Friday, June 21, 2024

The Problem with ‘Dickinson’ Season Two

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Spoilers for all of ‘Dickinson’.

As I sit down to write this, I let out a long, heavy sigh. This is the last thing I wanted to be writing at the end of this much-awaited sophomore season of a show I love.  

Dickinson season one was some of the best television to come out in 2019, and I still stand by that. It felt unique and fresh in a way TV hardly ever feels. Sadly, the latest installment of the highly stylized bio-series of real-life poet Emily Dickinson does not live up to its beginnings, for me.

While season two maintains some of the style that made Dickinson unique, its pacing is slower, sometimes agonizingly so, the characters are inconsistent, and some storylines are repetitive.  

The pacing issue probably has a lot to do with the decision to release the season one episode a week. Given the nature of the show, and especially the nature of this season, weekly episode releases was probably a mistake. The season felt long and repetitive, especially with certain character’s storylines.

Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), for example, seemed like she was running in circles all season, locked onto an engagement it was clear she didn’t want from the beginning, and repeating the same beats over and over again with her pseudo love interest, Ship. The problem was exacerbated in the middle part of the season, where even Emily was just running in circles repeating the same questions and answers about fame.

In terms of character, we have some drastic jumps for some while others seem to be stuck. Sue and Mr. Dickinson present inconsistencies with the people we got to know last season. Lavinia gets a story line that is in a lot of ways a repeat of the previous season, with a different man. Austin’s now inexplicably obsessed with children and upset with Sue for not wanting them, seemingly out of nowhere.

Emily’s (Hailee Steinfeld) development stagnates so much that it’s frustrating to watch. Her story line this season has to do with fame. A perfectly good theme to explore with her, on paper. Much like the last season, where she had to discover whether she really wanted death or not, Emily has to grapple with fame and her relationship to it, what it means for her and what it would mean to get it.

GIF credit: logan-delos on Tumblr.

The problem is that the conclusion seems forgone since the beginning, so the story grinds to a halt halfway through the season and just stays there for several episodes. Emily gets stuck on the same beat, like a broken record, until she’s released… into thinking she’s in love with a man.

A big issue with Emily’s story line this season is how much it revolves around men. She meets four of them during the course of season two. First, a future ghost soldier who keeps repeating to her “I’m nobody, who are you?” to her never-ending confusion. He turns out to be a friend of Austin’s from college, who is fated to die during the Civil War, chasing glory. The metaphor, I think, works, though it does push on the limits of the magical realism that were set up previously.

Then she meets Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the men who designed central park, who teaches her about inspiration and such. She also meets the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (Nick Kroll) who turns out to be a terrible person and is there to illustrate the in insignificance of fame after death—for the dead person, that is.

Then, there is Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), the editor of the Springfield Republican who becomes interested in publishing her poems. He is presented as being charming and interesting. Emily eats up his praise about her work and soon becomes consumed by him liking what she writes, to the point where she can’t write because she so anxious about what he thinks.

She also clearly feels attraction to him—this is not the first time Emily is attracted to a man, by the way—and becomes convinced she’s in love with him. He is married of course. All of this to later discover that he has been sleeping with Sue. Speaking of Sue…

Oh Sue, my beautiful dutiful princess, what have they done to you?

Ella Hunt and Hailee Steinfeld as Sue and Emily in Dickinson.
Can we talk about this dress for a moment? I have to hand it to them, Dickinson did what Beauty and the Beast (2017) couldn’t.

Sue (Ella Hunt) is unrecognizable from who she was last season. Shy, demure Sue is now a socialite who throws parties every week and demands Austin (Adrian Enscoe) buy her horses. All this is well and fine. The real Sue Dickinson was a socialite, so her character’s development into this was to be expected. Problem is, there was no development, at least not any that we got to see.

Sue acts distant with Emily, tells Austin off without second thought, and is cold to two orphan girls, cousins of the Dickinsons, that Austin decides to take in without consulting her. While it’s perfectly reasonable for her to be angry at Austin making those kind of decisions for her, the Sue we know would never have had so little empathy for these girls, especially as she can relate to their situation. This is half explained by the fact that she lost a child, and thus children upset her now, but that doesn’t feel like enough.

