When Alena Smith sat down to tell the untold tale of famed poet Emily Dickinson, she imagined a three-year television series. She sold the show straight to series to Apple TV Plus in May 2018, more than a year before that streamer would even launch. To say that Smith’s goal of three seasons at an unproven entity had to come with risk and hope may be an understatement. But she was able to carry her original plan to fruition, and now “Dickinson” is the first Apple TV Plus series to conclude its run having carried out its creator’s vision.
“In Season 3 we’ve lived through a lot with these characters, we’ve all grown and changed and their relationships have certainly deepened over time, and to just honor all of that history was really rewarding,” Smith tells Variety.
“To me, this whole series is really one work of art. In some ways the ideal way for someone to experience ‘Dickinson’ would be to start with Episode 1 and just watch it all the way through because it’s telling one story; there’s pieces of the ending that are there in the first episode. I think it’s really wonderful when something can have a beginning, middle and end and do what it came to do and say when it came to say, and I really feel like we got to do that with ‘Dickinson.'”
Smith’s vision was always to “reframe and reimagine the origin story of America’s greatest female poet,” which she did by diving more deeply into her personal life — from her family to her sexuality. Inspired by her love of Dickinson’s work, Smith wanted to “bust open this myth of Emily as a depressive, shy, anemic person and to say, ‘No, this was a woman with a great sense of humor and a ton of passion and fire, who — really even within the limitations imposed upon her by her very conservative society — carved out the agency that it took to make one of the greatest bodies of work that has ever been written in the English language.”
“Dickinson,” which begins its third and final season Nov. 5 on the streamer, premiered on Nov. 1, 2019, as one of the few shows to launch with the Apple TV Plus service. Its home was new, but the show came with the pedigree of strong behind-the-scenes TV talent in Smith, who had previously working “The Newsroom” and “The Affair,” as well as writer and executive producer Darlene Hunt (“90210,” “The Big C”) and companies Anonymous Content and Paul Lee’s Wiip. It also came with a star on the rise in actor and executive producer Hailee Steinfeld, who had broken out in “True Grit” and went onto films including “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Pitch Perfect 3” and “Bumblebee.”
“With ‘Dickinson,’ there was an element of being a part of getting this thing off the ground and helping develop it. I was so blown away by the first two scripts of the first season that I read and I wanted to be a part of this show in more ways than one. And so, it felt like the perfect opportunity,” Steinfeld recalls.
“I was just excited to, in a way, set the record straight. Emily gets this title of ‘the original sad girl’ and there’s something in that; she is somebody who could sit down and write about anything and every possible feeling she was feeling and articulate it in a way that either made sense to you or it didn’t, and she owned that,” Steinfeld continues.
Apple TV Plus believed in the show, too — so much so that it renewed it for a second season in October 2019, before audiences had watched a full episode. Production was underway on Season 2 when Season 1 finally began streaming. This type of schedule meant Smith couldn’t allow her initial vision to be influenced by audience response even if she — or Apple — wanted it to be. Her instincts proved fruitful though: “Dickinson” picked up a Peabody Award and a GLAAD Media Award in 2020. She ended up signing an overall deal with Apple TV Plus that same year.
The first season of “Dickinson” followed Emily as she began to come into her own with who she was as a queer woman and as a writer, while the second season focused on her intersection with fame — not only if she wanted to share her work with the world, but also how. The third and final season centers on the Civil War years, which were Emily’s most productive time but also emotionally challenging as she not only has deep feelings about the violence and death of battle (which in great part fueled her work), but also experiences a divided within her family, with her father (Toby Huss) and brother (Adrian Enscoe) on opposite sides.
“I always knew that that was going to culminate in a season that would take place in the Civil War because the Civil War [years] are the years in which Emily rose to her greatest heights as a poet and really stepped into her power fully,” Smith says. “Once you get Emily across that threshold of the war, she becomes the woman that she is and she becomes an adult, and that’s why I feel like this section of her life that we have covered and mapped in the show is completed.”
“With this season, Emily is struggling to find a way to be useful to the war that is not only going on in the country but in her family. And the question this season is more so, ‘Can art have value in a world that’s falling apart?'” Steinfeld adds. “It blows me away that during the time of the Civil War is known to be Emily’s busiest time. To be so moved and affected by the loss and the grief and the pain that is going on in the wider world from the confines of her bedroom speaks to her genius and her ability to in fact connect and be a source of hope.”
Although much of the real world has fixated on Dickinson as a recluse, especially in her later years, the show has portrayed her to be someone who does want to be a part of the world. “She went back and forth on that and ultimately ended up where we find her in the beginning of our show, at least, which is on her own, by herself,” Steinfeld says.
The end of Emily’s journey within the show is one that was not only written by Smith, but also directed by her.
“I called my agent at one point said, ‘I have an idea for a movie that I might want to direct,’ and he was like, ‘Well then you should probably direct an episode of “Dickinson” because you’ve never directed anything.’ And then I was really scared because it’s scary to step into a new role, and it’s scary to expand your your definition of yourself. But I did it and it turned out to be not scary; it turned out to be quite wonderful,” says Smith. “I do think it was a natural evolution from my role as the creator and showrunner to step into the director’s chair for the final episode and lead us across that finish line. The greatest gift of all was that I was working with Hailee, who is one of the best actors around, and so, it was really nice for us to finish things in that way.”
That final episode is one that Smith says breaks “all kinds of formal boundaries” and takes “some of the biggest artistic swings that we’ve taken the whole time in that last five minutes.”
“I do think this show has had a way from the very beginning of very subtly educating you on her and her work and the time,” Steinfeld adds, noting that the series finale itself is a “really beautiful moment” and a “perfect closing” for everyone from the cast and crew to the characters.
For Steinfeld, who has been having a particularly busy few years with “Dickinson,” the upcoming Marvel-Disney Plus series “Hawkeye,” voicing characters in “Arcane” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2,” and releasing new music, saying goodbye to a character she has played for three seasons has come with some loss but also a lot of reflection on its legacy.
“One thing about ‘Dickinson’ that I am forever grateful for is the opportunity to come back to what ultimately felt like such a safe space. Coming into Season 3, there was a lot going on in my world [but] I was able to literally walk on set and into the Dickinson homestead and feel at home.”