Dickinson is pure imagination
“Dickinson” executes its stunningly conceptual premise on every level, succeeding as a drama, comedy, romance, surreal fantasy, and coming-of-age story. Its excellence can also be sliced into even finer subcategories: it’s great as a tender Sapphic romance, as a series of uplifting jokes for old English majors, and as an extended meditation on the painful labor of creating a legacy. The series never takes anything cheap, from proto-feminism to the abolitionist movement to mental illness. Instead, it examines every aspect of its setting and themes with a keen curiosity that matches its protagonist’s ever-growing views of the world.
The show lasted just three quick seasons, but showrunner Alena Smith’s complex and fully realized vision remained unwavering throughout its brief tenure. “Dickinson” is primarily a reset of the record on a woman who seems to have been historically misunderstood. A love letter to excitable introverts, it casts Emily as a willful and ultimately blossoming creative force who had a major impact on her community, rather than the shy, lonely woman history sometimes remembers her as.
“Dickinson” may at first seem to be playing fast and loose with history – one of its best moments features characters that are close to Carnage’s “I Like Tuh” after all – but it’s clearly made by geeks. history and literature. Dickinson’s expansive literary universe includes not only Mulaney’s Thoreau, but also deathbed-obsessed Walt Whitman (Billy Eichner), ruthless capitalist Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet), proud polyglot Sojourner Truth (Ziwe) and many other familiar faces. The show is both slyly critical of the personality of the public artist and infinitely respectful of the very act of making art.
It is also Steinfeld’s best work to date. As Emily, she can be dreamy, stubborn, inspired, anxious, dizzy, and more, but no matter what she’s feeling, she’s utterly endearing. The series is a showcase for all of its actors, letting Krakowski drop funny, howling lines in otherwise serious scenes and giving Baryshnikov a chance to get downright weird as the true oddball of the Dickinson family. When Hunt and Steinfeld share scenes, the show morphs into a love story so powerful it entirely overshadows everything else. If “Dickinson” is about the infinity of imagination, its fundamental strength is a love that thrives in a world deprived of its own creation.