Skip to main content

‘Dickinson’ 2.08 Review: Feeling Seen

On the biggest day of Emily's career, a unique opportunity presents itself to the poet.

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson
(Image: © Apple TV+)

Our Verdict

Death returns to Amherst in an episode that explores the ugly side of fame with terrific results.

For

  • 🌸Hailee Steinfeld's magnetic performance.
  • 🌸Ayo Edebiri co-wrote the fantastic script and continues to steal every scene she is in.
  • 🌸The Emily/Austin connection hits new heights.
  • 🌸A fantastic dance sequence.
  • 🌸The Nobody mystery.

This post contains spoilers for Dickinson.
Read our last review here.

Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) has been ruminating on stepping into the light all season with various figures (and possible apparitions) offering advice regarding the pros and cons of fame. The coveted front page milestone has finally been achieved in “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and the celebratory moment takes a fantastical turn tapping into the quintessential Dickinson magic. Becoming invisible for the day is an out-there premise, but one grounded by Steinfeld’s ability to play the big and small emotional moments. The question of what it will mean for her work if it is open to scrutiny is a long-running thread magnified by this opportunity. She has been writing in a vacuum up until this point and even the act of giving her poem to Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) sent her spiraling. With 12,000 Springfield Republican subscribers reading “The May-Wine,” the potential for varied discourse is high. Extracting Emily from interactions with most of the characters and turning her into an observer is a bold choice that leads to one of the most affecting episodes of the season. Death (Wiz Khalifa) also makes his first appearance of the year and is joined by an infamous writer. 

Upon waking, Emily’s giddy reaction suggests she is ready to embrace her notoriety and it takes a few moments during the breakfast scene to realize that neither Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) or Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) can see her. “Okay, slay,” her sister proclaims upon reading “The May-Wine,” with hot dummy Ship (Pico Alexander) misinterpreting the boozy proclamation to be about getting wasted. This conversation between the engaged couple spirals out of control when Vinnie corrects his literal take on the poem’s themes while Emily yells at her family with the hope of being seen. Even her father — who opposed Emily’s career in Season 1 — is beaming at his daughter’s success and this sweet acknowledgment cannot be enjoyed.  Immortality is her dream but has it come at a greater cost? 

Lavinia and Ship in Season 2 of Dickinson

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Rather than explaining the mechanics behind her altered state, creator Alena Smith (who wrote this episode with Ayo Edebiri) uses this scenario to go even deeper on the theme that weaves its way through Dickinson’s writing. The Season 2 opener explained that Emily’s poetry provides the narrative framework, which turns to literary theory over a dry biographical approach. 

Nobody (Will Pullen) has been absent since his dramatic kitchen death re-enactment during the séance, in an episode that ended with Emily giving her poem to Sam. Returning on Emily’s big publication day is no coincidence. Referring to himself as a mystery rather than a ghost, he assures Emily she has not passed over to the great beyond. Instead of a sycophantic chorus, Nobody suggests being invisible will allow her to find out how people really feel about the poem, and she seems pretty excited about this idea. It is as if the comments section has sprung to life and Emily’s audience includes dudes inferring she is “really lascivious” and taking her poem as an open invitation to “go to her house and jack off in the bushes.” Nobody quips, “Fame can be ugly,” while the poet struggles with the varying opinions she has no control over. Gross dudes aside, some of the critiques are more thoughtful and engaged (though still a little hurtful). Hattie (Ayo Edebiri) is happy for Emily, however, she also doesn’t think it is saying anything of meaning.

Previously, Nobody espoused a life without attention and Emily ignored his warning. In one sense, this unknown figure represents the reclusive image that is an ingrained part of Dickinson’s legacy, whereas Sue (Ella Hunt) is a personal cheerleader advocating recognition. Being invisible doesn’t mean death and Nobody lists examples such as love and the air that we breathe as powerful unseen entities. The pair end up at the graveyard in which Emily’s Season 1 love Ben (Matt Lauria) is buried and from here the conversation gets curious. In the previous scene, Nobody whistles “John Brown’s Body,” a tune linking to what is going on in Austin’s (Adrian Blake Enscoe) barn and the potential identity of Nobody. He cannot remember his name or where he is from but he does know what his death felt like and the likelihood of him being a soldier struck down in the impending Civil War is high. Emily keeps saying she recognizes him but this is a mystery yet to be solved. 

