Dickinson: Alena Smith talks her three-season plan, Emisue, and more

Dickinson season 3. Image Courtesy of Apple
Dickinson season 3. Image Courtesy of Apple /

Apple TV+’s Dickinson was one of the first original series released on the streaming platform, and it remains one of its absolute best. A quirky, postmodern deconstruction of the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, the series may look like a prestige period piece, but in truth, is anything but.

Too often when people think “period dramas” their minds go to corsets and drawing rooms where stuffy, staid people stand around being dull. That couldn’t be further from what Dickinson is, or the message its showrunner is trying to impart, framing the life of a woman who was ahead of her time in tropes and trends from well outside of it, so the show might speak more directly to a modern-day audience.

“I’ve always said that the purpose of this show is to use Emily Dickinson’s life and times and work to hold an unexpected mirror up to where we are today,” creator Alena Smith tells Culturess. “And that if it’s not relevant to today, it doesn’t belong in the show.”

A delightful mix of contemporary genre flourishes and traditional period trappings topped off with a banging soundtrack, Dickinson manages to feel like something entirely new from its opening frames. And while its first two seasons played around with literal manifestations of death and mortality, its third and final outing will take these themes to the next level, wrestling with universal questions of legacy and memory.

“For me,  the core of Emily’s journey in season 3 is an extremely relatable one,” Smith says. “Which is, as an artist can I hope to make any kind of impact or difference?”

Perhaps these sorts of questions feel more relevant than ever before in a world still grappling with a ranging pandemic and the threat of climate change, but haven’t we all wondered what our purpose is? What we’re here to do? Whether any of the things we’ve done – or created will matter?

“I mean forget about [being an] artist, just as human beings –  as a person with a family, as a person with a job, we’re all going through so much difficult stuff and it’s impossible to understand whether we’re making any difference at all as things seemingly just get worse and worse.”

Because for Smith, a big part of Emily’s story is the fact that it didn’t end with her death.

“I suppose if there’s a message to be found in Emily’s life, it’s that you don’t really know the impact of what you’re doing while you’re doing it,” Smith explains. “Because she certainly was not recognized or appreciated while she lived for what she had done and we’re still unpacking her legacy today. So, there’s hope to be found there. Even if it’s a kind of like delayed hope.”

Though many fans are obviously saddened by the idea that Dickinson will conclude with season 3, for Smith, the three-season framing was very deliberate,

“I always saw this show as a three-season series that would sort of re-frame, reimagine and recontextualize, the origin story of Emily Dickinson, right?” Smith explains. “I knew that season  3 culminate in the Civil War – which happens to be Emily’s most prolific time as an artist and really for me, the moment when she steps over that threshold that one day we all must reach where we are an adult.”

It is believed that Dickinson composed almost half of her poems during the years of the American conflict, though it’s impossible to know an exact number for sure. (Some of her most famous works, including Because I could not stop for death are believed to have been written during this period, however.) And if the trailer for season 3 is anything to go by, Dickinson’s final episodes will explore the tensions that existed within her own family and community about the war, which were often reflected in much of her work from that time.

“There are fascinating stories to be told about the adult life of Emily Dickinson, some have been told and some great movies that have come out. But for me, what makes this series unique is that we’re really focusing on her coming of age,” Smith explains.

What, precisely, will serve as a line of demarcation in Emily’s life in the world of the show — that will mark her transition from a girl to a woman — is as yet unknown. But if I were a betting woman, I would probably put money on it having something to do with Sue.

Emily’s relationship with Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt) is clearly the most important of her life – both within the context of Dickinson and in the real world that inspired the show. As a friend, as a lover, as an inspiration for many of her poems, Sue’s definitive place in Emily’s life and heart seems clear, and Smith certainly seems to agree.

“I think that Emily and Sue’s story is a great love story,” Smith says. ” It’s one of the things that made me want to write the show. And I think that it is beautiful to get to watch Emily and Sue as embodied by Hailee and Ella grow from really being girls to being women, and I think that they went through such – you know, season 2 brought them to such a breaking point and then allowed them to find each other again almost at the last minute.”

Though both Sue and Emily openly declared their love for each other (and ate a lot of cake!) at the end of season 2, they’re still two queer women in 19th century America, and Sue is married to Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe). What does that – or can – that mean for them?

“In season 3, they’re walking down this road together. as two people with a huge history and so much love, but are dealing with a world that’s falling apart around them and also a world that still can’t see them as anything other than sisters,” Smith explains. “And so it’s definitely one of the most challenging and heartbreaking stories, but it’s also a story about a writer and a reader who found each other and  found a complete understanding together.”

Of course, what that will actually mean for the two of them this season – and where it will leave their relationship by the time the final credits roll is anyone’s guess. The real Emily and Sue were closely linked for their entire lives, with Dickinson sending her hundreds of documents and letters – more than she sent to any other person. Many of them were extremely romantic in nature, and there’s some belief in historical circles that the originals were even more so – Emily’s brother’s mistress served as an editor on the published posthumous volumes of her poetry and may have done some judicious editing to prevent what most then would have seen as a scandal.

Part of the reason Dickinson has resonated with so many fans is that it places this relationship back where many feel it belongs – at the center of Emily’s life in every way.

Smith’s series also does its best to cast a sharp and perhaps even more realistic eye on some of Dickinson’s contemporaries, including Louisa May Alcott (uproariously depicted by Zosia Mamet) and Walt Whitman (who will be played by Billy Eichner in season 3).

But there are a couple of famous literary figures that Smith still wishes she could have gotten into the series.

“Definitely [Herman] Melville,” Smith says. “He’s the [literary] giant we didn’t get to meet. And I learned one fascinating fact about him, which is that there was once a review of Moby Dick, that just the headline of the review was “Herman Melville crazy”. So, he was not understood in his own time either, to be honest.”

And, despite the fact that Mamet’s Alcott repeatedly mocks The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Smith admits she would have also liked to include him in Dickinson, specifically because she would have cast someone painfully attractive to play him.

“Fun fact about Hawthorne: He was really hot,” Smith laughs. “That’s something that I didn’t get to address in the show that I really wish we could have done more with, but Nathaniel Hawthorne was a babe.”

At the end of the day, however, Smith seems very satisfied with the culmination of her journey with Emily Dickinson, and the “remarkable” actress who helped bring her to life.

“[In season 3], I felt that [her] journey was concluded and it was really special for me to direct the final episode,” Smith says. “It was a way of stepping across that finish line with Haley and the whole crew and really like saying goodbye to them.”

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The final season of Dickinson is now streaming on AppleTV+.