“Dickinson,” which premiered in 2019, is now the breakout hit from Apple’s slate of original television shows. The series might have climbed from the brain of a woke English grad student on an acid trip. In the pilot, Death, played by the rapper Wiz Khalifa, whisks Emily away on a carriage ride, during which he promises her immortality and foretells the carnage of the Civil War. (Spoken by a Black actor, the warning carries a retributive chill.) Another episode, drawing on actual Dickinson scholarship, explores Emily’s erotic awakening as a function of her relationship with Sue, the fiancée of her brother, Austin. The episode is called “I Have Never Seen ‘Volcanoes’”; the series gives pride of place to real Dickinson verses, which materialize, onscreen, in a golden scrawl.
“Dickinson” could have stumbled in several ways. It could have been an empty empowerment anthem that ransacked the poet’s biography while sanding down her strangeness. It could have depended entirely on the joke of contemporary slang airdropped into the nineteenth century. Instead, the show is spooky and bold, solemn and arch. Smith seems less interested in the historical Dickinson than in a sort of personification of her authorial voice, played by Hailee Steinfeld. That voice, Smith said recently, “embraces paradox and defies authority.” Focussing there allows the show’s Emily to be more subversive than she was in life—to espouse, for instance, feminist and anti-racist beliefs. The of-the-moment accents—Mitski cues, “Serial” jokes—serve an eerier argument: that Dickinson’s poems are startlingly modern, and that they have always conversed with a future that is suddenly here.
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