With so, so many streaming titles vying for attention, you’d be forgiven for letting this slip through. Now’s the perfect time to discover it.
Dickinson is one of the great undiscovered gems of this streaming era.
The Apple TV+ series returns for its third and final season this week, a culmination of a coming-of-age story about the young Emily Dickinson, played with verve and sensitivity by Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld.
Maybe it’s the fact that still not that many people have signed up to Apple’s streaming service – albeit the fervour around Ted Lasso may have changed that – or that from the outside, a story about a famed 19th century American poet didn’t hold appeal when there are flashier shows vying for attention.
But Dickinson, despite the bonnets and quills, couldn’t be further from a fusty period production. It’s dynamic, smart and progressive, making a direct connection between the youthful preoccupations of the 19th century and the 21st.
Its lively world is filled with complex characters that have ambitions, desires and flaws they don’t always understand.
Chief among them is Emily, whose burning passion for her writing is matched only by her attraction to her best friend and sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt).
While the first season saw Emily grapple with her creative energies and in the second with the concept with fame and visibility, the third finds Emily in a position that many audiences will be familiar with – at home with her family while a monumental event threatens to split the world.
With the series plunging into the American Civil War, themes of political, social and familial division resonate strongly in our pandemic times, a connection series creator Alena Smith deliberately woven into the show’s narrative.
Smith (The Newsroom, The Affair) talked to news.com.au about Dickinson’s final season – the parallels between her own life and her onscreen creations, the show’s contemporaneous themes and the urgent questions the show asks.
Congrats on the season, it’s always such a joy to watch, and yet it’s also very provocative. Were you always working towards setting these episodes during the American Civil War?
I always imagined Dickinson as a three-season series that would reframe and reimagine Emily Dickinson’s coming-of-age story. And I knew season three would take us into the years of the Civil War, which happened to have been Emily’s most prolific years as a poet.
It seems that there was some kind of connection between the violence that was exploding and erupting around her in the American political landscape, and her own creative power or force, which really also seems to have exploded during these specific years.
It’s also interesting to explore the connection between Emily, who was pretty isolated and removed from society and was not by any means on the front lines of the war, and the ways in which there was almost this subconscious connection between her artistic spirit and what was going on in the world around her.
Did you feel like there were parallels to your own life with your creative endeavours, given everything that’s been happening around us these past couple of years?
The parallels got a little too strong when I found myself writing season three over zoom in a pandemic, actually at my parents’ house because I was trapped there in the beginning of Covid.
But unlike Emily Dickinson, I had two-year-old twins that I had to be dealing with at the same time. So, that was really fun.
The pandemic brought all of us into this new headspace and emotional connection to this story and characters. For one thing, just the simple fact of being stuck at home with your family, that really is what defined Emily Dickinson’s life. She lived her whole life, more or less, in this one house.
The immediate people around her that she interacted with every day were her family members. Those were the most important people to her. And season three really functions as a homecoming for Emily where she is more committed to keeping her family together as the world around them is falling apart.
There are so many things this season that feels as if it’s been informed by the past couple of years, whether it’s the fracturing of Emily’s family or the divisions in their world. How much of your conception of the third change because of what’s happening in our world?
It was informed by what was going on. There were more emotional layers added to it, but the fundamental building blocks of the season and the touchstones of it, they had been there from the beginning.
Getting to explore that in the actual lived context of 2020 and 2021 was profound in ways that I never could have anticipated. But it was the story I wanted to tell from the beginning.
In framing it around the Civil War and its partisan, familial and personal divides – Edward and his Georgian brother – is there this feeling that this 150-year-old history is repeating itself, that we’ve been here before?
It’s not even so much repeating itself as it’s still playing out. That’s the point of this show, that history is not the past, and that we are all absolutely conditioned and shaped by historical forces.
Unfortunately, we still have a lot of work to so and the key question Emily is asking in season three is ‘Can I help at all, can my work make any kind of difference, can I hope to have any impact as an artist, as a poet?’.
I don’t know the answer to that question but it’s one that we are all grappling with because we feel like our lives and our impact is so small and the problems of the world are so big.
How much did you ask yourself that question as you were writing season three?
It’s a preoccupation of every artist and one that I’ve always struggled with. Certainly, in season three, we were having a lot of conversations about the difference between art and activism and in which ways are they the same and in which ways are they different.
No one feels like they’re doing enough, and that struggle is very real and very present for us. That’s why it’s the subject of season three, because Dickinson is a show that’s trying to reflect on where we are at now.
For me, Dickinson is a story about Emily’s self-discovery, trying to come to terms with what she stands for and what her voice is. How do you work towards an ending to a series that seems to be rooted in that idea of discovery, which is a journey that never ends?
That journey never ends. But I do think that in our life’s journey, there is a transition into adulthood that is real. At some point, you have leave your childhood behind and I think that is the specific section of Emily’s journey that we take her through in this show.
I love the vibrancy of the show – and, of course, the big dance numbers we get every season.
We have more than one dance scene in season three and they definitely felt like real moments of joy in our Covid times. People got to take their masks off and dance, and it was everybody’s first time at a dance party in over a year.
I hope people at home will be dancing too and posting their videos of themselves dancing, I love to see that. I saw a great video the other day of a fan, just jamming to the end credits song.
Are they the reactions you’re looking for most from audiences, the joy?
When I see fans expressing feelings, that they feel so understood and loved by the show, that’s the greatest joy for me as an artist. Especially for our viewers who themselves are still coming of age and making that transition into adulthood.
That’s the experience I want to provide, I want to give people the sense they’re not alone, that they will find love, just like Emily and Sue, even if it’s not going to be easy.
Dickinson season three starts streaming on Apple TV+ from Friday, November 5
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Originally published as Dickinson creator Alena Smith: ‘A show that’s trying to reflect on where we are at now’