Dickinson season 2 review: Sharp, self assured, and better than ever

Apple TV+ drama Dickinson returns for a second season this January, and the buzzy comedy is stronger, more balanced, and more self-assured than ever before.

Apple TV+’s Dickinson is most likely one of the best shows you’ve never actually seen. Maybe you heard about it and wondered over some of its more sensational elements, such as its anachronistic musical choices or the decision to cast rapper Wiz Khalifa as Death himself. But with the arrival of its second season, the moment is here to change all that.

This buzzy, genre-bending series, which is part drama and part comedy, a historical period story with a thoroughly modern sensibility and tone, is better than it’s ever been in season 2. Dickinson is meant to tell the untold story of the famous American poet, but the show expands its focus in season 2, fully embracing all its main characters and giving them painful, sharp moments in which to shine.

The season is ostensibly about fame and legacy, the costs that come when we put ourselves out into the world, and how we want others to see us. Yes, the show still plays fast and loose with history – a voiceover at the top of the first episode reminds viewers that this is the least-documented period of the poet’s life, which basically means they have free rein to make stuff up – yet remains remarkably true to the spirit of Dickinson herself and the work she left behind.

As you’ve likely seen in most of the series’ trailers, the main arc of season 2 – which takes place roughly a year or so after the end of the first – is focused on Emily’s struggle to decide whether or not to publish her work. Her love interest Sue, now wed to Emily’s brother Austin and making a name for herself as an “influencer” by throwing intellectual salons and lavish parties, is firmly in favor of this idea.

Emily, having become remarkably prolific since her brother’s wedding, has written hundreds of poems, and Sue is, rather understandably, I think, overwhelmed at being what is essentially the beta reader for sister-in-law’s unending emotional maelstrom. Your mileage may vary on how you feel about Sue’s decision to bring publisher Samuel Bowles (a charming but occasionally skeevy Finn Jones)  into Emily’s life, but her need to give her friend another place to direct her intense focus does ring uncomfortably true.

The arc of Sue and Emily’s relationship remains the emotional heart of the series, as both women try to identify and navigate what they are to one another now, in a world that continues to change so rapidly around them. The chemistry between Hailee Steinfeld and Ella Hunt is as charged as ever, even if the widening chasm in their relationship does mean they share fewer intimate scenes than fans might like. But, to be fair, the emotional rollercoaster between them is extremely compelling TV and Dickinson handles their relationship – even the prickliest, most uncomfortable bits – with tremendously delicate care and honesty.

(Reader, I love them, is what I’m saying.)

In season 2, Dickinson’s supporting cast gets a significant narrative upgrade as almost everyone is on their own narrative journey that’s separate and apart from Emily’s own. The Dickinson parents are both grappling with changing times and money troubles, as well as redefining what their lives should look like with most of their children grown. (Even if two of them still live at home.)

Anna Baryshinokov’s Lavinia is a particular standout, as she attempts to balance the feminine expectations of her time period – namely that she marry and settle down quietly – with her newfound artistic ambitions and her realization that she is as entitled to live her dreams as any of the boys in her life. Her back-and-forth courtship with the hypermasculine “Ship” is genuinely hilarious and she gets many of the season’s best lines.

Adrian Enscoe’s Austin, generally presented as a lazy, if generally well-meaning, moron in season 1, grows up to become someone much more interesting in Dickinson’s second season, which gently explores his desire to matter – as a father, as a citizen, and as a human being. His character turns out to contain surprising depths, much more than most of us would have predicted given his behavior in last season’s finale.

Of course, the main reason to tune in to season 2 is Emily Dickinson herself, who is luminous, damaged, and enthralling. Steinfeld’s performance remains remarkable and complex throughout a season that tries to explore the appeal and anxiety of fame through the life of an author who ultimately never found it while she was alive. (And given the trove of work discovered after her death, that presumably had to be a deliberate decision.)

This tension is the heart of the season’s main narrative, and creator Alena Smith finds new ways to explore what is essentially an inevitability – we know that the bulk of Emily’s poetry will never see the light of day until after her death, yet still feel torn about her choices. That we all know the end of the story doesn’t detract a moment from its power, and even though we know what Emily’s final decision must ultimately be, her journey toward it remains compelling.

Season 2 features more of Dickinson’s actual poetry than ever before, words burning across the screen like tiny fires before vanishing, and used with great effect to underscore both the themes of individual episodes and illuminate how relevant her words remain to modern audiences.

Dickinson is a rare period story that rings true both as a historical drama and a modern-day commentary, and it’s a joy throughout. Laugh out loud funny, genuinely moving, and featuring smart, complicated politics, it’s the treat we all deserve to kick off 2021.

The first three episodes of Dickinson season 2 premiere on January 8, with new episodes premiering every Friday after.