In her meditations on fame, Emily Dickinson deemed it to be “a fickle food.” The second season of Apple TV Plus’ series on the famous poet is all about Emily getting a taste.
After a first season which saw Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld) tussle with her father over her aspirations to become a published writer, Season 2 of “Dickinson” explores whether or not Emily is prepared for or is fully aware of the consequences that come with being published.
“It’s the daunting idea and outcome of possible fame and attention that she’s never experienced before,” says Steinfeld. “She goes on this search for answers to these questions of, what is fame and is fame something I even want? Is it something I can get rid of once I have it?”
That golden ticket to fame and getting published is offered to her by local newspaper mogul Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), a new addition to the show.
Bowles has decided to make the Springfield Republican a daily paper (a bold move at the time whose irony in the modern context is milked for a well-earned if sad laugh), and with that change comes instant recognizability and influence for the writers and poets that grace its pages.
Showrunner Alena Smith says the accelerating pace of news heralded the dawn of what we would recognize today as “celebrity culture.”
“Due to changes in media and technology, it can actually feel to Emily and her family like they are just saturated in news, which is definitely something that we can relate to in our current circumstances,” Smith says. “People are turning into stalker fans of their favorite writers and having pictures of them that they stick on the walls and there’s an obsessive pace of gossip and publicity.”
Although the Emily of Season 1 desperately craved this attention and recognition, the Emily of Season 2 starts to wrestle with the question of whether it is safer for her, or perhaps “more powerful” as Smith puts it, to keep her precious poems to herself and those closest to her.
Steinfeld, who has eaten from the “shifting plate” of fame since she was 14 years old, says that although it isn’t something she’s ever spent much time contemplating, the themes of Season 2 “challenged my thought process” towards fame.
“In reading her poems and immersing myself into this world, I saw that Emily went from not having any attention, any reaction to her work with the exception of a few poems she published under different names, to exposing herself to a world of judgment and self-doubt that overcomes her,” she says. “Lines like ‘fame is a fickle food,’ or ‘if fame belonged to me, I could not escape her,’ made me realize the truth of that. Once you have it, you can’t really determine or decide how much of it you want, that’s out of your control, and can you escape it? That’s the scary part.”
Jane Krakowski, who plays Emily’s more traditional mother, adds that Season 2 speaks to the parallels of social media and how fame can “come from inside your own home.”
“We’re living in a very different world now with a pandemic and Zoom being our main foray out into the world and to others at the moment, but I feel a lot of modern day youth have this anxiety from having grown up only in a world of social media and knowing that exists. I had a very different upbringing than that, but I think it’s very similar to the anxieties that Emily is struggling with in her own much smaller way,” she says.
Another addition to Season 2 is recent “Big Mouth” star Ayo Edebiri, whose energy and humor in the writers’ room was begging to be put on screen, Smith says.
Edebiri plays Hattie, a servant to the much-changed Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt) and her new husband Austin Dickinson (Adrian Enscoe). The storyline of Hattie and Henry (Chinaza Uche) setting up an underground abolitionist journal intertwines with Emily’s in Season 2, and serves as another of the show’s reflections on visibility versus invisibility, on the blurred lines between fact and fiction, according to Smith.
“There’s no real true fact that they had such a journal, but at the same time, we also don’t know that they didn’t, because of the ways that some histories get told, while others get erased,” Smith says. “We’re really playing with what is history other than a narrative, and we’re trying to disrupt the way the narrative has been received and say that with people like Emily Dickinson, or Black radical activists in New England in the mid-19th century, we have not told our history in a way that foregrounds their achievements and their contributions. We’re always focused on Abraham Lincoln, instead.”
“Dickinson” Season 2 premieres Jan. 8 on Apple TV Plus.