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‘Dickinson’ Uses the Civil War to Explore Modern Divisions

“Dickinson,” the trippy, playful and deeply passionate Apple TV+ series about the poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), has always been about far more than Dickinson herself. Women and creativity, sexuality, fame, privilege, race, art as a bulwark against despair — the show touches on all of those.

“From the beginning, it’s been about using events from the 19th century to hold an unexpected mirror up to where we are today,” Alena Smith, the creator and showrunner, said recently.

The third and final season, which began last week and will conclude on Dec. 24, begins in the lead-up to the Civil War. This period was an extraordinarily productive time for the poet, though she remained, as always, at home in Amherst, Mass. It also marked the beginning of her correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist writer and activist, whose position as colonel of the first authorized Union Army regiment of former slaves gave Smith a historical underpinning for a modern discussion about race relations.

Season 3 was hammered out over Zoom by writers who were all over the country. As the world went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, Smith, her husband and their twin toddlers repaired to her parents’ house in the Hudson Valley. The parallels between her and Dickinson — who never moved away from her childhood home — were all too stark.

“I was writing in my parents’ basement in the middle of the countryside,” Smith said in a video call from Los Angeles. “Sometimes I would see a little snake or bird outside my window; once a mouse ran through the room. I was like, ‘This is a little too much cosplaying, even for me.’”

In the interview, Smith also discussed the wildness of Dickinson’s poetry and the parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and the Civil War. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What made you want to do a semi-comic series about Emily Dickinson?

I’ve been a fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry since high school. When I went to college, I really responded to the story of her life. How did this privileged New England woman become this rocket ship of passion who was doing things with language that no one had done before, or has ever done since?

It spoke to me so much that she was able to commit so ferociously to her process while seemingly not getting any kind of validation. That’s basically how you feel when you’re a young writer.

I’m using the story to tell my own coming-of-age story. I’m building an actual factual collage of Emily that is sort of secretly about me — how I felt growing up in context of my own family and politics, wanting to be a writer and feeling like I had to fight for it in some way.

Each episode in the series takes its title from a Dickinson poem. How are you using the poetry to make larger points?

A scholar named Ann Douglas once said that Dickinson’s poems are like scripts. That’s proven to be true in our show. Her poems are these hooks, with these first lines — “You cannot put a Fire out,” “Because I could not stop for Death” — and you immediately start asking, What kind of drama is playing out here?

It’s important to remember that I’m not actually positing anything [about the poems’ origins]. What I’m doing is allowing the spirit of those poems to become embodied in the context of a show that really has an agenda about using Emily Dickinson’s life and times to hold a mirror up to where we are today.

The third season directly addresses contemporary issues about race. How did you, as a white woman, approach the topic?

The first thing was that I, and the show, never played it safe. The second thing was making sure that we had brilliant minds from a huge array of diverse perspectives. I was always pushing for representation on every level — from the writers’ room to who was in front of the camera and who was behind the camera — that did not fall in the bucket of white cis male.

Sojourner Truth [the former slave who campaigned for civil and women’s rights, and who is played by Ziwe Fumudoh] appears in two episodes, and both of those were directed by women of color. Luckily, Ziwe was in our writers’ room. I had reached out to her over DM on Twitter, having been a fan of her comedy for years. I knew she was an insane lunatic like me. We built that character of Sojourner Truth together, for her.

To create the character of Higginson, I asked all the writers to come to me with jargon of white activism and white ally-ship. And we came up with lists of funny things like “bandwidth” and “leaving space.” We were having fun because we were also having those conversations in reality.

I don’t have the answers to all these questions. But the important thing, to me, is that you cannot write about the American experience without writing about race.

How did you decide when to stick to historical fact?

I have spent close to 10 years immersed in Dickinson. I have read almost all the biographies and a ton of literary theory about her work. There’s not a whole lot that happens to Emily Dickinson that’s all that interesting. So I was basically mining for gold, and when I found gold, I would always use it. Everything that happens in the show has some connection to fact.

But the rule wasn’t to make a normal biopic, and a lot of the drama is taken from literary theory around Emily’s poems. In some ways, it’s a dramatization of literary theory. You could read a lot of interesting essays about Emily Dickinson’s relationship to the war, from a poetic as well as a historical perspective. Were her poems about the war? They are so oblique, and so filled with metaphor, that we can’t quite tell. This show operates in a metaphoric and poetic space.

Throughout the series, Emily struggles with questions about how to make her poetry mean something. How does this play out in the third season?

Season 3 is about legacy and whether art can provide hope. Emily can’t figure out whether her art matters to anyone else — not in terms of fame, but in terms of whether it can help them feel better during these dark days.

Writing is an act of communication, and that’s the paradox at the heart of Emily — while we think of her as this absolute loner, no writer can be satisfied as a loner. To write is to ask someone to listen. You’re writing for someone else even if it’s just one person you’re asking to understand you. In some ways, Emily’s whole life was this seeking to be understood. She’s desperate to connect, and in Season 3, she’s clinging to her core connections, to her family, for dear life.

How did the pandemic change your plans for the new season?

It’s not news that the causes of the Civil War are still playing out in our society. I knew when I started writing “Dickinson” that the show was partly going to be about that.

But of course, what we did not know was that there would be a pandemic, and that it would have echoes of the Civil War, when grief got scaled up to a degree that no one in America had ever experienced before. During the making of Season 2, I took a class on Civil War history that met at a bar in Brooklyn on Wednesday nights. That’s where I learned that in the beginning of the Civil War, people thought it would be over soon. And then it went on for four years.

The part where Emily’s dad says, “If this had happened to me in my 20s, I probably would have killed myself” — that was something the dad of a cast member actually said to them during the pandemic.

In the new season, the character of Death, played by the rapper Wiz Khalifa, becomes a kind of stand in for all of us.

When we find Death in Season 3, he’s exhausted. He’s lost his creative mojo because there’s too much death. Death is a workaholic, kind of like Emily and kind of like me. He is getting sort of burned out. We were all feeling burned out by then, just the way Death was, and there was this sort of bleakness which was settling in.

The show has always had this aesthetic which was bleak but chill. And that was the vibe of our writers’ room: bleak but chill.

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