When Dickinson first landed on Apple TV+ in late 2019, the queer revisionist telling of American poet Emily Dickinson’s life skated by rather unnoticed. Packed with sapphic yearning and artful melodrama, most of its positive criticism came for its unexpectedly modern soundtrack. The bassline from Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ cut through a conversation with Death (Wiz Khalifa) before the grinding guitars of Mitski‘s ‘Your Best American Girl’ interrupted a sex scene. Was there a more soothing balm in 2020 than teenagers from the 1850s twerking to Lizzo and tripping on opium? A chance to continue its story was the least Dickinson deserved.
In the new season, premiering this week, Emily trades her fascination with mortality for a new subject – fame. Suddenly thrust into the public eye due to her work, the immensely private writer struggles to decide whether she is ready for life as a globally renowned poet, which threatens her peaceful existence. At the same time, she struggles to work out her relationship with former lover and now sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt), who has married brother Austin. Other goings on include Lavinia Dickinson (Anna Baryshnikov) and her whirlwind romance with local frat boy (Pico Alexander), which gives way to an entertaining side story. Later, newcomer Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones) turns Emily’s life upside down again when he makes promises he is unlikely to keep.
As a whole, this is a more adventurous stack of episodes. Blending dark comedy with astute observations about celebrity, season two plays out as a smart, self-aware thinkpiece on millennial milieu. Creator and writer Alena Smith’s dialogue proves a highlight – lively and smart enough to leave space for knowing looks and awkward pauses – and there’s sufficient narrative to sustain interest. Whether that’s unexpected additions to Austin and Sue’s family or the rumbling of Henry’s (Chinaza Uche) underground abolitionist movement it doesn’t matter, there’s plenty going on in Emily’s hometown of Amherst to keep viewers locked in. Still, perhaps the show’s best quality is how it treats its own queerness – ever-present and refreshingly transparent. Emily and Sue’s relationship isn’t leveraged as an off-the-cuff plot point, but an organic, thoughtful romance. Well, as natural as falling in love with your brother’s orphan-turned-influencer wife can be, but we’re here for it.
With its remarkable second series, Dickinson has established itself as a top-tier period drama in the face of stiff competition from Netflix hit Bridgerton and Elle Fanning’s The Great. Roll on season three.