She also pushes Emily onto Sam Bowles. She introduces them and then pressures Emily into giving her his poems and coerces her when Emily has second thoughts.

What happened to Sue? There is one exchange in the pilot where we find out that she lost the baby she was expecting last season and only Emily knows. And that is all we get. Until the final episode, that is.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the lack of Emily and Sue scenes and development of their relationship. They share only a few scenes, and their distance from each other is not directly addressed—why did Sue push her away? When did it start? It’s unclear, again, until the very end. The introduction to Sam Bowles at the start of the season is clearly a marker, but the distancing seems to have started before that.

Of course, the lack of ‘Emisue’, as goes Emily and Sue’s ship portmanteau, did not go unnoticed in fandom spaces. It was one of if not the main complaint of fans about the season. The scarcity of their scenes together was made more egregious by the focus the relationship got in the press for season two. Granted, it was almost always interviewers who brought them up, but the actors and creator Alena Smith highlighted that they were very important and at the center of the show.

Ella Hunt and Hailee Steinfeld as Sue and Emily in Dickinson.

With all said and done, it would not be fair to say they lied. The season does culminate with a big confrontation and reconciliation between the two.

Week after week, fans were hoping that they’d see more of them. I’m not placing full blame on fans for misunderstanding or the Dickinson team for misleading, but there were mistakes made in the way they talked about them.

The Dickinson team surely knows where the majority of the show’s avid fandom lies. The way the show was promoted could be construed as them stringing these avid shippers while knowing most of the season was crumb-free—but with a cake at the end, I guess.

The word ‘queer baiting’ was thrown around, though given everything that’s probably not 100% accurate, overall. Though as they knew that Emily and Sue would hardly get anything until the very last episode, and surely knew many fans watch only or mostly for ship, it sure looks like they didn’t want to lose views in the intervening episodes.

Despite many vocal complaints in the previous weeks, many fans seem pleased with the outcome in the fandom spaces I frequent. They feel it was worth the wait for the scenes Emily and Sue share in that final episode.

The ship is not the only reason I watch this show, however. And I for one, am not so sure the finale makes up for everything.

The reason is that I don’t think Emily and Sue, or the lack of them, is what lies at the root of the season’s problems. No, I think the problem is that Dickinson skipped an entire season’s worth of development.

The time jump

The first season ends with Emily locked in her room while Sue and Austin get married without her present. It leaves some threads open with the promise of being explored in the next season.

Austin, jealous of Sue and Emily’s relationship, uninvites Emily to his wedding and invalidates her poetry, asserting himself as superior because he is a man. Sue is pregnant and is very nervous about marriage with Austin and motherhood. She also confesses to Emily she’d rather be doing it all with her instead of Austin, but still submits to him. Mr. Dickinson is still opposed to Emily getting published, as it is “improper” for a lady to pursue literary aspirations.

Instead of picking up any of those loose ends, season two decides to just… skip right over them. When the season begins, we’ve jumped ahead at least a year. The official timeline is never specified, though we know it was enough time for Jane Humphreys (Gus Birney) to get married, go through pregnancy and be widowed.

Jane not shutting up about this is one of the highlights of this season for me.
GIF credit: dailydickinson on Tumblr

There is no baby for Sue, and we find out through dialogue that she had a miscarriage and only Emily knows. She’s also now a social butterfly who hosts parties every week and can’t be seen in public in the same dress twice, a far cry from where she was at when we last saw her. Austin and Emily seem to be in perfectly good terms, no bad blood between them. Austin expresses no problem with Emily coming to see Sue, their past relationship apparently no longer an issue.

Much like las season’s fixation on Sue, now Austin has found a new thing to focus on: children. He wants them fervently and apparently Sue and him have agreed off screen that he’ll not force her to have them. He has also been aiding Henry in the creation of The Constellation, a paper that publishes revolutionary ideas.

