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Series / Dickinson

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"Tragically, I am a woman."

"You have wars to fight, Emily Dickinson, but you must fight them in secret, alone, unseen. You must give all the glory to yourself and ask for nothing from the world. You must be a nobody. The bravest, most brilliant nobody who ever existed."

Dickinson is a period coming-of-age drama. The show, created by Alena Smith, was a launch title of the Apple TV+ streaming service and premiered on November 1, 2019.

It focuses on the early life of American poet Emily Dickinson, played by Hailee Steinfeld, an aspiring writer who rails against the expectations of her family and the patriarchal society of 19th-century Amherst, Massachusetts.

The series also stars Adrian Blake Enscoe as Austin Dickinson, Anna Baryshnikov as Lavinia "Vinnie" Dickinson, Toby Huss as Edward Dickinson, and Jane Krakowski as Emily Norcross Dickinson. Ella Hunt plays Emily's sister-in-law and best friend/lover Sue Gilbert, while Wiz Khalifa has a recurring role as Death.

A second season was ordered prior to the show's premiere, which started airing on January 8, 2021. Unlike the first season, which was released all at once, new episodes for season 2 debuted on a weekly basis. Its final season was released November 5, 2021.

This show provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer:
    • Emily feels this way about her friend George, especially as he gets more pushy about his intentions.
    • Lavinia also feels this way about Ship, despite being sexually attracted to him, since he wants her to be more prim and submissive than she is.
  • Acquired Situational Narcissism: A downplayed example with Sue in the second season. She remains a sympathetic character, but after marrying Austin, her taste gets much more expensive and she becomes much more concerned about appearances.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Walt Whitman is hinted to be gay, like the evidence indicates he likely was (or at least bi) due to his effusive affection toward his male patients and also instantly discerning Emily loves Sue, encouraging that she pursue a relationship with her again.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Emily recalls some signs that Ben was in fact attracted to her brother Austin, fearing he liked him more than her. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt, since it occurs to her in one of her dream sequences and is reflective of her insecurities.
  • Anachronism Stew: The behavior, manners and speech patterns of the young people on the show often deviates wildly from what historical Americans at the time would have been like, with this all being highly modern.
  • Anachronistic Soundtrack: Set in 1852-53, the soundtrack is made up of 21st century hip hop, pop, and indie rock.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Austin and Sue's married life is depicted as unhappy, particularly because of their differing opinions about whether or not to have children. Not to mention that Sue is cheating on Austin with Sam.....
  • Big "YES!": When Austin announces his engagement to Sue, he declares: "She said yes." Cut to a flashback of Sue screaming "Yes! YES!" while Austin's face is buried beneath her dress.
  • Bisexual Love Triangle: Austin/Sue/Emily in season 1, and eventually Sam/Sue/Emily in season 2. Emily and Sue, however, end up as each other's true love in the end.
  • Black Comedy: The subplot of "We lose - because we win" is Austin digging up a dead baby's grave so that Sue can be buried next to him. It's, of course, played for laughs.
  • Black Vikings: A couple of East Asian people are shown in Amherst during the 1850s, when very few even lived in the US.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: Thoreau came off like this. Despite his claims about "living alone in the woods" he was actually right near civilization, his mother doing the cooking and his laundry. He's a well-off man who can quit whenever he'd like, and is only indulging in this half-hazardly to make a point of valuing nature.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Louisa May Alcott twice points out accurate historical things she's shown doing (enjoying runs, working as a nurse) to the audience.
  • Broken Pedestal: Emily with Thoreau. He starts out as one of her heroes, but upon meeting him, Emily finds that he's really a lazy, entitled man who grossly exaggerated his whole "living in the woods" claims and is contemptuous of her over being an unpublished poet. Thoreau lampshades it by saying "never meet your heroes" to Emily.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: Austin is caught masturbating by his mother (unbeknownst to him, as his eyes are closed). She looks shocked and beats a hasty retreat.
  • Christmas Episode: "There's a certain slant of light."
  • Cool Aunt: Aunt Lavinia is this, especially to Lavinia, her younger namesake.
  • Daddy's Girl: Emily and her father have conflict, but she gets on better with him than with her mother.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Austin masturbates with his eyes closed on the couch to get "inspiration" for writing.
