Hailee Steinfeld on 'Dickinson'
| Credit: Michael Parmelee/Apple

There's poetic justice in how Dickinson, Apple TV+'s subversive period drama about a famously withdrawn literary icon, has become a riotous success.

In later life, Emily Dickinson rarely left her rural New England home. Dickinson explodes that hermetic world, mixing in loads of quirky 21st-century references besides. Season 2 takes the Belle of Amherst (played by a droll Hailee Steinfeld) into new territory — the plot evolves into a sexy psychological thriller that “elevates the show to a more sophisticated, complicated type of storytelling,” says creator Alena Smith.

“Why did this woman, who was one of the greatest poets to ever live, choose to hide her work? In season 1, we thought [the] answer was her father didn’t approve. But, in season 2, we upend that," she teases.

This time out, Emily navigates the exploding society and media world of the 1850s, which has eerie parallels with the present. In advance of the show's Jan. 8 return, we called up Smith to get all the details on what to expect from season 2, why she wanted to interrogate fame and attention more broadly, and how history edges its way into the Dickinsons lives.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you say, season 2 differs from or builds on season 1?

ALENA SMITH: Season 2 elevates the show to a more sophisticated and, in some cases, more complicated type of storytelling. In season 1, we really were telling a coming of age story about Emily Dickinson rebelling against the wishes of her parents, particularly her father, in pursuing a creative voice of her own. In season 2, she has conquered her father to some extent and steps out into a wider world where she suddenly finds herself having blind spots that she didn't know about before. Not being able to necessarily recognize people's real agenda, particularly when it comes to Sue (Ella Hunt), who has really transformed from the quiet orphan dressed in black that we knew in season 1 into a glittering, glitzy socialite. It's really Sue who pushes Emily to step out into the public eye and causes us all to question whether it really was her dad who was holding her back, or whether it's something more complicated and internal in Emily herself that is a sort of ambivalence about what it would mean to really be seen.

You're starting to edge closer to a period of her life where less is known about her activities day-to-day. How does that complicate things for you?

Everything that happens in the season in terms of the basic plot is taken from Emily's biography. She really did have this encounter and relationship with a man named Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), who was a very important newspaper editor of the time who had very progressive ideas about publishing women. Sam Bowles really did come to the Evergreens where Sue and Austin (Adrian Enscoe) hosted literary salons. In the same way that we did with season 1, we are jumping off of facts but we're more using her poetry as a guide to what she was really thinking and feeling inside. As Emily matures and as the Civil War moves closer, her poetry begins to deepen and become more complex. She's growing into the great writer that she will ultimately become. There's always a sense with Dickinson's poetry that there's more to unpack and so much hidden between the lines.

You draw ever closer to the Emily Dickinson that has so long been perceived as something of a recluse. How does that complicate depicting her relationships and building scenes with others?

With each season of this show, we are taking Emily closer to becoming the Dickinson that we have learned about who was mostly withdrawn. But we're beginning with this mystery, which is why did she choose mostly to hide her work? In season 2, we provide a whole different answer, which is maybe she did this because when she tried to seek fame, it didn't go that well. She had her own experience of the ways in which being exposed can damage one's internal connection to the truth. We're using the show and the setting of the 1850s as a funhouse mirror for today. I really wanted to write a season focused on the issues of fame and the attention economy because they were really important to Emily Dickinson, but also they could not be more relevant and relatable today. Everybody has to make a set of choices about how much they're going to broadcast their own life. We all have this experience now of putting ourselves out there. This is a season where Emily Dickinson tries to put herself out there, but it doesn't necessarily go that well. In the end, it forces her to ask questions that I think a lot of us are asking right now which is, "What's the value of invisibility? What's the value of not being seen? And is it okay to be a nobody?"

Season 2 leans even harder into the fantastical elements that blur reality and imagination for Emily. Why did you want to dig deeper there?

