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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
Despite its preponderance of bustles and bonnets and ribbons and ringlets, the Apple TV+ series "Dickinson" isn't some fusty old biopic. No, it recasts young Emily Dickinson as a fiercely feminist free-thinker and iconoclast, chafing against the rigid social and sexual mores of her time. The second season of the series just dropped, and it mixes broad comedy, heart-tugging, hand-wringing trauma and touches of fantasy with an approach to biographical fact that can best be called casual. Today, we're talking about "Dickinson" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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WELDON: Welcome back. Here with me from her home in Boston is Margaret H. Willison, who is one-half of the Two Bossy Dames newsletter and one-third of the "Appointment Television" podcast. Hi, Margaret.
MARGARET H WILLISON, BYLINE: Hi, Glen.
WELDON: All right, let's get into it. In "Dickinson," Hailee Steinfeld plays young Emily Dickinson, who is passionate about her writing and passionate about remaining fiercely independent. Again and again, her lofty ideals about poetry and art come into conflict with her family's desire to push her in more prosaic directions. See what I did there? Poetry - prosaic. Her mother is played by Jane Krakowski. Her stern father is played by Toby Huss. Her moony-eyed sister Lavinia is played by Anna Baryshnikov - yeah, that Baryshnikov. And her - let's just say it - her complete tool of a brother Austin...
WELDON: ...Is played by Adrian Enscoe. They all conspire to keep her from realizing her true self. The first season found her yearning for fame and - not for nothing - for her friend Sue, played by Ella Hunt, despite the many restrictions imposed upon her. But the second season finds her in a more complicated relationship with the notion of notoriety. Now, Margaret H., I know you dig this show a lot. I know that for a fact. The first season was what was making you happy a while back. So remind everyone what you liked about it then and whether you think Season 2 picks up on it.
WILLISON: Oh, boy. What do I like about the show? Everything, I think, I like about the show. My friend Katherine, who writes for New York Magazine, is my TV guru, and she got me into this. And the way she sold me on it was she said, it's like a Kate Beaton comic come to life. So if you were very online and a literary nerd in the early 2010s, Hark! A Vagrant probably loomed large in your life. So that was as much as I needed to know.
But what that encapsulates for people who don't know Kate Beaton's work is a combination of, like, deep literary nerdiness with incredibly great dumb jokes - right? - and a knack for translating historical vernacular into modern vernacular in a way that's not precious but in a way that immediately communicates to you, like, this is the type of person we're looking at because we don't have the same signifiers for, like, what a fratty (ph) dude looks like in 1859 Amherst.
But when you start letting Ship Shipley, one of the characters that we learn on this season is there, when you start letting him speak the way a dude-bro from Amherst would speak today, you're like, oh, I know who this man is (laughter).
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PICO ALEXANDER: (As Henry Shipley) Why are we letting traditional values out the window? There are differences between men and women. You know, biologically, it's a fact. We have different skill sets. And it's beautiful.
HAILEE STEINFELD: (As Emily Dickinson) What does that have to do with anything?
WILLISON: And Alena Smith is the show writer, show creator, and she just does such an incredible job of synthesizing these times. And then it's also just, like, 30 Rock-level absurdist funny, which is, I think, the thing the trailers sell the least effectively. And it's applying that to people like Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott. And it's just thrilling.
WILLISON: Oh, also a queer love story, if that wasn't enough.
WELDON: Now, you know, Margaret H., the last few times you've been on the show, you have assumed the role of the irascible curmudgeon and I the dewy-eyed enthusiast. And I think we can all agree...
WILLISON: It's been weird. It's been weird, Glen (laughter).
WELDON: Yeah, it was weird. It left a bad taste in the mouth. It was like something was fundamentally wrong with the universe. It was - time was out of joint.
WELDON: Well, it's back in joint...
WILLISON: (Laughter) Oh, no.
WELDON: Because I got to say, I really struggled with this series in a way that I didn't struggle with something like "Bridgerton." And it's not fair to compare them, but, like, there are certain surface similarities, you've got to say. But there's just this breeziness to "Bridgerton" that I think this show keeps aiming for and never quite gets. But that wasn't the thing that was stopping me. And I kept thinking, I should love this...
WILLISON: (Laughter) Sad.
WELDON: ...Which is not a great way to approach a piece of art, right? Like, I should love this - that's just guilting yourself into liking something.
WELDON: I think what it came down to in the end is that I just am constitutionally opposed to this show's organizing principle, which it strikes me as - to treat Dickinson's poetry, you know, that very haunting, luminous, mysterious, conceptual and often quite abstract poetry - you know, tell the truth, but tell it slant - to treat that poetry as just punishingly literal journaling...
WELDON: ...Which is so crazy, reductive and basic.
