In the early two thousands, the writer and showrunner Alena Smith, then a recent college graduate, was living at her parents’ house in the Hudson Valley. She was working at a bookstore and waiting for a decision from the Yale School of Drama, to which she had applied as a playwright, having written exactly one play: a remix of Lewis Carroll, by way of Wittgenstein, called “Alice Eat Your Words.” At the bookstore, a tiny shop across the street from Vassar College, Smith happened upon a biography of Emily Dickinson by the scholar Alfred Habegger. A spark caught: there was something magnetizing about a life so streaked with irony. Dickinson’s obscurity, while she lived, was at odds with the heat of her talent; her poetry seemed desperate to connect with people, to be understood. Smith, too, felt unheard. At home, her bedroom window opened out onto Dickinsonia: farmland, horses, graveyards. She liked how the biography upended the popular vision of the poet. Instead of a wraith, scribbling on scraps, this Dickinson was meticulously constructing her legacy through poems that stowed away the infinite in the small.
Smith got into Yale. The only playwrights she could name were Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard; she thought that Tennessee Williams was a woman. In college, Smith had majored in philosophy. Graduate school rewired her nerdery, diverting some of it toward character and story. When her program ended, she moved to Park Slope, in Brooklyn, and started to put on plays. She found herself instinctively addressing her peers, in weird fantasias saturated by pop culture, but doing so, or trying, from establishment venues. Her most successful venture, “The Bad Guys,” opened Off Broadway and earned a respectable Times review. The show’s run, after years of labor, ended in a few weeks, netting its creator about five thousand dollars.
Theatre felt less and less sustainable. Several of Smith’s grad-school friends landed glamorous television-writing gigs on the West Coast. Smith, for her part, gravitated to social media, which was entering its own exploratory phase. In 2011, she launched a joke Twitter account, Tween Hobo; the conceit, of a hardscrabble girl riding the rails and balladeering about Justin Bieber, developed a gaggle of celebrity fans, some of whom encouraged Smith to come to Los Angeles and pitch a show. A year later, Smith and her then boyfriend (they’re now married) moved to Hollywood, where Smith began writing for “The Affair” and “The Newsroom” while mulling her own project. One afternoon, driving to a meeting with a few producers, she surveyed her heroes: John Cage, Louise Bourgeois, Wittgenstein. Smith couldn’t quite see audiences watching a show about Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher who lived during the First World War. She realized that what she wanted to make was an experimental, half-hour comedy about the belle of Amherst. At the meeting, Smith pitched her idea as “ ‘Louie,’ starring Emily Dickinson.” “That’s really cool,” one of the producers replied. Then she paused. “What are you talking about?”
“Dickinson,” which premiered in 2019, is now the breakout hit from Apple’s slate of original television shows. The series might have climbed from the brain of a woke English grad student on an acid trip. In the pilot, Death, played by the rapper Wiz Khalifa, whisks Emily away on a carriage ride, during which he promises her immortality and foretells the carnage of the Civil War. (Spoken by a Black actor, the warning carries a retributive chill.) Another episode, drawing on actual Dickinson scholarship, explores Emily’s erotic awakening as a function of her relationship with Sue, the fiancée of her brother, Austin. The episode is called “I Have Never Seen ‘Volcanoes’”; the series gives pride of place to real Dickinson verses, which materialize, onscreen, in a golden scrawl.
“Dickinson” could have stumbled in several ways. It could have been an empty empowerment anthem that ransacked the poet’s biography while sanding down her strangeness. It could have depended entirely on the joke of contemporary slang airdropped into the nineteenth century. Instead, the show is spooky and bold, solemn and arch. Smith seems less interested in the historical Dickinson than in a sort of personification of her authorial voice, played by Hailee Steinfeld. That voice, Smith said recently, “embraces paradox and defies authority.” Focussing there allows the show’s Emily to be more subversive than she was in life—to espouse, for instance, feminist and anti-racist beliefs. The of-the-moment accents—Mitski cues, “Serial” jokes—serve an eerier argument: that Dickinson’s poems are startlingly modern, and that they have always conversed with a future that is suddenly here.
Consider the first season’s finale, which weaves between Sue and Austin’s wedding—a traumatic event for Emily—and a dream sequence in which Emily attends her own funeral. Death is there, and a recently deceased man that Emily loved, and a character from her fascicles, or self-bound books. Billie Eilish’s voice drifts in. Death pours himself a glass of whiskey and announces that they have gathered to say goodbye to “some basic bitch.” Emily interrupts to ask if Death is open to hearing feedback on his eulogy. The scene is absurd, glitchy, unpredictable; what tethers it to the source material is the way in which its surrealist flights manifest emotional extremity. Dickinson’s poetry often seems to emanate from a prison cell in the soul, where strange forms of torture are about to resume. “I felt a funeral, in my Brain,” the poem that titles the episode goes, “And Mourners to and fro/ Kept treading – treading – till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through.” To read Dickinson is to understand how a consciousness—in Shock—can produce odd swerves, haunted incantations, even dry jokes. To watch “Dickinson” is to experience that revelation via zombie boyfriends and the blurring of time.
