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‘Dickinson’ Review: Apple TV+’s Historical Lark Is Uneven, but Unrivaled In Season 2

The series plays fast and loose with history and sometimes loses its grip.

Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson

Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson”

Apple TV+

There is a moment in the middle of the second season of Apple TV+’s flagship series “Dickinson” that is one of the best scenes of the series to date. There are no frills or frippery. There’s no hip-hop or dancing or anachronistic winks. It’s a simple scene between two people in which all pretense is set aside in favor of plain speech and harsh truths.

And it might break the show.

The scene in question centers on the titular protagonist, the young poetess about whom little is known and much is theorized, and it appears that Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) has finally gotten her comeuppance. Often described as moody and eccentric, her actions have finally crossed the line into creepy and those whose boundaries she trampled feel violated. It’s harsh, but necessary, as the series spends so much time in Emily’s head and with her loved ones that it’s sometimes hard to remember that her passion can be misplaced and her romanticism, well, romanticized to an extremely uncool degree.

When I saw it, I was relieved. Finally, here was someone cutting through all the clutter and courtesy to tell it like it is, like an outsider stumbling into an episode of a long-running sitcom and making the audience realize how messed-up their beloved band of vagabonds truly is. But in telling the truth, did “Dickinson” crack the magical realism of its own storytelling? Did it shatter the illusion so carefully constructed of a slightly off girl who is awkward but well-meaning in her emotional expressions?

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, in which the following information is relayed by Steinfeld: “The records of Emily Dickinson’s life, up to and including Sue (Ella Hunt) and Austin’s (Adrian Enscoe) marriage, are full and factual compared with what lies ahead.” Which is to say, if you thought Season 1 played fast and loose with history, just wait to see what we’ve cooked up now.

Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson

Hailee Steinfeld and Anna Baryshnikov in “Dickinson”

Apple TV+

In this, “Dickinson” has opted not to change, per se, but to delve deeper. If Season 1 was promising, but uneven, then Season 2 is entertaining, but uneven, with the whiplash between brilliance and boredom being far more stark now that it appears to be a feature and not a bug.

Even if this isn’t by design on the part of creator Alena Smith, it mostly comes together for a series loosely based on Dickinson’s life and works. In her time, Dickinson experimented with slanted rhyme and varying meter, stanzas, and syllables. The artist knew that sometimes the delivery is just as important as the message.

As Season 2 begins, Emily is feeling put off by Sue — her former lover, current sister-in-law — as the latter is pushing the former to widen her scope of readers and pursue publication via a brash up-and-coming newspaperman Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones, who we are apparently still trying to make happen). Meanwhile, Emily’s brother (and Sue’s husband) Austin is searching for meaning in his newlywed life and coming up short, while sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) is pushing back against the assumption that she will marry soon and re-evaluating a life she was previously convinced was all she ever wanted. Even the Dickinson family matriarch and patriarch are out of sorts, with Edward (Toby Huss) and his wife (Jane Krakowski) — whose name was also Emily, which surely proved confusing even then — bemoaning a lack of money (for him) and a lack of intimacy (for her). Change is surely on the horizon for all of them, and not just because there’s a Civil War brewing down south.

It’s Emily’s story that embodies the see-saw relationship with change the most in Season 2, as the artist engages in a “will they/won’t they” flirtation with fame. The conflict drives many of the episodes, to great effect, even as we know that Dickinson remained reclusive throughout her life, with only a handful of poems published before her death.

Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson

Hailee Steinfeld and Ella Hunt in “Dickinson”

Apple TV+

She grapples with the idea of being known and beloved, or anonymous and free. (As an aside, I do find it slightly strange that Emily never really doubts that she’s one of the Greatest Poets of All Time, but largely believes it to be an inevitability based wholly on publication.) The show is so nuanced in its exploration of fame and identity — of belonging to the people, but not of the people; of being seen, but not known — it’s impossible not to project Steinfeld’s own experiences on the narrative. Though clearly not afraid of the spotlight, the actress earned an Oscar nomination when she was 14, and what it is to be so exposed to so many people at such a young age?

There’s a sea-sickness in Emily’s wavering and in most of the show’s relationships as they turn on and off, hot and cold. There are stark tonal shifts in back-to-back scenes, with one moment heartfelt and the next cheeky, like a minister admonishing his congregation, “Indeed the devil’s greatest trick may be to persuade you that he doesn’t exist.”

Add to this Emily’s increasing visions or fantasies, driven by something inside of her head, malevolent or otherwise, reality becomes slippery and hard to pin down. That was the warning, of course, before the premiere, but there is a new element this season that makes this development an even more dangerous game than before.

Season 2 sees the welcome cast expansion to include Black characters like Hattie (Ayo Edibiri, who also serves as a staff writer on the series), who are actively working to fund John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, as the show creeps nearer to the start of the Civil War. But the very serious, very profound implications of slavery and the dawn of the bloodiest era in American history blend strangely with a show so married to the interior life of a gifted, if slightly self-involved, hermit.

And yet, for all of its faults, “Dickinson” has charm to spare. It’s uneven, yes, but often in a way that grabs your attention if its wandered to, say, your phone or Twitter or TikTok. It’s a delightfully kooky universe to inhabit and among the most gorgeous-looking shows currently airing. It is imperfect and strange and easy to love. Sometimes the ride is bumpy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking the trip.

Grade: B

“Dickinson” Season 2 premieres its first three episodes January 8 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be available weekly on Fridays.

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