‘Dickinson’ presents a confusing yet lively portrayal of poet’s teenage years

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Apple TV+’s take on The CW-esque drama “Dickinson” focuses on the late teenage years of well-known American poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), hoping to draw teen audiences into the streaming service’s original content. While the concept is intriguing, “Dickinson” is a desperate attempt to wildly contrast Apple TV+’s other dramatic originals and thus presents a wildly confusing and often unintentionally humorous storyline. 

The show’s biggest pitfall is clearly its attempt to pander to teenagers with largely dramatic and ineffective storylines. Dickinson’s main goal throughout the series is to become a great writer, and she ultimately emerges as a champion of feminist values and youthful rebellion in the late 1800s. But what the show fails to realize is that no writer starts writing in order to become famous; they often write because of a deep passion for the creative expression of their feelings — a passion the show fails to capture. 

While it is entertaining to see Dickinson portrayed as a rebellious teenager, the storylines of the show are often muddled. In the first episode alone, Dickinson experiences a situation in which she gets into Death’s carriage — the character of Death is played by Wiz Khalifa, whose acting is abysmal at best. This scene is incredibly jarring, especially since he tells her that the Civil War is about to happen and that she will become an incredibly famous poet one day. While this is supposed to be an interpretation of Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death,” the scene ignores the immense tragedy in Dickinson’s life that the poem was originally based on. Additionally, discerning whether she is experiencing or hallucinating the situation is unclear, making it even harder to follow. 

Other chaotic storylines “Dickinson” portrays include a party in which Dickinson and her friends get high on morphine, Dickinson’s meeting with Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney), and Dickinson hallucinating her own funeral in which the only guests in attendance are a human-sized bee and her dead lover. Many of these moments are too absurd to be enjoyable, even in their hilarity, making audiences question what the show is trying to accomplish. “Dickinson” somehow even finds a way to incorporate Steinfeld’s musical talents in a scene in which she sings to her lover, who is dying of tuberculosis. All of these scenes, while entertaining, make no real sense and some reek of historical inaccuracy

It would be impossible to talk about “Dickinson” without mentioning the show’s exploration of the same-sex relationship between Dickinson and her best friend Sue Gilbert, who later marries Dickinson’s older brother. This inclusion is refreshing and, in addition to its important on-screen representation of a same-sex romance, adds dimension to Dickinson and her experiences. But while the first episode suggests that the relationship is going to be a large focus of the series’ plot, much of “Dickinson” actually focuses on the lead character’s heterosexual relationship with her father’s law clerk, whom she cares for in his sickness. Truthfully, even if it is enjoyable and important, the underexplored same-sex relationship looks like a thinly veiled attempt at appealing to younger audiences. 

In all its chaos, “Dickinson” still has delightfully creative elements. Each episode is titled after a line from one of Dickinson’s poems, which guides the events and themes of the episode, providing a much-needed structure to the show. The changing title sequence of “Dickinson” also makes sense for the show, as it presents something different for each episode and serves as a chaotic mix of that episode’s key motifs. The show also has a number of humorous moments — some unintentional — that are entertaining and enticing, making the show extremely bingeable like many other modern teen dramas. 

While “Dickinson” is hard to deconstruct, it is an interesting attempt at making a famous poet interesting to the current generation. The story hardly makes sense, but like so many other teen dramas that aren’t designed to be realistic or critically acclaimed, perhaps it doesn’t need to. 

Contact Caitlin Keller at [email protected].