On an icy, pre-pandemic afternoon, I met Smith at the café of the Morgan Library, in New York. We were both early, but she was earlier, and she immediately apologized: she’d been waking up at five for the past several weeks. She’d ordered a sandwich, and wore a creative’s uniform of black. When I mentioned that her show reminded me of literary criticism (each half hour riffs on a line of poetry), she brought up “Emily Dickinson’s Gothic,” a book by the scholar Daneen Wardrop. As a genre, the gothic has been mostly reserved for fiction, not poetry, Smith explained, but it nonetheless clarified Dickinson’s project. “The oppression of domesticity, the quality of being haunted, the suffusedness of the living with the dead,” she said. “My show is gothic and about the gothic experience of being a woman, both now and in 1850. Whenever I’m asked to summarize ‘Dickinson’ ’s aesthetic, I think of a phrase someone said in my Season 2 writers’ room: ‘bleak but chill.’ ”
Outside, it was cold but sunny. The café was mostly empty, and within the swoop of its glass walls one had the feeling of sitting in a tower of air. Smith began to talk about a line from a book she’d read that, years later, still weighed on her. “It was something, like, ‘Nothing would have been easier than for Emily Dickinson to publish,’ ” Smith said. “And, when you think about it, Emily’s family subscribed to magazines and newspapers. She was surrounded by writing, steeped in it, including the work of female contemporaries, like Louisa May Alcott. What stopped her?”
Each season of “Dickinson” could be viewed as a different gloss on that question. The first season unfolds in clashes between Emily and her family: her father, in particular, wants her to stop writing poetry, and forbids her from pursuing higher education. Emily makes a pilgrimage to Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, where a shirtless John Mulaney dismays her with his pretension. She sneaks into a college lecture, clad in the plumage of male academe. But Smith also hoped to explore her character’s struggle in ways that would resonate specifically with a contemporary audience. The season wasn’t just about sexism in the nineteenth century; it was a gothic study of inner life, a story about how, Smith told me, “women are always trapped in the wrong time.”
The second season, which concludes Friday, widens the lens, considering fame, authenticity, and the performance of self. In the first episode, Emily meets Sam Bowles, the suave editor of the Springfield Republican, a new daily paper. Bowles, who incarnates the romance of literary renown, holds forth on the “attention economy” and the need for print journalism—a disruptive technology in the eighteen-fifties—to “move fast and break stuff.” He also appears to be auditioning Emily as his newest It Girl. She gives him poems to publish, but the exposure has its downsides—at one point, appearing in print renders Emily literally invisible. She wanders, lonely as a cloud, through Amherst, privy to other people’s reactions to her work (“so relevant”) but unable to respond; worse, she realizes that Bowles has interposed himself between her imagination and the page. As one of Emily’s mentors suggests, fame is a trap, whereas anonymity confers power: “The world runs on invisible things.”
This idea winds through the show’s own architecture. Two of “Dickinson” ’s distinguishing attributes are its foregrounding of Black characters, whose stories elude the notice of white Amherst (Season 2 focusses especially on Hattie, a servant played by Ayo Edebiri), and its argument that Emily’s gift is an eye for what others miss. (This claim is advanced through visual hallucinations—of a giant bee, a horny Edgar Allan Poe—and through the metaphor of Emily’s myopia.) In Smith’s parable, art inscribes an intimate way of seeing—and Bowles, the tempter, leads writers to betray that vision for quick hits of affirmation. It’s a bind that might be familiar to someone who made her name on Twitter. “We know that being online has broken our brains because Emily Dickinson’s situation [writing but not publishing] feels almost unimaginable now,” Smith said. “Everyone’s desperate for a foothold in this huge, wild conversation.”
In 2020, “Dickinson” won a Peabody and Smith signed a multiyear deal with Apple; the question of how to invent on one’s own terms, in the shadow of success, felt urgent. In the show, acclaim invites creative decay, but obscurity feels no safer. Season 2 introduces another magical-realist figure: Nobody, who Smith describes as the “pre-ghost of a Union soldier.” (One of Dickinson’s most famous poems begins, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”) His story line, along with that of a Black character, Henry, whose anonymously published writing places him in peril, indicates that the state of being nameless and alone has not entirely shed its horror. Emily, entranced by fame, must also beware the kind of invisibility that requires one not to exist at all.