Dickinson Season 2 Episode 8.

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Emily continues her unseen journey after Nobody disappears and finds herself at a different celebration from the one Sue is throwing her next door. Here, she learns that Henry’s (Chinaza Uche) newspaper The Constellation is helping fund John Brown’s cause — Ethan Hawke’s excellent The Good Lord Bird is a great companion series to Dickinson — and she hears about the revolution they are funding. Not only is their money paying for weapons but “Our words have given them strength.” Even Hattie’s ghost stories have subtext and her low-key feud with Henry “Box” Brown (Ade Otukoya) continues when she refers to him as “a street magician.” Before the meeting can descend into petty squabbles, Henry reminds everyone what they are fighting for: “And though we may be anonymous today, tomorrow we will not be invisible.” Juxtaposed against Emily’s dilemma, the power of the printing press and the fight for freedom goes beyond a byline when the fate of the country is on the line. Ayo Edebiri has been a scene-stealer all season and this remains true in an episode she co-wrote. “I wanna dance” she announces before revealing Sue’s gold dress hidden beneath her regular attire. Traditional fiddle meets Cakes da Killa's “Gon’ Blow” revelry that is far more exuberant than the shindig Sue has thrown for her BFF.

Dickinson’s unconventional approach allows for this fantastic choreographed scene by Steinfeld’s long time collaborator Nick DeMoura, which emphasizes the joy of the Constellation victory. Emily dances it up a storm, still clad in her plaid robe and it comes as a great surprise that when Austin comes looking for the guest of honor, he can actually see her. A crisis of confidence has fully gripped her brother regarding what he perceives as having something real. His marriage is a sham and he’s just been informed his favorite painting is a copy; his ego is bruised and he is lost. Perhaps, his unmoored mental state is why he is the Haley Joel Osment to Emily’s Bruce Willis. It looks like Austin is talking to himself — Hattie remarks “You don’t even know how many white secrets I’m keeping” — and the final scene suggests why Austin has been so off in Sam’s presence. 

Emily and Death in Dickinson Season 2.

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Before this hooking up bombshell, Emily has a ride with Death and this marks the first appearance of her red ball gown this season. The inebriated Emily is joined by dead author Edgar Allan Poe — Nick Kroll is making a claim for best Dickinson cameo so far. Playing the author as a slightly creepy dude looking to hook up with fans of his work, he is also on hand to dish out some unsolicited advice about the perils of notoriety and the addictive quality of fame. Leonard Cohen’s “You Want it Darker” kicks in and Emily remains unseen except to the dead and her brother (and whoever Nobody is). Arriving at her party after everyone has left the Evergreens, she heads into the library to look at the space where her book will go. When Sue enters, Emily assumes she can see her now but rather her beloved beckons in another. The suspicion that Sam Bowles isn’t a man of his word pays off (I knew it!) as he is very much entangled with Sue. How long they have been doing this is unclear, but they are extremely comfortable with each other. Instead of fleeing, Emily pulls up a chair and stares directly at them. This love triangle just got dialed up a notch and this episode raises many questions.

Far from the only romantic tornado, Lavinia and Ship implode after she dismisses his poetry critique. Awkwardly rehearsing his break-up speech in front of the unseen Emily, his insistence that Vinnie becomes a traditional housewife is a non-starter. Rather than comply, she reinforces her position, “I am a twisted, witchy, creative, horny woman, and you can’t accept that.” Emboldened by her sister’s independence, the scene ends with the hilarious interpretation of the spider dance that once again proves Baryshnikov’s comedic talents. It doesn’t look good for the future of this couple and with the exception of Emily’s parents, every relationship is in tatters. Emily’s world has imploded and with two episodes remaining, it will be impossible for the poet to hide from the forthcoming storm of emotions.