  • Daydream Surprise: Emily is seen apparently going to bed with Sam, then it turns out she's just imagining this.
  • Death by Childbirth: Sue tells Austin her mother died having her, and she's deathly afraid of the same happening with her giving birth.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Being the 1850s, woman writers are frowned upon, same-sex relationships cannot be open, and Edward's view of opposing slavery but not wanting to go to war over it is viewed as reasonable and centrist.
    • When Emily invites Henry, who is black, to play Othello with her Shakespeare Club, George protests at once about mingling with "his kind" and the others agree.
    • If a woman's husband divorces her, it's simply a given that he'll get sole custody of their child.
    • People can be committed to mental institutions with the sole consent of their nearest male relative, for things such as being politically active or transgender, where they will languish indefinitely in terrible conditions.
    • The US Army doesn't trust black soldiers yet, so they're left without guns for months and only get them before battle due to strings being pulled.
    • Women can't own property themselves. As such Emily's father doesn't even consider giving the house to her in his will, saying if he did it likely wouldn't even be honored, as he'd be thought insane. He goes on to voice the common view of the time, claiming women are too emotional to handle property and so their male relatives handle it, even saying this is a burden she's free from. It leads to a very deep disappointment for her, Emily denouncing his words and tearfully storming out.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • A volcanic eruption is subtly compared with an orgasm (then openly by Emily).
    • The Know-Nothings political platform (economic nationalism, anti-immigration) is quite similar to a lot of modern right-wing populist movements (that shall stay nameless).
  • Don't Fear The Reaper: Emily happily enters a carriage with Death because her life then is so constricting and oppressive that death feels like a welcome release. Death himself proves to be affable, polite, and happy to chat with Emily.
  • Emasculated Cuckold: Austin, since Sue is having an affair with the editor Sam Bowles. He is not happy about it, but is rather resigned to it, considering it one more way in which he is a failure.
  • Erotic Eating: In "You cannot put a Fire out" Sue feeds Emily a grape quite suggestively.
  • Fandom: In "There's a certain slant of light", characters are obsessing over the serially-published novel Bleak House. In-jokes and spoilers abound.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Emily's father is opposed to female writers, forbidding Emily's pursuit of being a poet as a result.
  • Forbidden Love: Due to the homophobia in their society, Emily and Sue's true feelings for each other must be hidden.
  • Friendship Moment: Austin is the only one who can see Emily when she's invisible and tells her he's proud of her. In the next episode, when he has a breakdown after she accidentally tells him about Sue's miscarriage and he feels like a failure, she holds him while he cries and tells him he's the most genuine person she knows.
  • Gayngst: Emily and Sue's love for each other must be hidden, with both pressured to marry men. This causes them no small amount of anxiety.
  • Hallucinations: Emily sees fantastic things frequently, usually unaided by drugs although once when she uses opium too. Ben later also suffers them when he's struck by fever.
  • Has Two Mommies: Discussed when Sue is heavily pregnant and wistfully wishes she could raise the baby with Emily, asking why children can't have two mothers.
  • Hikikomori: Thoreau is portrayed as this, living in a cabin on his family's property, with his mother doing his laundry and cooking his food.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Along with Emily Dickinson, Sue Gilbert and her close relatives, there are appearances by Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott.
    • Season two also features appearances by Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of Central Park) and Edgar Allan Poe.
    • Walt Whitman appears in Season 3 as a hospital nurse tending to wounded soldiers (which he really did, along with Alcott, as she notes).
    • When she time-travels into 1955 with Lavinia, Emily is met by Sylvia Plath, who professes herself to greatly admire Emily's poems. Emily is unhappy at the inaccurate view of her in the future though, and disturbed by Plath casually talking about suicidal ideation (foreshadowing her real suicide later).
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each episode is titled after, and is loosely themed after, a poem by Dickinson.
  • The Immodest Orgasm:
    • Sue is shown loudly crying "Yes" as Austin gives her oral sex in the barn.
    • Lavinia gasps loudly in pleasure as Joseph fingers her under the table, which makes her claim it's expressing emotion at other things to cover the fact.
    • Implied by Emily as she and Sue lie in the garden post-coitus in 2x10, saying "I feel sorry for the dead today".
