Capping off a thought-provoking, hilarious, and emotional season with another all-encompassing performance from Hailee Steinfeld.
- 🌸Tears of rage, resignation, and romance from Hailee Steinfeld prove how versatile she is.
- 🌸The conversation about fame.
- 🌸Emily and Sue's emotional rollercoaster.
- 🌸Sam leaning into his devilish side.
- 🌸The speech Lavinia gives to Ship.
- 🌸A brief appearance but still not enough Hattie.
- 🌸Sue's distance this season served a purpose but it has been a tough journey.
Emily Dickinson didn’t achieve fame in her lifetime and thousands of poems only saw the light of day when her sister discovered the vast collection hidden in a trunk after Emily's death. Alena Smith’s series might bend the rules by adding anachronistic language and contemporary music into this 19th-century world, but this is not an alternate history in which Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) becomes a glittering celebrity poet. The second season focuses on why the twenty-something eschewed fame — a topic that repeats through her work — at a time when her writing poured out of her and in “You cannot put a Fire out,” she acts on her choice to stay in the shadows. Starting out strong, Dickinson has only got brighter and bolder as the story unfolds and the concluding chapter maintains this trajectory.
Establishing her identity as a writer (and convincing her family this was a valid career choice) was a primary concern during Dickinson’s debut outing that matched the youthful intensity of the lead. Darkness hangs over Season 2, beginning with Emily’s vision concerns and her first encounter with Nobody (Will Pullen). Now, the war we know is coming, edges closer to igniting. Striking a delicate balance, there has been no shortage of funny and outlandish moments, including convening with spirits at a séance, a trip to the spa, and a night at the opera. Meanwhile, fabulous literary salons hosted by Sue (Ella Hunt) sit alongside the new belle of the ball; newspapers.
The power of the printed press has been one of the cornerstones with Springfield Republican editor Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) pointedly resembling the attitudes of men who control social media empires more than 150 years later. Sam has been the devil on Emily’s shoulder tempting her toward the bright lights of fame while also reveling in how much money he can make from war. He is the snake in the grass who whispers how special you are before taking advantage. Once referring to him as being like the sun, Emily now keeps her back to him when she demands he return the work she gave him in good faith. When he asks why she is staring at the wall, she tells him it is to protect her eyes before turning around to plead her case.
A complicated set of circumstances fuel Emily’s mood and this confrontation marks their first encounter since she saw him in a compromising position with Sue. This showdown has long been brewing and after he suggests she is displaying false modesty, Emily unleashes both barrels about his impact on her creativity. Blaming both Sam and Sue for stealing the empire in her mind, he realizes that she knows about his dalliance with her best friend. “That is always what happens to women,” he condescendingly observes about her emotional reaction. At times it has been unclear what Sam’s motives have been toward Emily, but his sense of grandeur and importance emphasizes how much he believes it when he yells “I am a feminist.” A statement made after he has fled the Dickinson home with his satchel full of Emily’s work.
He genuinely believes she is nothing without him and his enjoyment derived from this particular lesson is a cold blow — Finn Jones is particularly fun to watch when he leans into this devious side. That is until Emily heads up to her room, where Maggie (Darlene Hunt) awaits with her bounty. A maid can fetch a plate of roast beef for an unwanted guest — the way Sam is always snacking is another impish character trait — but she can also slip some poems out unseen. It is a triumphant moment and one that leads to the closing of the Nobody chapter. He comes to Emily once more to discuss the fate of Frazar Stearns and the bullet that will hit him like a bird. “Seeking glory. Seeking fame” is his bittersweet commentary on the short life ahead. He is both a cautionary tale and a specter of the bloodshed to come, but Emily’s wars are going to be fought with words and in secret. This conversation is the crux of Emily’s season-long dilemma and the beautifully understated performances from Pullen and Steinfeld pack an emotional punch. After all, Emily has to save her energy for a confrontation with someone else.
