Sunday 10 November 2019


Halfway through Dickinson’s first season, the family celebrates Christmas, and Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) finds a roll of papers from her absent father, who at that point is representing his constituency in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. In these papers, Edward (Toby Huss) promises his daughter a conservatory that shall be connected to the house, in which she can grow her roses all year round, so that she shall always be happy. Quietly horrified, Emily pictures being trapped in that conservatory, surrounded by her flowers, but never able to leave. 
It’s a great picture of the tumultuous conflict that dominates the first season. Her parents’ house is a sanctuary, she has a room of her own in which she can write, the demands on her to marry cease once her mother (a great Jane Krakowski) instead pictures a future in which Emily will forever take care of her. On the other hand, the wide world outside beckons, offering an alternate reality in which Emily Dickinson may have gone West, or taken a man as a life partner in a true relationship of equals, or had taken a more conventional path to literary stardom, shaping her writing to match popular demand, like Louisa May Alcott (as Zosia Mamet, in a great guest performance, declares: She’s just in it for the hustle, and in the time that others raise even just one child, many novels could have been written, and sold). There is the idea of the many possible futures that were eventually discarded to the real one, in which Emily never left her parents’ house in Amherst - and yet it is important to remember that the great house, the great family name, of which her father is so proud and which her father is so keen to protect, now only exists in relation to Emily’s accomplishments the greatest American poet.
Dickinson sticks to historical settings and historical costumes, and when it veers off into what may have happened rather than what did happen, it sticks close to the possible (I would argue – who says that Emily didn’t go to see Henry David Thoreau in his “remote cabin” only to be forever disappointed- never meet your heroes, and who says she didn’t use the opportunity of her parents leaving overnight to throw an opium party), but at the same time, it avoids the sense of distance and alienation that can happen when historical narratives insist on using historical dialects. I think there is a difference between authenticity and truth, and Dickinson is well served to reinterpret Emily and her friends, the young people of 1850s Amherst, as linguistically markedly different from their parents’ generation. We can either regard people of the past as inherently unknowable and incomprehensible (because of how science and beliefs have progressed), or we can understand the conflicts of the past as mirrors of the presence, and the essential core truth about people as still remaining the same. It serves the purpose of the narrative here that Emily’s friends sound like Generation Y (talking about their shared obsession with Dickens’ serial Bleak House, Austin, Emily’s brother, declares that he is “mainlining that shit”, and indeed they all are, eager to avoid spoilers). 
The three Dickinson siblings each carry the expectations of their parents, and they are all unhappy about it, but they also live their lives in tumultuous times (a split second before the beginning of the Civil War) with an incredible amount of privilege, as other characters frequently remind them. Emily is called out on it twice, the first time by her best friend and beloved Sue (Ella Hunt), who is engaged to her brother Austin and explains to her that she does not have the luxury to regard marriage as outdated and ill-suited to her personal desire for freedom, as she has no father who will take care of her regardless. In fact, her whole family is dead, and she is still carrying the debt of their many funerals. Emily, very proud of herself for desiring an unconventional life, and in constant conflict with her father about that desire, takes a moment to comprehend that the feasibility of that desire is directly connected to her father’s wealth, and their secure position in the Amherst hierarchy. In fact, if we put aside her very specific struggle that comes with being a woman that does not take women seriously, and wishes to see them as mothers and wives only, her encounter with hero Henry David Thoreau (played with gusto by John Mulaney) is another call-out. It is a translation of an anecdote now often told about the author of Walden: That the man who put so much effort into creating an image of himself as someone who lived independently and in a cabin far-removed from society was in fact only a convenient walking distance away from his family, a mother who did his laundry and loving siblings who dropped by with cookies. Only a man could call a life self-sufficient and still have his trousers washed weekly by his mother. But only Emily could blame Sue for not being as willing as her to forego marriage, without realising that Sue doesn’t have the same freedom to sit in her room and write, while the household around her provides for her. 

The second call-out is even more poignant than that, and one of the many reminders in the show about the time period it is set in. Emily runs a Shakespeare club with her friends and decides to read Othello, and then attempts to convince Henry (Chinaza Uche), who works for her family, to assume the titular role. She frames this as an attempt to keep Henry occupied, since he is too afraid to go into Amherst – not quite comprehending the horror of being a black man in the 1850s who is well-aware that he could be kidnapped and dragged to the South, as has happened to others, regardless of their papers. There are many high-minded debates about the state of the union, the state of civility, the likeliness of a war, in this first season, but very little awareness of the human cost of slavery, since the debates happen between people well-removed from those effects. In forcing Henry to read Othello, in front of her friends, which he does beautifully, and with greater comprehension of the text than any of them, she also puts him in harms way, and following, he has to suffer the casual racism of Emily’s friend and constant suitor George, who insists that a black man should not be in the company of white women, or perform Shakespeare. Emily throws George out, and this ends their friendship, but the scene is a reminder that Emily is socially closer to George than she is to Henry, and that it has previously not occurred to her that she may be putting him in a potentially dangerous situation, and all it simply so she could understand the character of Othello more, by seeing him performed more authentically. 