  • Irony: The Republican Party is described as the only progressive force on the American political landscape. At the time it was true, but now they would never be described that way.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The idea of a book entirely about men on a ship hunting a whale was proposed, then immediately dismissed as this wouldn't be popular. Moby-Dick anyone (although it was actually a failure upon publication, only becoming popular later)?
  • Large Ham: Walt Whitman is portrayed as a very loud, energetic man trying his best to get injured soldiers' spirits up and enthusiastically tells Emily to embrace her love for Sue.
  • Likes Older Men: Both of the men that Emily has shown interest in so far (Ben and Sam) have been a fair bit older than herself.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Emily and Sue, who are very feminine in mannerisms and style. More Lipstick Bisexuals, as both of them have relationships with men too that seem genuinely desired.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Appropriately, the real Emily Dickinson's poems are used as the basis of episode titles, along with being quoted frequently. Emily is seen writing many of them during the series.
  • Love Confession:
    • In the pilot, "Because I Could Not Stop", Emily and Sue admit they love each other then share a passionate kiss.
    • In "You cannot put a Fire out" Sue passionately reaffirms her love to Emily, saying it's the only true thing she'll ever feel. Emily reacts by kissing her fiercely.
  • Magical Realism: The series intersperses mundane drama and things such as precognition, talking with Death, even time travel at one point (although that may have been just in Emily's head).
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places:
    • Sue is shown getting oral sex from Austin in the barn.
    • Later, Sue and Emily have sex in the garden.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Austin states he's unsure whether Sue's baby was sired by him or not, due to her affair.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Though most of the fantastic things Emily sees may be hallucinations, once she mentions Death told her that a war is coming which will kill a million soldiers, which was true. Thus it's left possible her visions of him at least are real.
  • The Modest Orgasm: When Sue is fingering Emily, she quietly gasps but doesn't raise her voice. It's unsurprising since they wouldn't want anyone else to catch them.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: After they have sex in "You cannot put a Fire out" both Emily and Sue are lying alongside each other with towels around them up to their chests.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Aunt Lavinia is given this characterization, especially in "Forever - is composed of nows", where she is a proponent of crystals, chakra alignment, and the "water cure".
  • No Periods, Period: Averted. Emily gets hers while at the party, which she isn't happy about in the least.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: Alcott in "There's a certain slant of light."
    Louisa May Alcott: Yeah, yeah, I love to run. That's an actual fact about me.
  • Old Maid: Emily, who's in her early thirties, gets urged to marry as she's "elderly and frail" for a woman by that age. She flatly refuses.
  • One-Steve Limit:
    • Averted with Emily and her mother, who both have the same first name, though the latter is typically addressed as "Mother".
    • There are also two Lavinias (Emily's sister and aunt respectively), but the younger Lavinia is a much more significant character in the story.
  • Period Piece, Modern Language: The show establishes its irreverence in the first scene, where supposedly 19th century American gentlewoman Emily rages, "This is such bullshit." when asked to do a chore her brother is exempted from for being male. The rest of the show follows 21st century speech patterns. For example, their discussion on Bleak House's ongoing plot developmentsnote  would not be out of place in a modern forum.
    Lavinia: I'm honestly gonna die if we don't find out who Esther's mother is soon.
    Austin: It's obviously Lady Dedlock.
    Lavinia: Austin! No spoilers!
  • Queer Establishing Moment: Early in the pilot, Emily and Sue's mutual Love Confession followed with their empassioned kiss shows they have an existing intimate relationship that is then a main theme during the series.
  • Queer Romance: Emily and Sue's relationship forms a core of the narrative, even as they're split apart by social pressures, plus their own feelings for other people.
  • Pair the Spares: In season 2, Sue and Emily both are in love with Sam. Ironically, this matter pushes them to realize that they're actually in love with each other.
  • Playing Sick: In "A brief, but patient illness", Emily does this to have more time to write.
  • Politically Correct History: It's mostly averted, but East Asian people are shown as friends and fellow students of the majority white young people on the series, which wouldn't have happened.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Thoreau gets heavily criticized by Emily for his dishonest claims of "roughing it" living out in the woods.
