The Surreal TV Show That Rewrote Emily Dickinson’s Story

The Apple TV+ period piece Dickinson pushed the boundaries of anachronistic storytelling.

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson
Zach Dilgard / Apple TV+

In Dickinson’s third and final season, the titular poet (played by Hailee Steinfeld) travels forward in time and meets the author Sylvia Plath (Saturday Night Live’s Chloe Fineman). Sylvia, it turns out, has a deep knowledge of her predecessor’s legacy. Apparently, Emily Dickinson lived a “miserable life,” should be considered “the original sad girl,” and, Sylvia whispers scandalously, “was a lesbian.” A strange scene such as this could happen only on Apple TV+’s fantastically surreal cult hit. The show takes an unusual approach to depicting its protagonist’s coming-of-age in the 1800s: Characters speak in Millennial parlance, the soundtrack is populated with today’s hits, and more often than not scenes resemble fever dreams where what’s figurative in Emily’s poems gets depicted literally.

Dickinson, which airs its series finale today, belongs to a small but growing crop of anachronistic period pieces. Following films such as A Knight’s Tale and Marie Antoinette, the show and others like it observe the past through a distinctly contemporary lens. Yet compared with similar projects such as The Great and Bridgerton, Dickinson was less interested in rewriting history; instead, it zoomed in on a single character’s life. It spent three seasons recontextualizing Emily Dickinson’s reputation as an avatar for creative recluses, asking how a woman who so vividly captured the spectrum of human emotion with her words came to be known only as a depressed shut-in. In probing this riddle, Dickinson pushed the boundaries of anachronistic storytelling—and became one of the most audacious series on TV.

Dickinson did more than just include modern-day language in its dialogue and Mitski in its soundtrack. The show frequently traveled outside of time and space altogether by venturing into Emily’s imagination to bring her words to life. Sometimes, her ingenuity took her far from home and into, say, her own version of Dante’s Inferno–inspired hell, while lines from her poems flashed across the screen; her thoughts seemed to burst from her head and sear the very air around her. Concepts she personified in her work, such as “Death” and “Nobody,” became characters themselves. Her poems imply a romantic relationship with Sue (Ella Hunt), her brother’s wife, but the show made their affair explicit; in the series, Sue was both Emily’s love interest and Emily’s foil, a woman leading a version of a life—as a wife and a mother—that could have been Emily’s had her brain not been so ignited by poetry. Some historians have characterized Emily Dickinson as a mere eccentric, but Dickinson didn’t diminish her. It daringly envisioned how her mind may have worked, zealously melding reality with fantasy and inviting its audience to partake in that journey.

For all its trippiest flourishes, however, the show still cared deeply about telling the truth. Steinfeld’s Emily never went far from Amherst, Massachusetts. Many scenes showed her sitting in her bedroom at the desk facing the southwest window and scrawling on scraps of paper. Her family was depicted as she described them in her letters: Her father, Edward (Toby Huss), was a politician with a critical attitude toward her literary ambitions; her mother (Jane Krakowski), also named Emily, cared more about keeping the house spotless than tending to her daughter’s talents. And in casting the series, which is set amid the buildup to and start of the Civil War, the creator Alena Smith and her team aimed for historical accuracy. While Bridgerton chose not to take an actor’s race into account, Dickinson’s creatives cast Black actors to play Black characters, such as having the comedian Ziwe Fumudoh appear as the activist Sojourner Truth. The move underlined how even artists as brilliant as Emily could not imagine away the reality of the conflict.

By juggling tones and transcending genre, Dickinson invited analysis: Its jokes elicited more than easy laughter. Showing 19th-century teenagers rebelliously throwing a salon as if they’re Millennials or Gen Zers, twerking in their hoop skirts, helped the series make a smart point about history, observing how youthful rebellion can persist across generations, if not language, style, or dance moves. In one of the funniest scenes this season, a white Union Army colonel overseeing the development of a Black regiment, who introduces himself as “brother” to a Black abolitionist, worries out loud about not being a good “ally,” and then wraps up by insisting he’ll “do better.” The sequence, which weaves DEI keywords into a Civil War–era meeting, is obviously absurd. But even as it makes fun of the white colonel, the dialogue is subtly resonant, reflecting how many Americans today continue to find race a difficult subject to discuss.

Other recent period projects have also incorporated modern sensibilities to produce humorous moments, but as a whole they use this framework with less nuance. Take, for instance, The Great, a Hulu series that touts itself as only “an occasionally true story.” The satire’s first season drew contemporary relevance from history to fine effect, but its second season invents almost an entirely new biography for Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), portraying her as a woman who, against her will, is falling in love with her husband, Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), despite having overthrown his reign. (In real life, Peter III died about a week after the coup.) Though the cast continues to shine, the series, by the end of the rollicking sophomore season, feels emptier than before. The show had once challenged the image of Catherine as the Western savior of Russia; now, it’s diminished her into a lovelorn royal, a woman whose romantic inclinations hurt her ability to rule.

The arc reminded me of projects such as Cruella and Amazon’s Cinderella, movies that similarly added a modern, revisionist bent to tales set in bygone eras. These films were made to reimagine iconic characters for a new generation, but rather than complicating their portraits, they flattened them into, for lack of a better word, girlbosses. These movies blur the line between the past and the present without revealing any new insight into why their stories’ characters became classic in the first place.

Dickinson expanded upon Emily’s legacy by focusing on her struggle to understand herself. Each season treated her personal dilemmas—whether she should be a poet, whether she should claim ownership of her art, what kind of impact she hoped her work would make—with the same importance as, say, the conflicts that come with running a country. And by taking care to incorporate history even as it toyed with time, the show grasped that although Emily Dickinson was ahead of her time, the time in which she lived informed who she became. Not once in Dickinson’s run does Emily break free from the constraints of the era except in her mind, and as playful as the series could be in showing off her limitless vision, it drew depth from that tension. “You have no power to change anything because you have no imagination,” she tells her father in one of the show’s most stirring scenes. Her genius, Dickinson poignantly illustrates, could take her only so far.

In the end, the series wasn't just a gimmicky take on the life of the poet Emily Dickinson. It questioned why she became a myth—why even modern-day audiences, who live in a time that’s more accepting and more progressive, can still lack imagination like her peers did. Yet the show also wasn’t bleak; its flights of fancy, evoking the same intensity of feeling as her poetry does, breathed life and beauty into the series. Dickinson was a writer who validated the force of every feeling, but she was rarely validated in turn by the era in which she lived. “The future never comes for women,” Sylvia Plath warns Emily during their curious meeting. So Dickinson brought the future to her.

Listen as the Sophie Gilbert, Shirley Li, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss Dickinson on The Review, a new podcast from The Atlantic.