Before Emily Dickinson died with a stash of nearly 1,800 poems under her bed that would one day make her a mainstay of high-school curriculums the nation over; before she retreated into near isolation in her room in Amherst and communicated with the outside world solely through written correspondence; before she became the namesake for Liz Lemon’s cat: She was a teen. As Apple TV+’s Dickinson proposes, Emily (to whom I WILL be referring to from here on out as “Em,” like the dash, her favorite punctuation mark and mine) wasn’t just a regular teen: she was a rebellious, ambitious, weird and — most crucially — horny teen.
Sexy Dickinson, as we at Vulture call it, has arrived, joining the Who Fucks Industrial Complex. Readers of my other recaps know how I feel about emotional youths, aspiring writers in complicated romantic situations, and period shows that don’t exactly adhere to the period in which they are ostensibly set, so obviously this is all extremely up my alley.
And yet I should say from the jump that, at present, I am not totally sold on the tone and vibe and execution in this world. Once you get over the (very small, but fun) “shock” of these historical figures speaking in modern slang, you are still in this place that is very confusing: We’re in the past and Em’s attitudes are modern, but she’s not the only person who speaks and engages in the world the way she does, and often these modern flourishes feel like they were added in a haphazard, not-not-meaningless way. It’s a half-hour kind of comedy, but it doesn’t really have jokes, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if everything that scans as funny to me is funny on purpose. I love Jane Krakowski, but I am thrown by her diction and presence here: Is Em’s mom supposed to be in on the joke? Are we laughing with her or at her or what? Are she and Em’s even in the same place on the time-space continuum?
But let’s get into our episode here: with Em, in bed. (Heyyy.) She throws a little shawly thing over her shoulders to write poetry while making fireworks with her hands in the air. (Should I have a shawly thing for this exact purpose? I usually go for an oversize hoodie, and maybe that’s what’s been holding me back as a writer?) She writes exactly one line, which glows like embers across the screen in her script — “Because I could not stop for death” — when her train of thought is rudely interrupted at FOUR IN THE MORNING because her sister, Lavinia, says it’s Em’s turn to get water. Why can’t her brother do it? Because water fetching is a girl job.
Time for one of my favorite tropes: modern music blasting over historical shit, just like in the criminally underrated A Knight’s Tale. Everybody’s wearing American Girl Doll dresses to pluck chickens, as you do. Em’s mom, Emily, is appalled that the water buckets are half-empty (pessimist) and reprimands her daughter, who will go down in history as one of the greatest poets in American letters, as “a useless girl.” She does not want a maid because her entire sense of self-worth is wrapped up in her willingness and ability to bake bread for a husband who probably does not think she should be allowed to vote.
Mama Dickinson has summoned a suitor for Em, who is warned to not pull any stunts, like that time she dropped a dead mouse in a man’s lap. Hailee Steinfeld’s delivery, pristine: “Yes. Like a cat.” “You’re not a cat, Emily.” “No, tragically, I am a woman.” Lavinia doesn’t get any suitors because she’s too good at housework to spare, confirming a rule by which I try to live: Never get too good at something you don’t really want to do.
Em, obedient rule-follower, rolls in with her hair all over her face, pretending to be a ghost or that girl from The Ring. (Sidebar: For someone who doesn’t care about making a good impression on this boy, Em did find a way to smuggle a curling iron into the 1800s to make her hair get that soft-yet-even effortless wave in it. Hmm.) But it turns out the boy is George, who is in the lit club with Austin, Em’s brother. Em sprawls on the couch like a manspreader on the subway and then brings this well-dressed young man to the porch to inform him that, despite his impressive credentials (he supports her writing, quotes her to her, says she’s a genius, is in love with her, etc.), she shall not be wed. She anticipates this husband, any husband, would get in the way of her writing, “little by little.” Anyway, she is spoken for. She is in love WITH DEATH. “He’s such a gentleman. Sexy as hell.” How Hadestown!
George, co-editor of the literary magazine, can get a poem of Em’s published tomorrow, which, wow! That’s basically the speed of internet. She doesn’t want her name to be printed because her father, who sounds like a drag and a half, “doesn’t approve of women publishing.” George, who I guess doesn’t understand the consequences Em will face for this insubordination and how the basic comforts of her life can only endure as long as her father allows it, encourages her to stand up to her dad, and she agrees.
George kisses Em on the cheek, which horrifies Em’s mother (virtually everything Em does horrifies her mother). Poor Lavinia, who I’m pretty sure is the one who eventually finds Em’s poems after death, is being totally neglected by her parents. Em’s dad, making his stock rise with me, says he doesn’t care if Em gets married. Em points out that she has contributed to the household: “I’m the one that found all those bird’s nests,” she says, gesturing to her creepy little Pinterest creation. Em’s dad says she can take a break instead of scrubbing chamber pots or whatever the hell her mom was going to make her do.