  • Retargeted Lust: Implied. In the episode "You Can Not Put A Fire Out", Emily accuses Sue of pushing her to date Sam and have feelings for him for this reason. Turns out, Sue really does love Emily. So much in fact that she couldn't take the passion any longer so she pushed herself and Emily to date men to deal with it.
  • Right Through the Wall: Implied. In the episode "You can not put a fire out", as Emily and Sue lie in the garden after making love, Emily reflects that she already feels sorry for the dead that day. note 
  • Romantic Rain: It conveniently begins raining just as Emily and Sue kiss, adding to the romantic mood.
  • Secret Relationship: Emily and Sue's relationship is romantic/sexual, with them clearly in love. Naturally it's kept from everyone else, since this was completely taboo at the time. When they're once caught kissing by Austin, the pair then quickly pass it off as Sue doing so in "thanks" to Emily.
  • Seers:
    • Emily apparently has some clairvoyant/precognitive ability, as she sees a man dubbed "Nobody" first in visions, then he turns out to be real. She then sees him being killed by a gunshot, freaking her out, in an implied prediction of his death during the coming civil war.
    • It's possible that Emily's father has a similar ability, if his dream of the church burning down is any indication.
    • A black soldier who is shown in Season 3 also has this, knowing that Michael Jordan will be a celebrity of the future.
  • Sibling Triangle: Emily is in love with Sue, while the former's brother is engaged to the latter. Emily also has a nightmare that Ben was more interested in her brother than her.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Emily constantly struggles against prevailing views (held by her father and most everyone else) that a woman's place is only in the home. The last thing that she wants is to end up stuck that way.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver:
    • Emily and Sue dress in men's clothing to attend a lecture at Amherst College.
    • Emily later imagines herself as a Civil War soldier in uniform during battle, when women did not serve openly (though a large number cross-dressed during the conflict for this).
  • Their First Time: Sue and Emily had sex for the first time in "I Have Never Seen Volcanoes".
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Sue is pregnant during her and Austin's wedding, but loses the baby sometime between seasons 1 and 2. It weighs deeply on her over the course of the season, and it's only when she confesses to her old friend Mary that she is able to truly feel the pain. Mary, who suffered a miscarriage recently herself, commiserates with her.
  • Trans Tribulations: A patient at the asylum (who was assigned female at birth) had been committed because of their gender (it's unsaid if they are a trans man or nonbinary in modern terms). They're dressed in a Union Army uniform, so it's indicated to stem from having joined up while presenting as male but seen as a woman once found out, at a time when this wasn't allowed. Like the other patients, they have no hope of release anytime soon.
  • Two-Person Pool Party: This seems to be Emily and Sue's thing.
    • Emily and Sue start up their relationship again by sharing a bath, where they have sex.
    • They do the same thing again in the wake of Sue's Love Confession.
    • Emily and Sue again share one in "You can not put a fire out".
  • Unusual Euphemism:
    • Sue to Emily, just before she initiates a sex scene: "I think I know what a volcano feels like."
    • Emily to Sue following their lovemaking: "I feel sorry for the dead today."note 
  • Walk and Talk: In "We lose - because we win".
  • Wedding Ring Defense: Ben Newton wears a wedding ring, despite being unmarried.
  • Wham Shot:
    • At the end of "I'm Nobody! Who are you?", when Emily goes to see Sue and sees her and Sam kissing passionately in the library, realizing that the two are having an affair.
    • Another occurs during Austin's tea party in "I like a look of Agony", when it's revealed that the "Nobody" Emily has been seeing in her visions is not only real, but an old friend of Austin's.
  • White Guilt: Emily wants her black servant, Henry, to play Shakespeare (Othello) even when he doesn't want to, so she can feel good about herself. When it ends up going wrong and she complains life shouldn't be this way, he tells her that she's a relatively safe white woman with a nice house, where she can have cake and is looked after. It's particularly heartbreaking is how Henry notes that she has her father to protect her. Consider the time they live in and how awful things were for slaves, how frequently families were broken up and destroyed. It's very likely that Henry never knew his father, and he certainly wouldn't have been able to protect Henry from the circumstances of their lives (he could have been a free black man, although this may indicate otherwise-even then it's possible he'd been Born into Slavery).
  • Wild Teen Party: A very modern teen party takes place in episode 3. Of course, the soundtrack is classical piano and the rowdy kids are taking opium.