For Dickinson, a night at the opera elicits a ‘bravissimi’ [Apple TV+ review]

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Dickison
Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) learns a lesson in immortality in this week's episode.
Photo: Apple TV+

In this week’s episode of Dickinson, Emily veers nearer to romantic destruction as the whole cast decamps to the Boston opera house to see a show. The episode makes time for everyone in the cast to take a solo. And the show finds its strengths renewed in simply detailing Emily’s emotional inner life.

Dickinson season 2: ‘Split the Lark’ review

The Dickinson family goes to the opera this week to see a singer based on real-life contralto Adelaide Phillipps (played by Kelli Barrett). There’s a little lip service paid to the opera standing in for a bevy of modern events (a film premiere, a pop concert) but the metaphors don’t really stick or do anything.

While Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and Samuel speak apprehensively in his private opera box, the rest of the couples — Sue and Austin, Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson, and Lavinia and Joseph — all bicker and grouse on the sidelines.

When last we left the flirtation between Emily and her publisher, he had asked her to write a letter to his off-screen wife, Mary. She does in a fit of sexual pique and the letter winds up causing real trouble at home for her married benefactor. Sam berates her for the letter, which comes across as a love letter because, well, it is. But even as they clear up their misunderstanding, their affair, one senses, is far from over.

Bravissimi!

Adrian Enscoe and Ella Hunt in this week's <em>Dickinson</em>
Adrian Enscoe and Ella Hunt in this week’s Dickinson.
Photo: Apple TV+

Jane Krakowski is the MVP of this episode, titled “Split the Lark.” Finally, the show allows her to break free from the underwritten daffiness of Mrs. Dickinson and dig into her most beloved character type: the preening prima donna.

When she steps into the opera house, she sings that they’ve arrived…to no one at all. She complains that Mr. Dickinson didn’t buy her a box seat. Then, of course, she can’t stand the opera, so she and her husband flee the scene to have their own night out. It’s this kind of self-centered woman that Krakowski excels at playing and Dickinson is wise to put her back in her wheelhouse.

You still have good times …

Also this week, George is sick of Lavinia, for no particular reason except that something needs to happen to them. Sue and Austin’s sham marriage continues to be uninteresting.

Sue’s best moment this week comes in service of externalizing Emily’s pain. Sue stands in for the famous opera singer onstage, singing a song to Emily in a fantasy to reawaken her to passions outside of the married man after whom she lusts.

The show also remembered that Sue and Emily had to give each other up at the end of season one, and the calls back to their romance were quite stirring. All in all, this is the strongest episode of Dickinson‘s second season yet.

This week in millennial speak

Blessedly, the show proved me wrong this week and didn’t rely on bad wordplay or dated slang. In “Split the Lark,” the Dickinson writers steadfastly refuse easy puns and bad cultural touchstones. Instead there was a nice moment of self-reflection when finally Emily converses with the opera singer. The diva doggedly insists that, though she may have had an impact on the poet’s life tonight, nothing is forever, fame is ephemeral, and her performances will not be remembered.

It’s rare that the show lets Emily be wrong — and ignorant in her refusal to see her wrongness. It’s a welcome change of pace, especially considering how well Steinfeld sells the scene.

“Why do you want to be famous?” Adelaide asks Emily, who gives an answer that’s perfectly wrong.

The poet says she’s sick of her work sitting in a drawer. She doesn’t want to be famous. She wants, at long last, to be recognized — to have her talent and, more importantly, her humanity, acknowledged by the men who walk all over her.

It’s canny of the writers to let Emily say this, knowing it’s wrong, and that fame did nothing for the real Emily Dickinson. She still died lonely and unappreciated. Ultimately, her words lived on because they had truth in them and they would have done so with or without fame.

Dickinson season 2 on Apple TV+

New episodes of Dickinson arrive on Apple TV+ each Friday.

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.