Way before Lana Del Rey became the current queen of sad, there was Emily Dickinson; iconic misanthrope, literary genius, and according to the new Apple TV+ show, someone who maybe, very probably, wasn't straight. Dickinson, one of a handful of new shows that premiered on Apple's new streaming service on November 1, takes the long-held belief that Emily was in love with her brother's wife (and her best friend) Susan Gilbert and plays it out over the angsty days of adolescence. But according to show creator Alena Smith, she's not interested in labeling Emily as either bisexual or gay — but instead wants to show the subtler shades of sexuality without categories.
Emily Dickinson is probably that poet you pretended to read in high school.
Sure, maybe you skimmed a few poems when your teacher made it the assigned reading, but most of us are just a little unfamiliar with Emily Dickinson's work. So here's the Sparknotes of what you need to know; born in the early 1830s, the lady was obsessed with nature and death, never really traveled, and never, ever, married. A prolific poet, her first book of poetry wasn't published until after she died in 1886, when a family member found over 1,800 poems among her possessions.
Or in other words, as show star Hailee Steinfeld joked to Vulture, if Emily were alive today, "Her Twitter would be popping.”
But in Dickinson, Emily gets reimagined as a quirky, teen goth girl.
Apple debuted the show as part of its new streaming service Apple TV+ that was released late last week. Meant to compete with streaming giants like Netflix or Hulu, Apple TV+ is just a little bit different. According to Vox, there is no giant library of popular shows like on other streaming platforms, and on its initial release there was only a small handful of original programming, including the highly anticipated newsroom drama The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. For $4.99 a month, that's a reasonable price to pay for streaming, especially compared with something like HBO NOW, which runs about $14.99 per month.
As for the quality of the original programming, Dickinson is a clear winner. In the show, Emily (played by Steinfeld) is a little bit goth and a little bit like Jo from Little Women, but the sensibility is very millennial. If you liked Steinfeld's performance in Edge of Seventeen, you'll love the very similar *chef's kiss* performance she gives in this show.
Even though it takes place in the 1800s, we swear the show isn't all 'thou' and 'forsooths'-y.
In fact, all of the dialogue is modern-day vernacular — i.e., they say stuff like "Whassup?" and in the third episode of the series, Emily, her brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe), and sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) throw an opium-laden house party that is more like what you'd see on Skins than the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. And yes, there is twerking.
It also is most definitely a dark comedy, though not quite the dark teen dramas we've come to know and love like Riverdale or the new Sabrina reboot.
But that doesn't mean it isn't sexy. “Why do we think of her as this sexless shut-in?” Smith wondered to Vulture. “I wouldn’t want to watch a show not about sexy Dickinson,” she joked.
The show creator added that she wanted to make the "experimental" show because she could relate to the real Emily's “morbid wit” and thought her life served as a good backdrop for a "bleak, ironic” comedy.
“On the outside, her life has maybe the structure of the British Office,” she says. “But inside, it’s a lot more than that.”
Like any good teen TV show, however, Emily does have several love interests — including Death.
After refusing the proposal of suitor George Gould (played by Samuel Farnsworth), Emily wistfully declares that she'll never marry because, "I am in love with Death." And yeah, Death is played by none other than Wiz Khalifa. Mind. Freakin'. Blown.
Smith told Page Six that Khalifa was some serious dream-casting. “It really was so crazy, because we put him on a mood board that we created for the character of Death, and I was like, ‘My dream would be to get Wiz Khalifa,'” she said.
But then she got lucky. One of the producers on Dickinson happened to know Khalifa's manager. “As soon as I got on the phone with him, I could tell that he completely understood sort of the statement that the show was trying to make and that character in particular, so it was a real, like, meeting of the minds and it was very exciting and fun,” Smith added.
And the show boasts some other pretty impressive heavyweight casting.
Including John Mulaney as Henry David Thoreau, Jenna Maroney — erhm — Jane Krakowski as Emily's mom, Zosia Mamet as Louisa May Alcott, and Jason Mantzoukas as a giant bee that Emily hallucinates while high on opium. Did we mention that the show is good? Because the show is good.
But more importantly, Emily is in love with someone who is persona non grata — her brother's fiancée.
This isn't the first time that Emily is portrayed as having a same-sex relationship. In 2018, comedian Molly Shannon starred in Wild Nights With Emily, a more grown-up take on the poet's alleged romantic relationship with her sister-in-law.
Academics and scholars have argued for years over whether the real Emily had a love affair with Gilbert after closely examining so-called love letters sent between the two. For the purposes of Dickinson, Smith was willing to take some creative license. “Everyone’s free to invent their own Emily Dickinson, and this is mine,” Smith told Vulture. “I don’t in any way say it’s the authoritative version.”
But she did do her research, having pored over all of Dickinson's poems and read “every biography of Dickinson that there is.” Ultimately, Smith chose to portray the relationship between Gilbert and Dickinson as romantic because, “in all my research of Dickinson, that is the core romantic relationship of her life, however you want to define it,” she said.
“Sue is not her only romantic interest in the show, but I think Sue is Emily’s core soulmate,” she added. “At least that’s what Emily was so desperate for Sue to be.”
Smith isn't too quick to define Emily's sexuality, however, and says she'd prefer to call her "fluid" or "queer."
The sentiment might seem contemporary, but Smith told Page Six that “I wouldn’t use either [lesbian or bisexual]” as a way to describe Emily's romantic appetites.
“I think one of the things that I’m interested in exploring is that in the 1850s, they didn’t necessarily have the same categories for gender and sexuality that we have today, and perhaps that actually means that there were more experiences open to them than we have when we put ourselves in boxes," she explained.
“I guess the only words I would use to describe Emily’s sexuality would be fluid or queer, but I think that can mean a lot of different things," she added. "She does have romances with men as well as women, and she also has this weird kind of love affair with Death. So she’s all over the place.”
In other words, Emily is just like us and is figuring things out.
Although it's not the first teen show to tread these waters, it is always nice to see a little representation in a period piece. Check out the entire season on Apple TV+.