WELDON: I needed a hell of a lot more slant from this show. I mean, yes, people do treat poetry as a key to unlocking the poet's biography. It happens a lot. But that - it just bores me. That really flattens these characters, their situations, because it just - every episode imposes this very rigid superstructure over everything. So didn't buy the concept, also didn't buy the execution. I think it approaches this subject in a very journaling kind of way, right? I mean, like, journaling is about first thought, best thought, get it down, get it down on paper as quick as you can. In the first episode, Margaret, death's carriage, literal death, literal carriage, kindly stops for her.
WILLISON: Yeah. Played by Wiz Khalifa.
WELDON: Now, is it fun that it's played by Wiz Khalifa? Sure it is. But you understand what I'm getting at here?
WILLISON: Absolutely. And I actually think that that is one of the few things I completely agree with you about.
WILLISON: The way it approaches Emily Dickinson's poetry is tiresome (laughter). That's less central to my relationship with Emily Dickinson. I don't have a profound relationship with her work. So the way that's used as kind of a framing device and a jumping-off point for this absurdist comedy set in a very hilariously well-rendered 1850s America, that's where you're getting me (laughter). But, yeah, the literalism that it brings to her poetry is where the show loses me the most.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, I think it exacerbates the fact that the show has kind of a tonal wobble. There's different actors who are approaching their parts from different places. I will never say a word against Jane Krakowski. You won't...
WILLISON: None of us could (laughter).
WELDON: None of us could. Dame Jane Krakowski, as far as I'm concerned. And by the way, if I ever did, the gays would come for me. But you can't dispute that she is pitching her performance as Emily's mother at kind of a Kimmy Schmidt "30 Rock" level, while there's no other characters on the show that really - occasionally, they kind of rise to meet her. And it's all compounded by - you know, the goal, as you mentioned, is to make Emily's struggles contemporary, relatable, and so you contemporize the dialogue. But when that contemporization takes the form of a dude in a top hat and a morning coat, you know, bursting into a parlor and going, let's get this party commenced.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Let's get this party commenced.
WELDON: I mean, that's a "Mr. Show" sketch. And...
WILLISON: I mean, but it's a good "Mr. Show" sketch (laughter).
WELDON: It's a "Mr. Show" sketch of a parody of what this show is attempting to be.
WILLISON: It doesn't click in for you; it does click in for me. And I do refute the idea that Jane Krakowski is out on some limb by herself. Like, Lavinia - best character on the show - she is in a Jane Krakowski space. I actually think all of the characters are actually in a Jane Krakowski space except we're fluctuating a little bit with Hailee Steinfeld's Emily, and we're fluctuating a lot with Sue.
WELDON: Yeah, maybe I'm just picking up on that fluctuation. And I think, you know, when the dialogue works, when that approach works to modernize stuff - when it works, it's "Hamilton," right? And it really works.
WELDON: But when it doesn't, you get that Paul F. Tompkins bit, "Freak Wharf." Or, you know, in "The Book Of Mormon," when Elder Price is trying to make Joseph Smith relatable by saying he's got a kind of Donny Osmond feel.
WELDON: There's a strained quality to it that just kept kicking me out.
WILLISON: But, Glen, they do (laughter) an Aaron Sorkin style walk-and-talk, explaining the Know Nothing party.
WELDON: Yeah, yeah.
WILLISON: I just - I am a simple - well...
WELDON: No, you're not. You're really not.
WILLISON: I'm not a simple woman, but (laughter) I certainly am wired to respond strongly to that. And it's also, I'd say, really, really well done. But the tonal uncertainty is definitely present, and I think it's even more present in the second season than it was in the first. So the first season has "Because I Could Not Stop For Death" as sort of the central theme that's kind of running throughout the series, and so we have death. And in this one, it's "I Am Nobody. Are You Nobody, Too?" (ph). Boy, I don't love that. And it's paired with a sort of, I find, overly literal and insufficiently nuanced discussion and thinking of fame that doesn't actually seem very well grounded.
WILLISON: If we're dismantling this idea of - she was, you know, this shy, retiring spinster and would never have put herself forward that way and, instead, saying, you know, she's this wildly passionate, artistic genius, you have a question - how did this outcome happen? And I hadn't seen them doing a very effective job answering that so far. And there is less that is just, like, absolutely transporting. John Mulaney as a shirtless Henry David Thoreau - you hear those words and either you're in or you're out for the concept. But absolutely, Zosia Mamet as Louisa May Alcott is...
WELDON: Who's just hustling.
WILLISON: She's just girl boss Louisa May Alcott.
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ZOSIA MAMET: (As Louisa May Alcott) There are tons of women publishing nowadays. That's why Hawthorne called us a damned mob of scribbling women. But Hawthorne can eat a (expletive), am I right?
WILLISON: This is an insight into that character. She's this sort of fusty thing that we keep in all of our homes, but nobody actually engages with, like, what her life was actually like, which is wild...
