MCR take a seat, we stan an emo queen
By Abbey Delk
Emily Dickinson had a thing for Death. No, really, I think it was a crush. Any high school English teacher can point out Dickinson’s affinity for the macabre, but in Apple TV Plus’s original mini-series Dickinson, our favorite poet’s relationship with Death has become more romantic and visceral. Particularly striking is the arrival of Death and his carriage at several key moments in the series, an ominous black car pulled by ghostly horses. Death himself is far from the grim hooded figure popular media has favored for decades. Played with an almost tenderness by Whiz Khalifa—yes, you read that right—Death comes off more like the kind-of-edgy and dangerous boyfriend our parents would hate for us to bring home for the holidays. His presence in Dickinson’s life evolves over the course of the series’ twelve episodes, from wistful fantasy to cruel reality and gives an insight into how our own understanding of death is so inextricably tied to experiences of loss.
Dickinson herself is portrayed by the dazzling Hailee Steinfeld, who proves with this performance, as she has before in True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen, that she should really devote more time to her incredible acting abilities as opposed to her mediocre music career (sorry, not sorry, Hailee). Steinfeld brings to life a woman who is hard to pin down from cursory readings of her poetry, giving the character a wit and distaste for society’s arbitrary standards for femininity that is reminiscent of Jo March. For fans of Little Women, Dickinson actually crosses paths with Louisa May Alcott at a holiday party in the 8th episode for a heart-to-heart about being a female writer during a time when women were expected put down the pen and pick up an apron. Especially memorable is Alcott, played by Zosia Mamet, pronouncing that Nathaniel Hawthorne “can eat a dick”. This kind of language is not out of place for the style of the show, which chooses to merge the dress of Civil War Era with the foul language and teen angst of the 2010s (not that I think teens were ever not full of angst). If you want a traditional period drama, keep walking because this show probably isn’t for you. But if you’re down for a little experimentation and up for merging the political and social climate of the 19th century with the discourse of today, you’re in for a treat.
Dickinson does a great deal to tease a full life of pain and pleasure from the poet’s written words. Here we get an example of queer love between Emily and her brother’s fiancé that exists outside of modern labels. There is passion and romantic friendship and definitely sex, but the relationships is never analyzed heavily enough by the characters to cause any kind of anguish of identity. The writers are too busy having Emily grapple with her identity as poet to leave much time for her to struggle with her sexual orientation, and I, for one, did not mind the ambiguity. This seems to be a trend in newer media—think HBO’s Euphoria—of allowing relationships between characters speak for themselves without the need to categorize every instance of romantic attraction.
The arc of the series follows Dickinson’s struggle to be accepted as a true poet, especially by her closest friends and family. From the first episode, it is clear that she identifies as a writer and has no qualms sharing her aspirations with others. She does not shy away from the title of “poet”, but uses it regularly to present herself to the world. The most crushing moments for her as a character almost always accompany a family member’s refusal to acknowledge this identity or outright denial of her passion—particularly painful is a moment in which her brother (Adrian Enscoe) growls, “The only real poems are the ones in books!” This is a sore spot for Dickinson, whose father refuses to allow her to publish any of her works under her own name for fear the it will bring shame on the family name. This forces Emily to defend her identity as a poet without the name recognition to back it up. Her resilience in her refusal to be ignored as a serious writer is one of the most vibrant aspects of her character. She is the kind of stubborn, juicy heroine so many of us cannot help but love. Her greatest moment comes in the last minutes of Season 1, when she tells her father, “I am a poet…and there is nothing you can do to stop me.”
I would be amiss not to mention the supporting cast, who all do their part in bringing a lightness and humor to the story of a poet so focused on the grim and morbid. Her mother (Jane Krakowski) and her younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) provide a more traditionally femininity counter to Emily’s more “mannish” aspirations and mannerisms, but not without a hilarity and self-assurance that is refreshing in portrayals of domestic women of this era. One of the funniest (yet also deeply sad) moments of the series is the hiring of a maid for the family and Mrs. Dickinson’s struggle to find an identity outside of the upkeep of the house. Her solution seems to tend towards the alcoholic and dramatic—honestly, if we get a second season, I hope we get a more satisfying resolution to Mrs. Dickinson’s crisis of identity. She deserves better—give her a hobby or an illicit affair or something. Also, John Mulaney shows up as Henry David Thoreau, and it’s exactly as weird and funny as you’d expect.
You should watch this show. If you love poetry, you’ll dig it. If you don’t? You should still watch. It is, more than anything else, the story of a creative, passionate woman, and who doesn’t love those? If you don’t have Apple TV Plus, just get the free 7-day trial and binge the whole thing. You won’t regret it.