Emily becomes invisible in this week’s Dickinson [Apple TV+ review]

By

Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) gets published ... and disappears!
Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) gets published ... and promptly disappears!
Photo: Apple TV+

Emily Dickinson is finally a published author, but will that stitch the tear in her heart or repair the fraying nerves of everyone in her orbit? Anyone who knows the story of the 19th-century poet knows the answer to that, but we’re not watching Apple TV+’s revisionist history for its accuracy, are we?

Dickinson review: ‘I’m Nobody! Who Are You?’

In this week’s episode of Dickinson, titled “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?,” Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld) awakes to read her poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” (or “The May-Wine” as The Springfield Republican newspaper called it).

She launches right into her rehearsed remarks about the poem to her mother, who is too nervous to even notice that Emily is in the room. That’s how it seems, anyway, until it becomes clear that the conceit of the episode is that Emily has become invisible. Which means she’s in the room to hear her sister Lavinia breaking up with her dreary boyfriend George, her father being proud of her, men psychoanalyzing her, and, most fatefully, her best friend sue Sue and her editor Samuel getting it on in the parlor.

Her apparition (Will Pullen) from the early episodes of the second season returns as Emily’s guide to her own disappearance. He finally serves more of a purpose here, telling her to go find out what people think about her when she’s not around. It’s a way to counter Emily’s wish to be famous, which comes with millions of people talking about you without you present.

There’s some funny stuff about the way horny young men respond to her poem, getting at an essential historical truth about the way people think about women, art and women artists. It also contrasts her desire to be immortal with his utter lack of an identity. He’s a ghost whose job it is to speak to Emily and serves no other purpose, a fate she wishes to avoid.

The work we’re doing is not about the ego!

Death (played by Wiz Khalifa, left) is back to see Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) for some reason in Dickinson
Death (played by Wiz Khalifa, left) is back to see Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) for some reason.
Photo: Apple TV+

This invisibility leads the show to comment on its own existence, which is not a terrible way to engage with Emily’s own work and legacy. “Have an edge! Be political,” says Hattie (Ayo Edebiri) after reading the poem. Charitably, this is the show meeting its own critics halfway by having Hattie be in the show at all, but also … shoe-horning in a subplot about abolitionists and essentially sidelining them to focus instead on Lavinia isn’t the elegant solution the writers seem to think it is.

Nor, for that matter, is it all that revelatory to make Henry and Hattie’s abolitionist group squabble and grouse at each other about who’s doing more work for the cause. They get over it, but it’s weird to see them arguing about who’s abolition work is more interesting before then stopping to dance.

The point is for Emily to see what’s happening out there under her nose that really matters, but then … shouldn’t the show just be about Hattie and Henry, who are more interesting than everyone else? Putting Emily in with them also feels unearned. She hasn’t done anything for the cause, yet gets to celebrate with them in private. It’s a beautifully directed scene, except for her presence.

This week in millennial speak

This week’s episode of Dickinson is a doozy for bad modern aphorisms. Emily’s poem elicits, variously:

  • “OK, slay.”
  • “That slaps.”
  • “I feel seen.”
  • “She did the damn thing.”

Shudder and cringe. It’s bad enough the writer’s room let these sayings into the world, but to give the lines to white women seems to admit that these things are passé and silly … so why include them?  Later a man produces a fiddle, which causes Henry “Box” Brown (Ade Otukoya) to say the player is “back on his bullshit.” Excusable.

Wiz Khalifa shows up as Death again for the first time since last season, and the show hasn’t really missed him. He still can’t quite act. He brings Nick Kroll with him as Edgar Allen Poe to teach Emily about the fleeting, addictive nature of fame. Kroll’s too handsome to play Poe, though he’s doing a fun voice, basically Nicolas Cage in Con Air. It’s a bit madlibs, but that’s what this show is.

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.