"Not necessarily the individual genius of its protagonist, virtuosa poet Emily Dickinson, but the cultural constructs of genius and all the jubilation and despair associated with possessing that kind of talent," Robyn Bahr says of the Apple TV+ series, which is back for Season 2. "The magical realist antebellum dramedy speckles its story with Dickinson's writing, of course — artful chyrons here, lyrical recitations there — but Dickinson is more interested in grappling with young Emily's process than her output. Throughout the first and second seasons, she encounters a number of eminent artists, such as Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (Timothy Simons), who briefly mentor her, sharing trade wisdom or warning her of the dysphoria of fame. They can only do so much: Emily may not always feel in control of the words that pulse through her, but it is ultimately within her power to select her audiences. Can genius flower in the dark?"
Dickinson, like poetry itself, risks risibility to produce something dazzling: The Apple TV+ series is "a literary superheroine’s origin story that’s heady, funny and full-feeling, dead serious about its subject yet unserious about itself," says James Poniewozik. He adds that Dickinson "works, thanks to an exuberant voice, the playfulness of the half-hour episodes and the passion for the protagonist’s verses, which appear onscreen as if written in fire. (Hailee) Steinfeld plays Emily as a snarky rebel possessed by forces she only partly understands; it’s literary biography in the form of a WB supernatural dramedy."
Did Dickinson crack the magical realism of its own storytelling in Season 2?: "Did it shatter the illusion so carefully constructed of a slightly off girl who is awkward but well-meaning in her emotional expressions?" says Libby Hill. "Probably not. For as much as Dickinson Season 2 is concerned with growth and change, it’s even more focused on the idea of deciding to — or not to — change. That much is clear from the premiere’s opening moments."
Dickinson creator Alena Smith calls Season 2 a sexy, psychological thriller: "Season 2 elevates the show to a more sophisticated and, in some cases, more complicated type of storytelling," says Smith. "In season 1, we really were telling a coming of age story about Emily Dickinson rebelling against the wishes of her parents, particularly her father, in pursuing a creative voice of her own. In season 2, she has conquered her father to some extent and steps out into a wider world where she suddenly finds herself having blind spots that she didn't know about before."
Smith on exploring fame and Black radical activism in Season 2: “We’re really playing with what is history other than a narrative," she says, "and we’re trying to disrupt the way the narrative has been received and say that with people like Emily Dickinson, or Black radical activists in New England in the mid-19th century, we have not told our history in a way that foregrounds their achievements and their contributions. We’re always focused on Abraham Lincoln, instead.”
Why Season 2 has a preface teasing that it's less grounded in history: "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," says Smith. "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."