Most of us remember Emily Dickson from middle school literature classes as the poet that launched a thousand book reports, but Apple TV+’s Dickinson reimagines the celebrated poet as a fiery goth girl (played by Bumblebee star Hailee Steinfeld) whose genius and free spirit were far too ahead of their time. The basic thesis of the show seems to be, “if Emily Dickinson were alive today, she’d be Billie Eilish.” While this message is imparted a bit literally thanks to the show’s contemporary soundtrack and a guest appearance by Wiz Khalifa as the Grim Reaper, it makes for a pretty fun show that transforms literature’s OG dour spinster into a hot, queer, feminist hero.
That’s right, Emily Dickinson was a lesbian, who spent most of her life involved with her husband’s wife Susan — a romance that is well-documented by love letters first published in 1998. Based on the show’s initial trailer it was unclear if Dickinson would explore this part of the poet’s life, but halfway through the pilot Dickinson shares a heated kiss with her future sister-in-law, played by Ella Hunt. While the actresses don’t have incredible chemistry, it’s still refreshing to see one of Apple’s first TV show’s — and one that’s clearly intended for a Riverdale audience — center a queer romance.
Dickinson’s relationship with Susan was explored earlier this year in WIld Nights with Emily, which starred Saturday Night Live vet Molly Shannon as the poet. Both the show and the film infused the poet’s story with a contemporary sensibility while still staying true to period details, although Wild Nights is a bit more nonchalantly deadpan — it ends with a heartbreaking scene in which Susan (played by Susan Ziegler) washes her lover’s body following her death.
The ways Dickinson and Wild Nights handle death seems to be the main difference between them. Death was a recurring theme in the poet’s work, but Wild Nights is more committed to disproving the image of Dickinson that endures today. As director Madeleine Olnek told Out earlier this year, “Emily Dickinson had a wonderful sense of humor. She was not a miserable wretch, who was furious and dramatic and morbid and...she was a wonderful person, full of life and very funny, too.”
Steinfeld’s Dickinson is funny too, but she’s positioned more as a morbidly romantic outsider who gets high on opium at ye olde house parties when she isn’t busy romanticizing her inevitable end. Still, the show expertly uses humor — thanks largely to 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski, randomly but perfectly cast as the Dickinson matriarch — to make the 19th century setting feel familiar.
If you’ve decided to try out Apple’s new streaming service, Dickinson is definitely worth a watch. It will be interesting to see if the show’s clear target demographic, the same misunderstood teenage girls who have inherited Dickinson’s legacy, tune in. But it’s nice to know that if they do they’ll see a queer heroine far removed from the pages of their English textbooks.