We are doing more complicated things with surrealism, so the uncanny line between where does Emily's imagination stop and  the world begin becomes more and more blurred. That's just honestly the truth of the character and what it feels like to be this woman. The external realities of her circumstances were pretty mundane and constricted, and yet, within those she was having the wildest, internal imaginative experiences that anyone could imagine. I wanted to create in this season more of  a seamlessness between how Emily experiences the world and make it harder for the audience to necessarily know where does the writing stop and the world begin?

In season 1, the undercurrent of the issues that would lead to the Civil War were present, but this season we're a year closer to that. How does that shape or inform the season?

This season takes place in 1859, which is the year of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, which does end up happening in the world of our show. We treat it as almost like a 9/11 moment for our cast of 20-somethings. When that event occurs, there's no turning back. War has become inevitable, and it's going to change all of their lives. We are mostly tapped into that through the fact that Austin has become a secret patron of an underground abolitionist newspaper that Henry (Chinaza Uche), the Dickinson's groundskeeper, has founded and is running in Austin's barn. Henry is leading a group of Black activists and writers in writing what is essentially illegal abolitionist literature. They come at this whole question of fame and visibility versus invisibility from a very different perspective. The option of Henry putting his name on his own work is literally a life or death question for him. It functions for Emily as a major red flag that perhaps the pursuit of celebrity is not the be all and end all of why a writer does what they do.

There's certainly a sense of heightening tension throughout the season. One thing that also makes season 2 different is that the timeframe is more compressed. In season 1, we covered almost a whole year of Emily's life. In season 2, we really only cover a few months and the pace of the season accelerates. That's also underlined by the presence of newspapers. There's this sense of a media frenzy. The Dickinsons did subscribe to like eight different newspapers. Sam Bowles, who ran the Springfield Republican, his major innovation was that he took it from being a weekly paper to a daily paper. Thinking of it as our world of push notifications and tweets, this sense that you just can't escape the news, it's always bearing down on you, and it makes you more aware of time passing faster. In season 1, it really seems like Emily is stuck in this conservative backwater of a town where women aren't allowed to do anything. Suddenly in season 2, it's almost like time has sped up and she's in a much more progressive modern context.

Sue is very changed from the first moments we see her this season. Will we dig into what propelled that shift?

That's really what the season is about. Very centrally. It's a season with a lot of secrets and mysteries, and I would say that the central mystery is what happened to Sue and why is she so different? In general, with all of our main characters we're seeing new sides of them.

Similarly, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) started as this version of the perfect wife, a clone of her mother, but has really rebelled and started to find herself. Can you tell me more about her arc this season?

Lavinia used to be just this basic girl who wanted nothing more than to put a ring on it and get married. Thanks to her tumultuous relationship with Joseph (Gus Halper) in season 1, [she] has reclaimed her own sexuality and started to question a lot of things about the normative path of marriage. In season 2, we find her in a new relationship with a guy who actually has become a boarder in the Dickinson house and who wants to marry her. But the new, liberated, woke Lavinia isn't so sure that she wants to be in such a  gender normative relationship as the old Vinny would have wanted. With Vinny this season, we are having a lot of fun with the idea of an 1850s version of friends with benefits. Just the contours of millennial and Gen Z romances.

If you had to pick three words to describe season 2, what would they be?

I tried to make season 2 a sophisticated psychological thriller. In season 1, we're really admiring Emily's strength as she battles the expectations of her parents and society. But in season 2, we see a lot more of Emily's vulnerability, as she attempts to navigate a more complicated world where people are not always revealing their true selves.

You've already been renewed for season 3. Can you tease what may lay ahead?

We'll be going into production some time in 2021. Season 2 has been finished for quite a while. It's been an odd timeline. I just want people to catch up on Emily's journey to where I'm at within it. There's definitely a lot more dimensions that come. In season 3, we actually will be in the Civil War, but in this season we are just reaching the cusp of it.

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