How Dickinson’s Story of Creative Isolation Hits Different During Quarantine

Dickinson has always felt startlingly relevant to a certain flavor of millennial experience, but its theme of creativity in relative isolation really hits home during quarantine.

Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson Season 2
Photo: Apple TV+

Like many TV shows released in the past year, Dickinson Season 2 was written and filmed before the world took a hard left, abruptly and wholly changing our global status quo. In that way, Dickinson, which tells a complex, often joyous story about one of America’s most famous homebodies, is an unexpectedly relevant parallel.

“If people haven’t felt or didn’t feel like they could relate to Emily in Season 1, maybe they can now after having lived a very similar lifestyle to her in isolation,” says star Hailee Steinfeld, who plays young, passionate poet Emily Dickinson. “This is a show about her dealing with the struggle of remaining creative and feeling free when you’re confined to your bedroom, or your apartment, or your house and feeling unseen and unheard by the people who are closest to you.”

In Season 1, Emily’s life in 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts may have felt comparatively small (though never dull or without creative inspiration). In Season 2, as many people watch quarantined inside their homes or apartments, a trip to the opera or a salon at Sue and Austin’s house seem positively exotic, a sign of just how much has changed in our real world in the hiatus between Seasons 1 and 2. With that real-world shift, Dickinson’s thematic exploration of creativity in relation to isolation, loneliness, and a geographically-confined life becomes even more powerful. 

“Fundamentally this, this show is about not seeing Emily Dickinson as a victim,” says showrunner Alena Smith, “and, in fact, seeing that she’s a person who, within constructed circumstances, took every scrap of agency that she had and built this tremendous body of work that, actually, she really believed in.” 

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For Emily, a geographically small life isn’t a horror; it’s a joy, one exemplified by a depth and richness that is possible, in part, because she never strays too far from her home. Dickinson’s chosen life (one of noted privilege) as a relative homebody is certainly not the same as a modern existence made much smaller not by personal choice but by a global pandemic that has killed almost two million. But if viewers are able to borrow any of the joy Dickinson’s Emily finds in her geographically small but infinitely rich life, then what a gift that would be.

“I think a lot of us have been forced to stay apart from people that we love,” reflects Steinfeld, “and I guess there are so many weird parallels that it’ll be interesting to see how this plays in this time, but I hope that it will help people feel sort of safe in that sense and less alone.”

The first three episodes of Dickinson Season 2 are now available to watch on Apple TV+. New episodes of the 10-episode season will drop every Friday.