Mr. Dickinson is now concerned mostly about money and the family’s loss of it. He is very mellow regarding Emily’s poetry—even going as far as to encourage it—and has no problem with her seeking publication. That’s lovely growth for Mr. Dickinson, love that for him. But when did it happen? Why?

He and Emily had a very complicated, semi toxic relationship last season. He coddled her as much as he held her back. Most of that is gone. They seem to have arrived at a nice, peaceful place. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to see it. This is a running theme throughout the season.

Filling the gaps

I understand you don’t want to spoon feed your audience, but you also can’t expect them to do all the work.

We have to imagine the days and months of agony Sue went through in secret, and the constant presence of Emily that ultimately made her act the way she does. Imagine the interactions between Emily and Austin that led them to let go of their anger toward each other. Imagine whatever it is that made Mr. Dickinson ease off on Emily’s poetry and the publishing thing.

It’s a lot, and the audience can only fill so many gaps. The result is a confusing, sometimes frustrating experience.

For example, there are several scenes throughout the season where it’s clear the show is asking us to feel sympathy for Austin. Problem is, I don’t. Last I saw him, he was being cruel to both Emily and Sue. He was screaming in Emily’s face that she is not a real poet and she should lock herself in her room and not interfere with his happiness.

You’re telling me—no, not even telling me—you’re implying that that’s all water under the bridge, that Emily has forgiven him, so I should just let it go? Well, I haven’t. All I can muster in those scenes is “Oh boo-hoo, Austin. Can we move on?”.

Austin Dickinson on Dickinson.
Okay, Austin.

But maybe he asked forgiveness, made up for his actions, some might say. Well, after how he acted, we need to see him make amends before we can move past that. We don’t even get a “hey, remember when I was a d*ck to you?” “oh yeah, ha-ha, good thing you apologized.” Nothing!

That was a major character beat, a central conflict that was sure to affect both their lives and both their relationships to Sue moving forward. You can’t resolve that off screen and just expect the audience to just go with it.

The writing itself is not bad, if you look at scenes individually, but there is too much missing, too much we didn’t see, some things we aren’t even told.

Oh, the potential

Worst part is I truly think this season could have worked despite the pacing problems in the middle. It has great scenes and good comedic moments. The actors are certainly giving it their all throughout the season, and some of the ideas and story threads are interesting and have a lot of potential. But as a third season.

Austin thinking he’ll fill the void inside him with children seems like a very Austin thing. He is immature and latches on to things like toys. This would work pending on what they do next season, here’s hoping the writers do know how misguided Austin’s current fixation on kids is.

We know Emily can push too hard when it comes to Sue, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that she became too much after Sue lost her baby. If we had glimpsed Sue’s suffering, Emily’s pushiness, how their relationship started to fall apart and Sue felt the only way to deal with her pain was to push Emily away, it would have been easy to understand this season’s version of Sue.

Even a little time jump would be completely understandable. If we ended a season seeing how much pain Sue’s in and how oblivious Emily is to the depths of it and to how she’s contributing to it. Then, a jump to frivolous, socialite, cheating Sue, would even make sense.

Likewise, having seen how their relationship fractured, time apart for them would have not only been expected, but perhaps even appreciated by fans who secretly eat up the angst (like me).

Emily confusing her temporary infatuation with fame with love for Sam is actually pretty on-brand for Emily, especially if her and Sue were on the outs. Seeking wider readership as a replacement when Sue won’t read her poems anymore would also make sense.

I do not think Lavinia’s story line would work though. I do suspect with Lavinia it’s more a case of not knowing what to do with her. Same with Mrs. Dickinson.

Had they resolved what they set up in season one, they could have well earned this season. A lot of the ideas in it have potential, but none of it was properly built up.

I really tried to like it, and was one of the ones who held out the longest, all the way to episode eight. I also never presume I’d be able to write anything better… But in the end it did disappoint me.

It is truly a shame. I was really looking forward to Dickinson coming back. Now, I am weary of season three and can’t say trust on the show delivering on what it promised at the end of this season.

Images courtesy of Apple TV+

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