The first day of filming “Dickinson,” Smith informed the cast and crew that she was a feminist showrunner; the “Dickinson” set was a feminist space. She wanted her actors to feel safe exploring that which felt dangerous, to know that their boundaries would always be honored. This was not Smith’s own experience coming up in television. In 2014, Smith was writing for the final season of “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s drama about a cable news network. She objected to a scene in which an executive producer, straining for fairness, lectures a rape victim about her choice to name her assaulter online. When the episode aired, to widespread consternation, Smith tweeted that her opposition to the story line had gotten her kicked out of the writers’ room. Sorkin responded with a lengthy statement. “I heard Alena’s objections and there was some healthy back and forth,” it read. “After a while I needed to move on (there’s a clock ticking) but Alena wasn’t ready to do that yet. I gave her more time but then I really needed to move on. Alena still wouldn’t let me do that so I excused her from the room.”
Episode 7 of “Dickinson” ’s first season, which examines the political backdrop of Emily’s Amherst, opens with a textbook Sorkinian walk-and-talk. Mr. Dickinson, who is running for Congress as a moderate, strides across his property trailing quippy exposition about the Whigs and the Know-Nothings. The homage, though charming, has a serrated edge: later, the patriarch dismisses his daughters’ informed discussion of slavery as “inane chatter.” I asked Smith whether the episode served, in part, as a rebuke of her old boss. “My first TV job was before #MeToo, before Trump,” she said, of her time at “The Newsroom.” “And, for me, personally, in the intervening five years, centrism has seemed less and less like a good answer to the problems that we have.”
Season 2 of “Dickinson” liberates Smith’s attraction to the fringe, or at least to the progressive. The Civil War draws closer; Austin and his friends deliberate over whether the “Brown bros”—acolytes of the radical abolitionist John Brown—are alienating more down-the-middle voters. Yet there follows no Sorkin-style polemic; rather, the show’s sympathies emerge through a sheer richness of detail. In the eighth episode, for instance, Emily, still invisible, stumbles into a meeting of Black Amherst residents, including Hattie, who have gathered in the Dickinson barn to celebrate the fruition of their abolitionist newspaper. There’s dancing, first to an era-appropriate fiddle, and then, as the night deepens, to “Gon Blow,” by Cakes da Killa. The scene, with its lavish choreography—tumbling bodies, lanterns arcing through shadow—marshals all of “Dickinson” ’s beauty.
It also thrums with anxiety. Smith has been accused of remaking history; her show, in which Massachusetts élites befriend Black characters and revel in Black culture, risks falsifying the past. Smith and Edebiri, who co-wrote the episode, seem aware of that danger, and at times even seem to court it. At the meeting, Hattie slips off her long coat to reveal that she’s stolen Sue’s sumptuous ball gown. She evokes, in the dimness of the barn, an impossible creature, a vision in gold satin—an effect heightened by gasps and laughter from the crowd. Putting aside whether Hattie could get away with such a theft (or whether she would want to try), the fabric looks otherworldly; it fits her perfectly. The next line almost serves to address the incredulous viewer. “Let me look hot,” Hattie says.
“Dickinson” is, in a profound sense, about navigating these gaps between how things were and how we wish they’d been. The show taps into a cresting fascination with nineteenth-century female authors—a trend, from Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women,” in 2019, to the CW’s forthcoming “Modern Austen” series, that feels born of a yearning for old favorites to mean something different, to evolve along with us. Dickinson, in particular, has always dwelled within constraining fantasies of womanhood. “The poet herself has been made into a sentimental object,” Adrienne Rich wrote, in 1976, her “legitimate strangeness” reduced to “a kind of naiveté.” That Dickinson’s public so often got her wrong gave Smith permission, she felt, to sacrifice certain textures of the past. She does not think that we need to translate history in order to understand it; rather, she believes that modern frameworks can help capture what had once slipped through the cracks. Smith cited the writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman, whose reconstructions of the past feel less like acts of speculation or wish fulfillment than like attempts to create the conditions under which truth can be known.
Season 3 will both refine and test this approach. The episodes were written in quarantine, during a flowering of civil-rights protests, and they hoist the characters squarely into the eighteen-sixties, exploring how the trauma of the Civil War seeped into Emily’s psyche. Owing to COVID-19, Smith convened her writers room on Zoom, gathering a mix of old hands, cast and crew members, and fresh blood. The latter group included playwright Lynn Nottage, who taught Smith at Yale (“I’m the age-diversity hire,” she told me, perhaps downplaying the draw of her two Pulitzer Prizes), Ziwe Fumodoh, of “Baited with Ziwe” (“I was attracted to Alena’s bombastic, super-hot takes … we connected in my Twitter D.M.s”), and the writer R. Eric Thomas, who sometimes wonders, “Am I Emily Dickinson?” (“Who Emily is and what she means,” he clarified, “is something I try to hold open, because in the show we’re not telling the story of just one type of person.”)