None of this is meant to paint over the fact that women, even privileged women, are confined and trapped in a society that allows them little room to grow. Emily’s mother has dedicated her entire life to being a good housewife, refusing for a long time any kind of domestic help (until she begrudgingly, but much to our enjoyment, allows Darlene Hunt’s Maggie into the house, who brings her own specific burdens of being Irish in a country that is becoming increasingly hostile to others with her). Once her husband leaves for Washington, the centre of the domestic life is missing, and her raison d’etre collapses, and she resorts to alcohol to make sense of her life. In a hilarious scene, the family believes Emily to be dying and her mother confides in her that she never wanted children at all, a confession she is later very much embarrassed about, and never mentions again.
Emily’s sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), not gifted with endless talents, comprehends her bleak future as the daughter destined to stay at home forever, chosen to care for her parents into old age, a spinster by design (and neither she or Emily ever lived anywhere else, in the end). Her self-discovery is a quiet one, but in a way just as poignant as Emily’s feverish writing of beautiful poems – finding herself not reflected anywhere, and fading into obscurity and invisibility, Lavinia begins to reclaim herself (her body and her mind) by beginning to draw herself, to capture the beauty that she knows she has, but that is denied recognition by the society she lives in. Her threatening spinsterhood is often played for laughs (she catches herself having knitted and endless shawl, with no concept of time, she makes a little pillow for her beloved cat, only to have Emily use it as a menstrual pad), but the show also gives her scenes of great dignity. To be seen, Lavinia needs to see herself. 

The metaphorical warden for Emily’s ambition is her father, who loves her fiercely, but loves his own ambition and his family’s good standing in the community even more. It is near impossible to hate him (both for Emily and for us – he is, after all, Toby Huss, from Halt and Catch Fire), especially when his love for his weird daughter and her undeniable, overwhelming talent is made obvious, and yet he forbids her to publish, to educate herself, to be present in the public in any other shape and form than he wishes her to. Regardless of how useless his son Austin proves himself to be, again and again (most hilariously, and obviously, when he performs his own poem, to celebrate the train coming to town – finishing with a true first grade attempt at rhyming - train and again), he must be the carrier of his father’s ambition, he is the one that his hope must be placed on. Emily is, in many ways, the perfect son that Edward would want – and there is an ambiguity here about how he would have felt, knowing that she is the one living on forever – but at the same time, his reluctance to let her obvious talent be seen is the most likely reason why she was not published during her lifetime. 

The other great theme of Dickinson is death. It seems inescapable and ever-present, not just in the literal form that he appears to Emily as – Wiz Khalifa, in a horse-drawn carriage – but also in the way in which anyone, at any time, might contract a deadly disease and pass away unexpectedly. And this world is on the brink of what would be the bloodiest war the United States has ever fought, one that birthed a whole industry to deal with death. Early on, funerals are ever-present, and in a world without antibiotics, death takes freely from loved ones. This is played for the tragedy here – Sue having lost her whole family, uprooted, finding passionate love with Emily but material safety with Austin (a marriage that will not be happy, to a man who only wants her first because she does not want him back and second, because Emily wants her). It is played for laughs, when Austin contemplates eternal life together and decides to disinter a baby buried too closely to the family plot, so that Sue can rest with him forever, once they both also inevitably pass. The most haunting death in the first season is that of Benjamin Newton (again impossible not to love, Matt Lauria from Friday Night Lights), a law clerk that Emily meets because he works for her father, but then falls for – intellectually and romantically – when he proves to be a companion that she can envision to share a life with, a man who takes her talents seriously, who marvels at her poetry, who has no interest to own her. It’s another one of those possible maybes, a path not taken, because once he starts coughing, it becomes obvious to everyone except Emily that he will soon die. And so he does. Death is ever-present, and any attachment seems precarious – but instead of caring less, or becoming cynical, these characters simply live their lives profoundly tinged by grief, all the time. And yet, this is without question a comedy show, one that captures what it means to be young, and incredibly sensitive, and spectacularly talented. 

2019-, created by Alena Smith, starring Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Hunt, Toby Huss, Jane Krakowski, Anna Baryshnikov, Adrian Enscoe, Chinaza Uche, Darlene Hunt, Matt Lauria, Samuel Farnsworth.

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