Tension has been bubbling between Emily and Sue since the season premiere, in which Sue first introduced her best friend to the dazzling editor. One of the biggest roadblocks and probably the element I have found the hardest to parse this season is Sue’s prickliness. The reason behind her vested interest in material things and becoming a glittering host in the New England literary scene is a method of pushing away her pain, but at times her edges have been too sharp. Keeping Sue and Emily at arm’s length has led to some stunning moments including the dizzying scene at the opera and the explosion of emotions in the finale, but it has also been frustrating to watch Sue’s aloof demeanor. Without the distance, there wouldn’t be the same barbed argument followed by fiery reconciliation but it has been a tough journey getting to this point.
Emily eviscerates her closest friend with the brilliant words you would expect from a literary sensation. Referring to her as “exquisitely empty” she bristles at Sue’s explanation for why she pushed her toward Sam. Sue did point out to Emily in the season premiere that her poems were causing her to feel things and it was becoming too much, so the clues have been there all along. In attempting to stay faithful to Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe), the only bond the women shared was her words, and those were overpowering. Refusing to leave, Sue tells Emily she is in love with her. With everyone at the christening, the entire house becomes their playground, including romantic baths (in the kitchen) and a table of food to enjoy — Sue blowing out the candle before crawling across the table is a funny and smart visual for those who know how dangerous fire was for women during this time. The season ends in Emily’s greenhouse sanctuary with Emily saying all she needs is Sue, “I write for you.” Hailee Steinfeld is already a bonafide star, but this second season further proves what an exceptional actress she is whether serving up emotionally charged dialogue or getting down in a barn dance (when no one can see her). It is exciting to know Dickinson has already been renewed and that she will be headlining the Disney+ series Hawkeye.
After a season apart, it does make this reunion more powerful so despite my quibbles at the severity of Sue, the resolution is impactful. Last week, Austin sobbed about his profound emptiness so this might not seem like the most understanding sisterly act, but before Sue came to see Emily, her marriage was effectively dead in the water. Her brother can’t be blamed for his chilly attitude and this pairing has been doomed from the beginning. Sue missed the whole church burning down (at the hands of the adopted Newman girls) but it did propel Austin into leadership mode while also giving him more time to gaze upon Jane Humphrey (Gus Birney). Austin is also quick to point out that his wife is off living her life when questioned about her whereabouts and next season could introduce expanded martial boundaries.
Meanwhile, serving the comic relief of an emotionally heavy episode, Ship (Pico Alexander) truly has not been listening to Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) as he expected her to move to a shack in New Orleans — sold to him by her ex. “I’m a shrewd Yankee witch” she reminds him before leaving him with a parting smooch and the message that she is the “most interesting girl he ever loved.” So long, Ship! You weren’t too bright and you liked to yell random words, but you sure were hot (and had fantastic hair). All remains well with the elder Dickinson’s including some unscheduled hot and heavy times, even if Edward (Toby Huss) ruins the vibe by telling his wife he dreamed the church would burn down. It seems Edward and Emily have more in common than they thought and this ability to sense the shifting winds leaves a sense of dread hanging over the season. The parallels between 2021 and the mid-1850s are many, which makes this deep dive even more powerful.
“You cannot put a Fire out — A Thing that can ignite”
Emily’s poem that gives the finale its title speaks on a figurative and literal level. Emily and Sue’s passion cannot be quelled and the Amherst church has actually burned down. This season has portrayed heated creative and romantic scenarios and while Emily has reckoned with herself, the empire in her mind cannot be snuffed out. On a wider scale, the firestorm lit by John Brown in Virginia (and the media providing some kindling) is going to result in a bloody war that ensures the heady party atmosphere will come to a crashing end. Dickinson might be considered an unconventional retelling of history but Alena Smith has crafted a series bursting with as many ideas as Emily’s poems — and there is still so much story to tell.
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