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- American poet (1830-1886)
Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we're speaking to Dickinson showrunner Alena Smith about the third and final season.
"Forever is composed of Nows," the real Emily Dickinson once said, and it's these words that give us comfort as Apple's Dickinson show comes to an end. Because each scene that resonated with us, each moment that gave us joy, is part of a wider legacy that will stay with fans long after season three has finished airing.
Like Emily herself, Dickinson wasn't appreciated as much as it should have been when it was around, but its reputation as the best Apple TV+ show guarantees that new fans will continue to see something of themselves in the show for years to come.
And what a legacy it's been. Each season has its standout moments, of course, but Dickinson truly ascended to greatness with this final run. Between the queer bar scene in episode four and Sue's dance with Emily in the Inferno, it's impossible to choose just one that sums this season up best. And that's before we even begin to talk about that brilliant time-travel episode.
But if we were forced to choose, if Dickinson's fate rested on this decision, we would have to go with the final scene in the very last episode. Here, the beauty of Emily's words come to life like never before while also setting up the rest of her life beyond this journey. We were lucky enough to chat with showrunner Alena Smith about all this and so much more as Dickinson finally comes to an end on screen.
Queerness has always been integral to this show, but we particularly loved how you took us into a safe space with the queer bar in episode four. Can you talk us through why it was important to bring Emily into a historical-queerness setting?
It was just one of the most delightful examples of the kind of project that Dickinson has always been up to, which is to take the 1860s, and hold them up as an unexpected mirror for where we are today. Things that people see in the show, that they say, "That's absurd, that couldn't possible be real," are in fact deeply based in the truth.
So there was a bar called Pfaff's Beer Cellar that Walt Whitman would frequent. It was on the Bowery in New York City. Whitman, who was working as a nurse in a Civil War field hospital, would, you know, do his rounds in the day, and then go to Pfaff's to blow off steam at night.
The bar was absolutely a queer space. The waiters would wear aprons with no clothes underneath their gown [laughs]. We got to show one of those in the show.
One of the new or advancing features of season three, as opposed to other seasons, is that we're really pushing Emily more to define her sexuality. In previous seasons, we were all interested in the idea that: "Oh, in the 1850s, they didn't even have the same words and categories that we have for sexuality. So she's fluid, and it’s sort of like how kids today might be a bit fluid or not willing to define their gender."
But I think in season three, we were all like, "OK, yeah, but no. It's time for Emily Dickinson to own her queerness, to own her relationship with Sue, to say, 'I'm gay,' or something as close to as we could get her to say it."
So for Whitman to take her to an explicitly gay space, and show her that this is a world that exists, that she deserves to be a part of, is really important and part of, I think, a core theme of Emily's journey in season three.
Another standout moment in season three was that whole time-travel episode. Not only did it explore Emily's legacy in such a wonderfully absurd way, it also helped consolidate some key feelings for her as well. Can you expand on the thought process behind that a bit more?
What is so hilarious and dark to me about this episode is that Emily and Lavinia go to the future, but the future is the 1950s, and they think, "Oh, wow, we're in the future. Life must be great for women." Well, no, it's not.
As Sylvia darkly comments at the end of their visit, "The future never comes for women."
But in the 1950s, Emily learns that she is a published poet. However, she's a deeply misunderstood poet. The common conception of her is that she died, wasting away, of unrequited love for a man. That she was a recluse who never experienced love and affection. And that she was morbidly depressed, much like Sylvia herself.
That came out of my own experience spending all these years writing about Emily Dickinson. I've had so many times when people would say to me, "When did she kill herself?"
And I'm like, "Well, she didn’t kill herself. She lived a nice, long, happy life, and died of old age."
So it's amazing to me the ways in which… Again, this a distortion of women's lives and women’s experiences. And so I bring in what is also a caricature of Sylvia Plath, but to present to Emily a caricature of herself, and really of how she's going to be remembered if — I suppose in the show it functions as like: if she doesn’t own the truth about herself.
So Dickinson is sadly coming to an end, but it's ending on your terms. Did you always know the final episode would play out like this from the very beginning or did the idea behind it evolve as time's gone on?
Well, I knew in the sense that I'd always planned a three-season arc, and the third season would take place in the Civil War. And I think I knew what that meant for me in terms of Emily's journey, which was that it was the end of her coming-of-age story. And her arrival at being the Emily that we know. The woman who did spend a lot of time alone in her room. The woman who chose not to share her poems with many people other than Sue. The woman who wore a white dress a lot of the time.
So this is kind of like an origin story for Emily Dickinson. I think that, obviously, as in any creative process, the specifics of that exact episode evolved as I worked on it, and created it. I also stepped into the role of director for the first time on the final episode, which was a really wonderful way to pay homage to all the work that me and Hailee [Steinfeld] and this team have done together in terms of creating this entire series.
It was definitely a pretty unforgettable day of filming that scene on the beach with Hailee in the white dress and the mermaids and the dog. It was just a gorgeous day. It was just such a special, celebratory…
This season is processing a lot of grief and heaviness, both in terms of the specific context of the Civil War, and what the characters are going through, but also what we all were going through in making the show during COVID.
So being on the beach, and being able to maybe not wear a mask for a little bit, was really nice [laughs].
That was such a moving final scene. It was so beautiful. Can you talk us through the mermaid reference at the end?
So that's a line from one of her poems: "I started early – Took my Dog – And visited the Sea – The Mermaids in the Basement – Came out to look at Me."
For me, personally, the reason why the mermaid iconography is really important throughout season three is… For me, it's a representation of feminine imagination. And also of a vision that can never be quite reached or grasped, but you are always moving towards, because you feel the siren calling. Right?
So it's an image, for me, of female creativity. And I would say that those mermaids that Emily is swimming towards are her own poems that she is yet to write.
Dickinson is available to stream on Apple TV+.
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