Season 1, Episode 1
Date of release: November 1, 2019 (tv+)
As you may know, I am not American, so my high school life was not spent discussing and analyzing the lyrical work of Emily Dickinson. I was something of a lazy student in Germany, who was forced to eat, sleep and breathe the history of the Second World War while also having knowledge about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Physicists” (which I did love when we were doing it in class, but I can’t remember anything about it) and Goethe’s Faust (which I also loved and would really love to re-read and see whether my interest in the narrative was caused by school work or if it made an impression with me all by itself). As a non-American, I have to say I know absolutely nothing about Emily Dickinson (except that she wrote poems, but that is pretty much it), and I couldn’t even tell you in which century she lived, if I hadn’t watched the first episode of the television show that is either based on or inspired by the life of the writer. I would say it’s based on her life, because having a television show that is essentially a biography about an interesting person is intriguing to me. I would also say it’s inspired by, because I cannot imagine that Dickinson’s life was really this strange and would allow for contemporary songs full of bass in the soundtrack. I’m wondering if I should watch the entire show without knowing anything about Dickinson and making me think weirdly about the show, or if I have to hit the wikis after I finished writing this wall of text, just to know whether or not this show is more fantastic in its approach to tell the story of Emily Dickinson or if all of it really happened in one way or another. Do you remember REIGN, the CW fantasy drama show about Mary, Queen of Scots? I would come close to defining DICKINSON with REIGN, but the latter decided very soon not to care about Mary’s historic life — would the Dickinson family and estate, as much as they exist now, even allow for the life of their most famous family member to be fantasized like this?
Not knowing about Dickinson’s life beforehand made for an interesting 34 minutes. First of all, Hailee Steinfeld already fits the character to the tee, delivering an emotional performance that could soon turn rebellious when Emily decides to take on her family and become a black sheep of sorts as she continues to have her poems be published, albeit not under her own name. Secondly, the soundtrack kind of fits with the rebellious nature and premise of the show, and it turns out that Billie Eilish’s music definitely belongs in this show, especially since you could make the leap and compare Dickinson with Eilish (both with strange and fascinating bodies of work, compared to other works released during their times), with the difference that the latter has her work published and is not blocked by her overly protective father. Shows like REIGN and DICKINSON prove that you can put contemporary music into historic fiction without having it be the laughing stock of your show (granted, we did laugh about The Lumineers on REIGN for a few days, but it also kind of fit into the narrative of the show, so we accepted it), and it turns out that the soundtrack of this show is so great, I may just recreate it into a playlist on Spotify. If a television show introduces me to new and cool music, I’m always all in for that — mostly, at least.
DICKINSON could easily not be just about Emily, as she is slowly turning into the only famous Dickinson in American history, because this episode has made it clear that Emily’s father’s ambition for political office could equally be a story of importance for at least a few episodes, all while Emily’s siblings will have to deal with their own fair share of drama in their lives. Besides that, the conflict between Emily and her father was intriguing and interesting in its own right, and a story about a young girl stepping over the large shadow of the patriarch and master of the house to become her own person could easily be the central story arc of the entire show (which may even have to be the case, considering Emily’s body of work never made her a famous figure during her time among the living). In this time era, where slavery is still a problem and women are not supposed to make careers, it’s hard to not think of Emily as being the frontrunner in a rebellion of women wanting to make their own lives, to define their own futures, without having to be pushed into the metaphorical ditch by their fathers or husbands. The Suffragette movement was some decades away for Emily, but could DICKINSON be an example of what the movement could have looked like in Emily’s time? Or is the show going to focus sorely on her and her world of emotions and visions, as she is having secret relations with a woman while also having conversations about the correct future with Death?
But because DICKINSON can’t just be a biography, it had to have elements awakening the interests of viewers who thing of themselves as strange or weird. Emily is both, plus extremely fascinated about death, which causes her to see the carriage Death rides on, pulled by two ghostly horses that remind me how far we have come when it comes to visual effects. One can only hope that Emily’s conversations with Death won’t stop with this episode, but I can somewhat see that the show is going to take a specific poem of her’s and creates a narrative out of it for an episode. It makes me wonder what else Emily was fascinated by, and if her world of thoughts and emotion would make for a wild and colorful imagination that is being transformed into this television show. When she sees Death in a carriage pulled by two horses ready to be exterminated by the Ghostbusters, what else in Emily’s history is going to turn this show into something fantastical which is being accompanied by more Billie Eilish songs (hopefully)?