Depicting the young-adult life of 1800s poet Emily Dickinson, the Apple TV+ series Dickinson is the only show on the streaming service with a queer character in a leading role. Hailee Steinfeld, who’s one of its executive producers, plays Emily as an outspoken and pampered rebel who’s determined to remain unmarried because she thinks getting hitched will distract her from her goal of becoming a renowned writer—an ambition that was considered very un-ladylike at the time. The juicy twist? Emily is also in love with her childhood best friend, Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who would go on to marry Emily’s older brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) in real life. (Emily and Sue’s secret romance was detailed in letters found after Emily’s death.)
The actual Dickinson, who died in 1886 at the age of 55, was a recluse who came from a prominent New England family—this one is a lot more ribald and interesting. Like Gossip Girl, the sudsy series comes fully stocked with class tensions, love triangles, domineering rich parents, and a bitchy mean girl who wants to rule the roost. But instead of all the drama taking place in trendy and upscale places on New York City’s Upper East Side in the late 2000s, the central locale is in the stiff, scholarly, and—for Emily at least—more suffocating atmosphere of Amherst, Mass., in the late 1840s, when Emily was in her late teens.
The first season of Dickinson, which just dropped with the launch of Apple TV+, is made up of 10 half-hour episodes. Before you dive in, here’s everything you need to know about the show.
Emily isn’t specifically written as a lesbian, but the show makes it clear that she considers Sue to be the love of her life, and they have a sexual relationship before and after Sue gets sexually involved with Austin. The show’s love scenes and dialogue are very TV-14, so don’t expect to see anything explicit. Emily feels betrayed when she finds out Sue is marrying Austin because (a) Sue doesn’t really like Austin, but feels she must marry him because she’s a broke orphan desperate for a comfortable life and (b) Emily and Sue made a pact never to get married to anyone so that they could become famous writers together.
The show’s elitist clique of young people, led by rich vixen Jane Humphreys (Gus Birney), contains a gay male BFF: a smirky Japanese-American heir named Toshiaki (Kevin Yee), who’s such a cliché that you expect him to yell “Yaaas, girl!” at any moment. Toshiaki is a minor supporting character (he doesn’t appear until the third episode), but he definitely stands out as one of the few people of color who’s allowed to socialize with this privileged group.
Who are the main characters? And who brings the drama?
Emily is a daddy’s girl who spends a lot of time moping (over her writing, Sue, you name it). Emily’s stern mother (the always fabulous Jane Krakowski) wants a traditional family life for herself and her children, and she’s kind of jealous that her husband favors nonconformist Emily. Emily’s workaholic father Edward (Toby Huss) is an attorney and Amherst College treasurer who can’t stay angry at Emily when she breaks his rules. To punish her, he forces her to clean up the dining room and kitchen after dinner. (The horror!)
Emily’s younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) is a boy-crazy ditz who has a thing for playboy Joseph (Gus Halper), who keeps locks of hair from his conquests as souvenirs (gross). Meanwhile, Austin is sort of a himbo who relishes the fact that he’s in a relationship with passive-aggressive Sue because she played hard-to-get.
Jane, the queen of the mean girls, predictably wants Austin for herself. And college-magazine editor/good guy George Gould (Samuel Farnsworth) has a massive, unrequited crush on Emily, often calling her “brilliant” and a “genius.” Throw in a heaping portion of raging hormones, shake, and wait to see what could possibly go wrong.
How historically accurate is the show?
Not very. The costumes, production design, snippets of Dickinson’s poetry, and portrayal of sexism in a patriarchal society are the closest the series comes to being historically accurate. Emily’s unrestrained long hair is very hippie-ish, a not-so-subtle way of proving she’s a “rebel” who’s ahead of her time. But it’s hard to imagine any self-respecting woman from that era walking around in public with that hairstyle, because she would be viewed as a harlot, a freak, and a social outcast. The dialogue (honestly, the weakest link in the show) and soundtrack music (Billie Eilish and a lot of hip-hop) are modern, which is why Dickinson is basically a CW show with corsets.
Emily’s battle against sexism is a constant theme, but when it comes to racism, there’s some historical erasure on the show—the deep inequalities of 1840s America, when slavery was still legal, are glossed over, at least in the first three episodes. When Emily’s father says he’s running for Congress, we just get a passing reference to how the nation is divided over the slavery issue. A few black actors have minor guest roles (a dressmaker here, a servant there), but some of the scenes, such as one at a men’s college, reveal a racial integration that wasn’t accepted in real-life upper-crust society, even in “liberal” Massachusetts. That said, we do get a pretty wild cameo…
Any WTF moments?
Oh, yes. Emily is fascinated with the idea of dying, and in the first episode she has a dream that she gets picked up by a carriage pulled by ghost horses. That’s where that cameo comes in: In the carriage is none other than rap star Wiz Khalifa, who plays an unnamed character representing death. Emily confides in him as they share a cigar-sized blunt.
Later, in the third episode, Emily throws a house party when her parents are away. After imbibing too much of the liquid opium she’s passed around at the bash, she hallucinates a giant talking bee, and then starts dancing with it. Whaaaaa?
And a quick sidenote…
If you want a better-written, funnier portrayal of Emily Dickinson’s personal life, check out the recent movie Wild Nights With Emily, starring Molly Shannon, which is available on home video. Now that is pure poetry.
Dickinson is streaming now on Apple TV+.