She wrote some of America’s most evocative poems. Now Apple TV+ is telling her story on the small screen, jumping on the historical drama stagecoach with an edgy spin.
Dickinson follows the life of a twentysomething Emily Dickinson, a young woman just starting to realize her full potential as a poet and writer in mid-1800s America. The series tracks her writing aspirations, romantic exploits, and struggles to prove herself in a world dominated by men who expect her to be an obedient housewife. Showrunner Alena Smith and company spice things up by taking creative liberties, like infusing Emily’s world with modern slang and music, and personifying death (a subject of fascination for the poet) in a character played by Wiz Khalifa.
Without further ado, here is everything you need to know about Dickinson ahead of its series premiere:
Emily Dickinson the woman:
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Mass., to a prominent family in 1830. Known as a quiet eccentric, she channeled dissonance toward her era’s expectations for women into her poems, utilizing slant rhyme, short lines, and unconventional capitalization and punctuation. The real Dickinson lived a siloed existence: the written word was her form of introspection and connection with the outside world. While she was a prolific writer, the vast majority of her 1,800 poems went largely undiscovered until after her death, when her sister Lavinia discovered and published them. Steinfeld’s version of Dickinson, by contrast, will outwardly showcase the restless spirit that permeates her writing.
Hailee Steinfeld: Poet, producer, and performer
Pitch Perfect 3 and Bumblebee star Hailee Steinfeld plays the young poet, clad in gorgeous 19th-century gowns (Dickinson had a penchant for dressing in white) with pen and parchment in hand.
In playing the boundary-breaking writer, Steinfeld grew to admire Dickinson’s spirit and aimed to channel it in her own life:
“She just truly believed that life was supposed to be about what makes you feel good — and that came down to who she loved, who she wanted to kiss, who she wanted to be with, what she wanted to do with her time,” Steinfeld told EW. “In a time when there were so many constraints and so many people, including the people she loved and the people she felt should love her the most — her family — are the ones who are telling her she is nothing and nobody and stupid and worthless. The fact that she would only take that and channel it and make it into something great day after day, for me, was just beyond.”
Steinfeld also has producer creds on Smith’s Apple TV+ series, and she will be exercising her singing chops on the TV score. Gear up for the Nov. 1 premiere of the show with Steinfeld’s eerie bop, “Afterlife.”
Say goodbye to ‘ladylike’ behavior
Victorian women may have been caged in crinoline and etiquette, but Dickinson’s views on societal standards are more reminiscent of a modern woman. The show emphasizes this through the use of 21st-century lingo like “psyched” and “totally,” its depiction of fluid sexual escapades, and its music, as we see Dickinson enjoying hip-hop-tracked parties with some risqué dance moves.
“She didn’t belong in that time. She had a very modern way of thinking and acting,” Steinfeld told EW. “I truly feel she paved the way for young female voices today.”
Wiz Khalifa will personify death
When Wiz Khalifa is death incarnate, death is not to be feared: It’s something to look forward to, and maybe even lust after. The rapper-turned-period dramatist will be playing death incarnate for Dickinson (and for us), donning a top hat, some minuscule green shades, and a plunging black waistcoat that shows off his signature tattoos.
“I wanted Death to be the coolest guy in the world because Emily is in love with Death,” Smith explains to EW. “Part of the story of the season is about her coming to a more realistic and mature understanding of Death, but where she begins is a kind of Goth worship of death. I just really wanted it to be someone that you would genuinely get excited to see.”
The cast will include other literary figures of the age
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden that he “finds it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” but he will have plenty of company on Dickinson, from the writer herself to his own mother. Actor and comedian John Mulaney will parody the nature-obsessed writer on the show. At the Tribeca TV Festival panel, Smith called Mulaney’s Thoreau a “total phony” whose “mom comes to his cabin and does his laundry.”
Also parodying a famous writer, Girls’ star Zosia Mamet will play Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. At the Tribeca TV Festival panel, Smith explained, “One of the things that’s so fun about Dickinson’s world is that all of these, the most important writers in American history, they all lived down the street from each other, so it’s not to say that Emily did or did not actually meet these people, but they were a stone’s throw from her.” If the show continues into a second season, she added, “I hope that we get to meet gay Walt Whitman and crazy Herman Melville. Why stop at Dickinson — let’s get it all!”
Some other big players
Audiences can also look forward to Manchester by the Sea’s Anna Baryshnikov as Emily’s younger sister, Lavinia, and 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski as the family matriarch, Emily Norcross Dickinson.