Everybody’s stuck, blocked and frustrated in Dickinson’s latest episode [Apple TV+ review]

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Anna Baryshnikov (left) and Hailee Steinfeld play two very different Dickinsons in Apple TV+ show
Anna Baryshnikov (left) and Hailee Steinfeld play two very different Dickinsons.
Photo: Apple TV+

Dickinson ambles closer to the edge of its hero’s fame and madness in this season’s fourth episode, which serves as a meditation on creative blockage.

Though oft charming and frequently beautiful, the postmodern Apple TV+ show about the 19th-century poet still suffers from an irreconcilable identity crisis. This week’s episode, released Friday, takes no steps to resolve the situation.

Dickinson review: ‘The Daisy Follows the Soft Sun’

Hailee Steinfeld‘s Emily Dickinson feels like a kitten, stuck in a deep hole with no way to get out. That’s the first of this episode’s visual metaphors.

To the writers’ credit, they do manage to spread the problems of each member of the Dickinson household. New amorous boarder Joseph (played by Gus Halper) can’t get it up, so to speak, for Lavinia Dickinson (Anna Baryshnikov) because he wants to put his old womanizing and highly sexualized ways behind him, frustrating the less-famous Dickinson girl.

A mysterious hole in the backyard vexes Emily and Lavinia’s mother (Jane Krakowski). Their father (Toby Huss) has been told by a doctor to not spend time outside, so he’s going stir-crazy and goes out anyway. To please his dad, brother Samuel (Adrian Enscoe) agrees to adopt his cousins without first consulting his wife Sue (Ella Hunt). And to cap it all off and tie it all together, Emily’s suffering from writer’s block.

Emily meets Frederick Law Olmsted (Veep’s Timothy Simons), the landscape architect who designed Central Park and thinks he might have the secret to opening her up.

Olmsted takes his work more seriously than any of the artists Emily met last season. His eccentric system of governing landscapes (“this rock is making just the right statement”) intrigues her, so she picks his brain. Anything to get her mind off of the fact that publisher Samuel Holmes (Finn Jones) is reviewing her work. They wind up fatefully lost while walking around talking about methods.

I refuse to be stuck

Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss in <em>Dickinson</em>.
Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss in Dickinson.
Photo: Apple TV+

The business of being a show like Dickinson is a tricky tightrope. It’s essentially a postmodern sitcom. Guest stars intrude on the business of the Dickinson household every week. And it’s filled with high-concept plot devices, visual motifs and the like.

This week, we get Olmsted and the hole. Everyone falls into the hole either literally or physically, and by the end of the episode, it’s been wrapped up. The show, by virtue of being postmodern, knows very well what it’s doing — and announces it.

“I’m in a hole!” Huss says over and over again, making it all but impossible to miss that Dickinson is poking fun at the very idea of attempting an idea this broad.

The show is frequently like this, announcing that it will adopt the shtickiest sitcom tactics and both skewering them and just doing them in the closest thing to good faith the show can muster.

It’s endearing. However, it does sort of unseat the show’s pretensions toward talking about the stifling conditions for anyone who wasn’t a white male in the 19th century and, by extension, today.

‘What’s the matter? You should be smiling.’

I don’t mean to dismiss the show and the considerable effort put into creating it. Dickinson delivers frequently stunning visuals. (The autumn colors this season look especially lovely.) The show also benefits from crisp editing, enjoyable performances, solid-enough construction and good intentions.

The trouble is that, by mixing up the modern and the past, you can’t help but come across as more flippant than a show about a white hero who was alive while slavery was happening can support.

This episode, for instance, introduces Sue, a character we’re supposed to like, having her hair done by her black maid (writer Ayo Edebiri, who really ought to be playing bigger roles than minute-long servant parts, no matter how deconstructed) and babbling about race science.

Phrenologists are so in right now,” she says determinedly. It’s a joke, but the show will not go back and correct her or explain why it’s an insidious thing to have as a setup to an unrelated scene that ends with Sue as the put-out party. (She’s mad at Samuel for consenting to adopt his cousins without her.)

You can be glib about the past. And you can be serious about inherited female trauma. But the two things don’t quite mix.

Dickinson season 2 on Apple TV+

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.