Was Emily Dickinson a war poet? The famed New England author is traditionally known as a recluse, but she was most prolific during the Civil War, and Apple TV+’s Dickinson loves nothing better than upending your assumptions about her life and work. As the genre-bending comedy heads into its third and final season, it’s bringing Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily into the Civil War — literally, in the case of a dream sequence, where she’s on the battlefield that you can see in the trailer. That trailer also hints at the show’s other key preoccupations: Emily’s relationship with her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert, which is strained once again, and her legacy as a poet, which comes up in her interactions with an ebullient Walt Whitman (Billy Eichner) and, mysteriously, Sylvia Plath (SNL’s Chloe Fineman), who calls her the “original sad girl.” Dickinson will release its third season’s first three episodes on November 5. In advance of the show’s premiere, creator Alena Smith spoke with Vulture about what to expect.
You’ve said you had a three-season plan for the show. In that plan, what did you want to accomplish in this third season?
I always knew going into it that the third season would take place during the Civil War, which was the culmination of a lot of what we had been tending toward the whole time. The exact four years of the Civil War are when Emily’s writing output went through the roof. I knew, also, when I pitched this three-season arc, that one of the most important characters who would enter Emily’s life in season three is Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Gabriel Ebert), a radical abolitionist minister who Emily did the equivalent of cold-emailing in the spring of 1862. She sees Higginson’s essay in The Atlantic encouraging young writers in their process and inviting them to reach out to him for advice. Emily writes Higginson a letter asking him if her poems are any good. It’s interesting she chose this person who was explicitly a radical and an activist. At the time she wrote to him, he was stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina, putting together a federally unauthorized regiment of Black soldiers. They ended up corresponding for 24 years, and after her death, he became her first editor. The fact that he’s an activist is key to understanding her quest in season three, which is basically asking the question “Can I make a difference?” The only thing that Emily knows she’s good at is writing poetry, and she’s asking, “Can my poetry help people?”
The trailer opens with a confrontation between Emily and Sue. What did you think about the endgame for how they would end up within the show?
Well, the quote, unquote endgame that the fans love to refer to, you can go to the museum and learn about that, which is that they were next-door neighbors for 40 years and Emily wrote Sue hundreds of letters and love poems. Those are the facts, but the question is the interpretation of the facts. Season two was about Emily almost losing Sue because Sue almost lost herself. But luckily for all of us who love Emily and Sue, Sue recovered her true self — and the fundamental fact that she loves Emily more than anyone in the world. We come into season three with a renewed honesty and intimacy between them. It’s like a homecoming to season one but with the characters having deepened and grown to the original predicament: Sue has traditional responsibilities as a wife that Emily doesn’t have because she’s chosen a different path for herself. But also, in season three, we push Emily the character to define her sexuality in ways she has not so far in the series. We liked the idea that there was a fluidity to Emily because in the 1850s they didn’t have the same words and categories for sexuality we have today. But in season three, we, along with Sue, are pushing Emily to say, “I am gay, I am queer,” to own her love of Sue.
You wrote and shot this season during the pandemic. How did that affect it?
My goal for this show was always to use the story of Emily Dickinson as an unexpected mirror for where we are today. Part of why I found the Civil War so disturbing and engaging as an artist was what society was already going through, even before the pandemic. But then the pandemic came along and suddenly I found myself writing this show over Zoom. That certainly added to these tremendous layers of grief, which happened to be what Emily and her family were going through as well. The Civil War changed the conception of death in America, which has been written about by Drew Gilpin Faust in her book This Republic of Suffering. You suddenly had death on this mass scale, which is where we got this whole idea for Nobody [a figure in Dickinson’s poems who appears on the show as Frazer Stearns, who would go on to die in the war]. In any case, it all got very meta. By design, and by the way the world changed around us as we were writing it, I do think this season is bigger and deeper and there’s a real emotional distance we all traveled together that feels fitting for a time when everyone involved in the making of the show is being challenged so much.
You’ve announced three new guest stars so far: Ziwe as Sojourner Truth, Billy Eichner as Walt Whitman, and Chloe Fineman as Sylvia Plath. Why these figures, and also, with Sylvia Plath, how?
With Ziwe, I loved her on Twitter and her appearances on various podcasts, and in March 2020, I said, “Would you want to write for Dickinson this year?” She said yes, and then during that time we were in the writers’ room over Zoom, she was also doing Baited on Instagram Live. Then I was like, well, we have to put Ziwe in the show, and we didn’t realize that within a year she would be one of the biggest guest stars we had ever had because everything started happening for her.
Then Billy was its own full-circle moment. Billy and I had crossed paths in 2009 when he was part of my show The Piven Monologues at Joe’s Pub, where we read internet comments about Jeremy Piven dropping out of Speed-the-Plow because of mercury poisoning. It featured both Billy and Julie Klausner and deserves a revival. But we’ve had all these guest stars of people from the 19th-century cannon who were important in one way or another to Dickinson. Of all of them, the most important was going to be Walt Whitman. They are the two most influential poets in American literature, and yet they embody such extremes of lived experience and reception. Emily is cloistered and interior, a woman defined by what her life didn’t include. Whitman is out and about, walking down the Bowery, knowing everybody, self-publishing, self-mythologizing, and in the Civil War, working as a nurse and frequenting a gay nightclub called Pfaff’s. In our show, Whitman takes Emily to Pfaff’s, and it’s her first experience of realizing people can be gay. So I wanted to bring these two great forces of Dickinson and Whitman together, and it was fabulous to put Billy in the role because he plays Whitman as a character in his own right, but it’s also a little bit of “Whitman on the Street.”
Ziwe and I also co-wrote the episode where Emily meets Sylvia Plath through a mechanism that I will not reveal because it’s going to be a lot of fun for the audience to figure that out. I learned about Chloe a couple years ago because Hailee sent me her Instagram videos of her imitations of people, so that was also a nice full-circle moment. The function that Sylvia plays also has to do with Emily embracing her queerness, because Emily learns that in the future of the 1950s, the mythology that’s collected around Dickinson is that she died of unrequited love for a man. This pushes her to be like, That’s not true! I have requited love and it’s Sue. It also interested me to bring Sylvia into the mix because many times when I said, “I’m making a show about Emily Dickinson,” people would say, “When did she kill herself?” I think there’s this idea that every female poet kills themselves, which I might call the “Plath Effect.” I wanted to use Sylvia, or at least a caricature of Sylvia, to investigate that.