man.
And that is how Dickinson was thought of until quite recently. It was actually a strategic branding narrative that was devised by some of her first editors. It was also just a convenient way to think about a female poet. And that’s part of the whole project of this show is to kind of reimagine, recontextualize Emily Dickinson and shed light on things about her that are our actually a lot more true than that old myth.
AVC: It’s very much a part of the show’s exploration about art and the artist’s relationship with their audience, because in the first season, Emily is kind of coming to terms with writing poetry. In the second, she wonders how much fame she might want from it. Now, of course, it’s time to consider her legacy the same way that her father has this season. Was that part of the three-season structure you had in mind from the beginning?
AS: Yes, I envisioned three seasons that I knew would culminate in a season that would take place in the Civil War. The four years of the Civil War happened to be Emily’s most prolific and sort of “on fire” time as a writer. She never wrote as much before or after those four years. And in that time, she composed many of her greatest works for which she is still remembered today. And to me, that was a very curious fact [for] this woman who on the surface seems to have been so protected from the violence of war. For her to have such a creative explosion during such difficult years for her country seems to suggest that in some ways, she was subconsciously feeling all of that energy and that it was coming out in her work.
So, for me, the Civil War is where Emily Dickinson becomes the great poet that we know her to be today. And that’s why I always knew that this is sort of where her coming-of-age story would land and that it was enough just to get there. I’m really grateful that we were able to make this season, even in a pandemic, and that we could complete the journey.
AVC: Speaking of the Civil War, the show does not pretend that being on the same side means that everybody’s experience is the same. What Betty and Henry are going through is markedly different from what Emily and Colonel Higginson are going through. Ziwe joined the writers’ room this season, but behind the scenes, how else did you go about making sure that we could see this conflict from so many different points of view?
AS: Yeah, I think that Dickinson has always from the very first episode been a show about these intersections of privilege and oppression. Emily occupies different roles in society as a woman. In the 19th century, she’s not allowed to vote, she’s not allowed to own property. On the other hand, she is an aristocrat and a person with white skin who is able to pursue things like writing poetry in ways that are not accessible for example, to Maggie, who is her Irish maid. That’s always been at the core of what Dickinson the show is about, probably because those are the subjects that fascinate me.
And I would say that it was my job and my great fortune as the showrunner to recruit a community of brilliant, talented, passionate artists who don’t all see things the same way, but who all believe that it’s necessary to have difficult conversations and to bring people together into a space where we could be vulnerable. Because I do believe that in order to make art, you have to be vulnerable. That’s why it’s so important for people to allow there to be different viewpoints, because otherwise people just shut down and that’s not going to get us anywhere.
I don’t feel like I have any of the answers to these questions. But I was able to call up Lynn Nottage, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and happened to have been my teacher in grad school, and ask, “Can you join the writers’ room for season three?” And Lynn actually had already, even from the beginning, inspired the character of Betty, because Lynn wrote a play called Intimate Apparel where there’s a depiction of an African American woman who is a seamstress, a very skilled designer of lingerie. That’s the case in Lynn’s show.
But I go all the way back to Yale drama school with Lynn and also with Jen Moeller, our costume designer, as well as Amanda Warren who plays Betty—all of us met in New Haven a long time ago. And to have that kind of trust that we’ve built up over decades with collaborators is one of the ways and reasons why I was able to tell the story that I wanted to tell; for Emily in season three, that is really a story about intersectionality.
AVC: We see Death in the premiere, when Emily tells him she thinks poetry can be as powerful as he is, or maybe even more so. But he’s not as present as in previous seasons. Is that because there’s so much death in throughout the season? There are constant funerals because of the war, and even the loss of a couple of characters.
AS: That’s totally right. There’s an amazing book by a historian, Drew Gilpin Faust, that’s called This Republic Of Suffering: Death And The American Civil War. The whole premise of this book is that Americans’ relationship to death was completely transformed during the years of the Civil War, because all of a sudden we were experiencing death on such a scale and in such brutal anonymous conditions, with young men going out to die on the battlefield. It really changed people’s consciousness. And when I set out to write this show that would culminate in the Civil War, I could never have imagined that we would be living through a global pandemic where something so similar would be happening to our nation. And just day-to-day awareness of grief, loss, mourning. Whether or not we’ve lost a loved one, we’ve all lost a lot in the past few years. And there is definitely an emotion to all of that I think just diffuses the entire season of season three and is one of the core ideas of it.
AVC: It does feel like the show has more pointed examples of parallels between the 19th-century setting and today. In one episode, one of the Black volunteer soldiers for the Union says, “I’m fighting a war against racists with economic anxiety.” Did you feel a greater responsibility this season to connect more directly with current events?
AS: From the very beginning of this show, the entire purpose has been to use Emily Dickinson’s life and times, and her work in order to hold up an unexpected mirror to where we are today. And even when I pitched the show way back in 2016, 2017, I knew that in season three Emily was going to write to Higginson because this really happened. And that Higginson would be in Beaufort, South Carolina, with a group of unauthorized Black soldiers who were formerly enslaved people that now were eager to complete their fight for liberation. And I was just excited to do the thing that we do in Dickinson and find out how to make that relevant today while the act of making something relevant is a sensitive act.
I feel everyone who was part of bringing this about, from the writers’ room to the cast and crew, we were are all living this. One of the points of the whole show is that we still live in times shaped by this problematic history. But it was a huge honor to be able to get to this point in the story, because I think this is way where the whole experiment of the show pays off. This was sort of what the point was the whole time, was to be able to talk about, “Where are we, have we gotten to the future? Or are we still stuck in the past?”
AVC: There’s a moment in the season where somebody says Emily’s work won’t be understood for centuries. As an artist, have you ever felt that way? Maybe not centuries, but have you ever felt like, “People didn’t get this, but maybe they’ll pick up on it 20 years from now?”
AS: Yeah, when I first started talking about this show, I don’t think anybody knew what I was talking about. And I don’t think it was a show that could have been on television back then. But luckily for me, it didn’t take centuries. There’s been a lot of cultural change that has been packed into the last decade or so. At this point, one of the reasons I feel so good about letting the show go now is that I feel like we got to the moment where it made sense to people. And I do feel like this conversation is very inclusive. Our audience is engaged. They are so smart. They know exactly what the show is up to. This isn’t leaving anybody out. It’s done the job it needed to do.
Writers have this curse, which is that we always have to live a little bit in the future because we have to plan the whole thing. We have to plan out what we’re going to do and then go ahead and execute it. So you’re always planning for a future moment. And I really do have to process and think through what’s needed now, because I feel like Dickinson was my answer in 2015. I don’t know exactly what my answer is now.