Austin rides in on a horse, looking extremely cute, to report that he is engaged to Sue, whom (not that Em knows this) he was recently going down on in a haystack. Get it, Sue! Em howls that Austin can’t do this, because Sue is her best friend; this is something that just keeps on happening to Hailee. Sue has no other family, on account of how her sister Mary (the healthy one!) died. These two lovebirds might move to Michigan, but Em’s dad puts the kibosh on it. (Later, Austin will pretend this is a decision he and Sue arrived at together, as independent adults, which is adorable.)
Em meets Sue in the orchard, which is quite picturesque and puts everybody’s couple-y “We went apple picking” Instagrams to shame, no offense. Sue’s entire family is dead, so she’s really in a bind. “You don’t even like him,” Em insists. “You told me you didn’t respect his intellect.” Sue will literally be destitute and starve to death if she doesn’t get married, and I feel like Em is not being the most understanding about that situation. They look like a little Free People catalogue out there, having feelings in the trees. Em assures Sue that the two of them can be sisters now, but that is NOT the tension I am getting from these two. Em extracts a promise to stay put and “that you’ll always love me more than him” and then they MAKE OUT IN THE RAIN like a Taylor Swift song. OKAY, EM. I SEE YOU.
It is not super-clear how time works in this show — like, did everything that just happen all happen in the same day? Is it still the same day? Because now we’re at an extremely speedy funeral for Sue’s sister Mary. (Em’s review: “Mine’ll be better.”) Post-funeral, Austin is whining about how Em is a “freak.” George retorts that Em is a genius, and clearly we’ve hit on a bit of an insecurity nerve here for poor Austin, who gets to go to school, have a job, vote, have rights, ride horses, marry Sue, etc., etc., etc, but he’s still all sad because his sister is more talented than he is.
At dinner, Papa Dickinson offers some oh-so-casual character exposition that sounds like he is reading his own Wikipedia entry to get his family up to speed on, you know, who he is and what jobs he’s had and such. His big news: He’s running for Congress! Don’t worry, he’s not an abolitionist because he’s not a “radical.” Here for a show that is here to drag moderates! (Em: “Sometimes I feel like a slave.”) He also wants the railroad to come to Amherst. (Me: “But not the underground railroad, amirite?”)
Austin “announces” that he and Sue will be moving into the house that his parents have already told him they are building for him in the lot next door to where he is currently eating dinner. Mama Dickinson squeals about the wedding list, to which Sue offers, “My whole family is dead.” So I guess all the single adults can get plus-ones, at least? Silver lining.
Em reads the room and decides it’s big announcement time for her, too. But her news about her poem being published, to use a technical term, really kills the vibe. Papa Dickinson does NOT approve of a woman seeking to build herself a literary reputation. Honestly, it is amazing that he thinks one poem is going to be enough to build a literary reputation. I’ve written, like, 834 recaps, to get my “literary reputation.” That’s the kind of commitment it takes. Everybody hightails it out of there so Em can be ripped to shreds by her dad. He has been rebuilding the family name ever since Grandpa Dickinson, a “drunk ditherer,” destroyed it. Em’s punishment is more cleaning, so, basically what she was supposed to be doing this whole time? I feel like there’s a way to read this as her father quietly conveying that he realizes her whole existence, as that of all women, is one unending punishment. Or he just isn’t creative enough to come up with another idea.
In response, Em’s imagination has her changing into this sultry red gown and riding away with Death, whose carriage is pulled by glow-in-the-dark invisible horse outlines (thestrals?) and who is played by WIZ KHALIFA in Mad Hatter cosplay. I love … everything about this?! Death tells Em she will be “the only Dickinson they talk about in 200 years.” Em wants Death to take her now, but no such luck; he is about to be so swamped. A war is a’coming. While I thoroughly enjoyed this scene, it also strikes me as bizarre and kind of shallow that Em is still romanticizing death when her best friend and lover has watched every member of her family die. I mean, the girl was at a funeral four hours ago. Death is not a sexy abstraction to Sue!
Back in real life, Em completes her Cinderella sentence and has some heart-to-hearts with the two men in her house. First, her brother fesses up to being happy that he isn’t going to Michigan. And then her dad pops in, crying and wearing a white nightgown, and I write in my notes wow vulnerability is strength. He begs her not to get married and move away. Is this a healthy father-daughter relationship? I feel like … no. But this does work to Em’s advantage: She takes her leverage and scores a maid and ends the night with two big victories. And the next line in her poem.