The young folk of Dickinson gather together to perform some Shakespeare, and the results are more uncomfortable than we might expect.
Dickinson gives us its version of teen drama club antics in its fifth episode, which features the young folk of Amherst coming together to read Shakespeare and act it out in Emily’s living room.
This entire set-up is both brilliant and incredibly charming, as it feels precisely what a group of bored, educated, well-off 19th century teens might indulge in on a snow day. That they all dress up in various costumes – we get a quick montage of their other theatrical efforts, including an Emily with bloody hands in Macbeth, and Lavinia as fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and argue over whether only women can play female characters is just the icing on the cake.
And I’ve honestly never liked Austin more than when he decided to play Desdemona, and made everyone address him in character for the rest of the day.
In theory, this episode is built around the Dickinson poem “I am afraid to own a Body,” which is generally taken to be about the shackles patriarchy places around women – whether as daughters or wives. Dickinson, on the whole, is constantly wrestling with this issue, but puts a fairly big bow on it here, as it also tackles issues of abolition and racism. And let’s just say it’s very uncomfortable to watch in places.
Part of the reason for that its the painful dichotomy in which the men of Dickinson (rightfully) advocate for the end of slavery, even as they support systems which oppress all the women in their lives, including Emily herself. (But, then again, is she really any better when she forces a local freedman to play Othello for her rich, entitled friends simply because he is black?)
Also, hey, remember when we used to like George? He’s at his absolute worst here, mealy mouthed, spineless and generally so wishy washy as to be almost offensive. He mouths platitudes about how much he cares about Emily – and on some level I really do think he does love her – but he also refuses to listen to her, or to respect the things she says she wants in her life. And he seeks to stifle her when he thinks it’ll impress her father. Are those the things we do for people we love? Be better, George.
Not that this episode is a super great look for Emily either. She’s at her most obnoxious and bossiest, condescending to her friends, rude to her brother, and utterly convinced of her own righteousness. She bullies Henry into performing with her friends, and frames it not as a great thing for him to do, but as a necessary action for her larger understanding of the play. Sure, by the end of this episode, George manages to treat Henry even worse than Emily does, but that also doesn’t mean her actions here are okay.
That said, it’s probably a good thing that Dickinson doesn’t let us fall too in love with our main character. Emily is so likable as a protagonist – and Hailee Stanfeld so charming – that it’s easy to view her as a character without flaws. But she has plenty, and her ego and her willingness to emotionally manipulate others are two of the worst things about her.
At least both she and George are forced to confront some of their worst traits by the end of the story, and maybe getting called out on their behavior will help both of them change. That writes “I am afraid to own a Body” after Henry confronts her about privilege is at least a positive sign.
All episodes of Dickinson are now streaming on AppleTV+.