WILLISON: ...And what a profoundly calculated and commercial writer she was and, like, why she was that way. And so to see this show really nail that just - it makes me so happy (laughter).
WELDON: You know, I really connected with the second season a lot more than the first. I think it's more interesting, which gives me hope for the third, right? Because there will be a third season. It's already been picked up. But I think, you know, the first season is her struggling against the patriarchy, you know, fending off suitors and her stern father and her demanding mother, who are all trying to put her in a box and keep her from expressing herself. And when the show has John Mulaney...
WELDON: ...Showing up as a very fatuous, self-impressed poser Thoreau, you know, just a complete phony - which is one of the more, like, accurate biographical details the show gets right...
WILLISON: Right (laughter).
WELDON: It's commenting on the patriarchy implicitly. But that was a rare moment of restraint for this show because most of the time - especially in the first season - it's having some old dude splutter, but, but, but you're a woman - a woman poet? You know, a lot of that. And the second season is about her struggling against herself with her very ambivalent relationship to fame. I mean, I like that because we know from her poems and from her letters that Dickinson was completely repelled by fame, but was also obsessed by it. She wrote about it a hell of a lot. So she had a very Sam and Diane relationship with fame. I think that's just more interesting. I think that's a lot less didactic than the first season was.
WILLISON: I think that's true. I think what I'm struggling with in the second season is - characters have shifted in huge ways that we don't have that much emotional connection to. So she and Sue are in this very different place. Sue is in this very different place than she's been previously, and we aren't really given that much of an emotional arc for that. Almost more surprising is her useless brother Austin is, in a lot of ways, still very useless, but then has this secondary plot where he's being very forward-thinking. And where that comes from and how we're oriented to it, I'm not really sure. And so this sense of sort of, like, character uncertainty is making the way the characters are interacting slightly less impactful for me.
WELDON: Interesting. I mean, I think that subplot with Austin in the second season is there just to give the actor something to do because he didn't really have much to do except be kind of a tool in the first season.
WELDON: It took me a long time - I would argue too long - to figure out what this show is doing. There's three things it could be doing, right? No. 1 - this is the Emily Dickinson "Breaking Bad" - right?
WELDON: ...Where we know how she's going to end, right? We know she's going to be wandering the streets of Amherst in that white dress. Like Miss Havisham, she's going to be staying in that house and taking care of that family and getting published only rarely and rarely leaving a room. We know those choices that she makes, so this show is showing us why and how she makes those choices. Or - second thing it could be doing - it could be just ignoring that and just positing an alternate reality Emily Dickinson where she makes different choices.
The third thing is what I think it's attempting to do, which is to thread the needle - fill in the gaps in what we know about her and make the case that, yeah, she made all those choices, but she made them happily, fulfilled. She's emotionally and spiritually and sexually...
WELDON: ...Completely happy. It's kind of a retcon. Did that work for you?
WILLISON: Yeah, that really does work for me. And I think that's especially powerful in terms of queer narratives in history, right? Because women's history, queer history, the history of people of color, is rarely centered in the narratives that we are presented in our schooling, and so that leaves a lot of people to think, well, it's not there. But it's all there. I mean, like, sometimes, as they say, with Hawthorne and Melville, like, it's barely even between the lines (laughter).
WELDON: Right, right.
WILLISON: Like, that's just text - that they were sort of in love with each other.
WILLISON: Or, rather, that Melville was in love with Hawthorne, who was hot and useless.
WILLISON: And to basically - by moving all of this stuff into the present day, it gives you the context to fill in those blanks as well because my life is not going to appear much in the historical record.
WELDON: Oh, Margaret.
WILLISON: I don't know that POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR is going to be surviving to future generations.
WELDON: Hey, hey. Watch it.
WILLISON: Glen, I'm just speculating. But because of how I live in the world and because of the material realities of my life, you can infer a lot about me from how I present myself, how I speak. And to basically empower viewers to have that same kind of subtextual insight into all of these characters, despite this layer of historical remove, I think it actually does a really, really good job of that. And I think that's kind of the project that Alena Smith is setting out to accomplish with the piece. I understand very, very well why it doesn't work for you, especially if you're approaching it through a profound love of the subtlety of Emily Dickinson's verse, which this does not traffic in at all (laughter).
WELDON: Doesn't traffic in subtly. But that's fine, right? I mean, like, you know, we don't have to agree. But...
WELDON: And you haven't convinced me, and I haven't convinced you.
WELDON: And that's what this show is all about.
WILLISON: But I've had a wonderful conversation, Glen.
WELDON: Well, we want to know what you think of "Dickinson." The first few episodes of Season 2 are available to stream now on Apple TV+. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us at @pchh.
Margaret H. Willison, thank you so much for being here.
WILLISON: Thank you for having me, Glen Weldon.
WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening. We'll see you all tomorrow.
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