Much like Emily Dickinson herself, Apple TV+’s Dickinson has never shied away from tackling the tough topics. Whether it is an unflinching look at fame, an honest and beautiful portrayal of a queer relationship or a nation and family divided, Dickinson doesn’t bat an eyelash at diving into the trenches of society.
In fact, the third and final season of the hit dramedy—which remains as sharp, witty and poignant as ever—kicks off in the actual trenches of the Civil War. A major event that Dickinson creator and showrunner Alena Smith had been planning to use in season three, which premieres Nov. 5 with two new episodes, from the very beginning. However, what she didn’t realize was just how relevant the themes of a divided nation, activism and social justice would be when it finally hit screens.
“The privilege of writing about something that’s actually a biopic and based in real history is that I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t know what was going to happen in our actual world,” Smith tells The Daily Beast. “I certainly didn’t know we’d be writing and shooting this entire third season in a pandemic.”
The very notion of the past mimicking the present has, as Smith says, been the point of the show the whole time. “We think of the past as past, but it is present,” she explains. “We are continuing the same difficult conversations that have been raging in this country since the beginning. And, we’re not done with the work yet.”
The parallels of Dickinson’s poetry to the trials and tribulations of modern times is just more proof that her poetry is timeless and universal. And it is something that Smith finds “at times can be comforting and at times can be unsettling, that there are these sort of unresolvable questions about what it is to be alive.”
“The reason why she stands so far above other writers is that she conveyed those so distinctly and her work is just a treasure trove that you can return to again and again, and always find something new to chew on and wrestle with,” Smith offers.
Jane Krakowski, who plays Ms. Dickinson in the series, echoes Smith’s sentiments about the real-world analogues to the series. “Each season sort of rode down a parallel road with the times that they were going to air in and I’ve always found that very interesting. Whether it’s social media or it’s Black Lives Matter and the Civil War, all the topics that were being talked about centuries ago are still relevant today,” Krakowski maintains.
One of the most impressive and introspective topics Smith has wrestled with in the series since its beginning is fame. The idea of whether to seek fame and the fickleness of fame was the driving force behind season two of the series—and also a driving force in the life of Emily Dickinson.
In a show starring several young actors and many famous faces, the idea of exploring fame and its meaning was cathartic to the cast. Star Hailee Steinfeld, who was thrust into the public spotlight with her Oscar nomination for True Grit at just 13 years old, says she learned more about fame through Dickinson than she had ever before. “It made me sort of, as the season does itself, question what it even really is and what it means,” says Steinfeld.
“When realizing that fame is something that you can absolutely wish for and achieve, but then once you have it, it’s not like you can decide how much or how little you want, it’s a beast and it can either be the best thing or not,” she adds.
The good news is that Steinfeld, unlike her character Emily, believes she has a very healthy relationship with fame. “I have a better understanding of it,” she shares.
Steinfeld isn’t the only cast member who has experienced a high level of fame at such a young age. Anna Baryshnikov, who plays Lavinia Dickinson, learned a great deal about being famous from her father, actor and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. She saw firsthand how people would approach him to gush about the impact a performance of his had on their life. “That was the most meaningful thing as someone who wanted to get into the business of telling stories, that those stories could be so impactful for people,” says Baryshnikov.
However, seeing the impact it had on others also made Baryshnikov, she feels, “hold myself to a certain standard of perfection.”
“He led me to a quote from Martha Graham who basically says, ‘It’s really not your job to judge your own work and to think about how other people are gonna perceive it.’”
While Steinfeld said Dickinson made her think more critically about fame for the first time, it had the opposite effect on Baryshnikov: “A self-protective part of my brain really tries to turn off thinking about it too much, because it feels like a pretty good way to stifle a lot of your creativity.”
For Ella Hunt, who plays Sue Gilbert, the experience of Dickinson in its entirety was a lesson for her on being comfortable in the spotlight. “I have gone on a journey over the course of doing press for the show,” Hunt admits.
“During the first season of press, I was really afraid and I was really nervous,” she continues. “Dickinson—[and] Anna, Adrian (Blake Enscoe), Hailee and Alena—has provided a safe space for trying on different versions of myself and being allowed to be afraid.”
Now, with the show entering its third and final season, Hunt has discovered how to deal with fame: honesty. “The times when I’m most honest about my identity and the way that I dress and the way that I refer to myself are the times when I feel most supported and uplifted both by the people next to me and by the wonderful fans of the show,” she reasons.
Hunt also thinks that grappling with fame is something everyone deals with on a daily basis thanks to the internet and social media—a tool that has surely changed the game for not only celebrities but what even constitutes a celebrity. “I think it really forces you to question what you want to be known for,” says Baryshnikov. “The boom of social media has dismantled this idea of a celebrity level of fame—some impossible thing that only very special people get to have.”
Smith is a bit more skeptical about social media and its impact. “I think social media was seen originally as it was going to be this space that could help bring people together. And in some ways it has, but in other ways, it hasn't,” she argues, adding that if Emily Dickinson were alive today “she would probably be very tempted by social media, just like all of us are, but she’d also be afraid of it too.”
Not too much is known of Emily Dickinson’s life outside of her poems and accounts from others, but her relationship with her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert has always been an important part of her life and work. And it was, in fact, the inspiration for Smith writing the entire series. “It’s hard to find a better setup for a romantic dramedy than being in love with your brother’s wife,” Smith jokes.
The Emily and Sue relationship and the portrayal of that relationship by Steinfeld and Hunt, respectively, quickly became very important to the LGBTQ+ community—a fact that means a great deal to Steinfeld. “I hope that this show and these characters make it so that someone watching feels that they see themselves reflected in it,” she says.
The relationship also means quite a lot to Hunt, as well: “I couldn’t be prouder of the relationship that Hailee and I have built in creating this story of Emily and Sue. She’s a complete inspiration to work alongside in crafting this beautiful, messy queer romance.”
It is also not lost on the cast that a show like Dickinson with a queer romance at its center might not have been able to make it to air even a handful of years ago. “The ecosystem has changed visibly in the three years that we’ve been doing the show, and it feels so special to have been part of this contribution to that,” explains Adrian Blake Enscoe, who plays Austin Dickinson.
However, Enscoe says there is still much left to be done in terms of LGBTQ+ visibility and representation: “It’s still only like a certain section of the LGBTQ+ umbrella that is really getting visible attention in popular culture.”
Behind-the-scenes visibility and inclusivity is another area that Hunt says “needs so much work.”
“It’s not just about representation on screen, but representation behind the camera and creating safe and inclusive onset environments,” she declares. “I can see producers and writers that I know really grappling with their bias and ingrained prejudice that is being dismantled.”
Emily Dickinson may never have gotten to see the legacy she created with her work, but with a show like Dickinson available for so many audiences at the click of a button, the power of her words and her life will live on forever.
Smith did, however, call Apple on the final day of filming to ask for a Blu-ray version of the series “just in case it all disappeared.”
“I want everything on VHS,” Smith says with a laugh. “That would be my dream.”
A dream after Emily Dickinson’s own heart.