Since its launch on Apple TV+ in 2019, Dickinson has quickly become one of the streamer’s most lauded series. The quirky comedy, set in the 19th century, is an earnest exploration into the constraints of society, gender and family as told from the perspective of rebellious young poet Emily Dickinson, played by Hailee Steinfeld. With a third season already underway, Dickinson has proved to be a show that resonates with global audiences while positioning Emily as an unexpected hero for the millennial generation.
While the first season takes viewers through Emily’s struggle to situate herself as a writer to her unapproving parents, the second season sees Emily pulled out of her private, literary life and thrust into the public eye, causing her to agonize over whether or not she should even publish her poems. Ongoing encouragement from her estranged lover and sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt) for her to publicize herself only manages to conflict Emily even further.
“Split The Lark”
One of the standout episodes of the season is the remarkable sixth episode, entitled “Split the Lark,” which serves as a poignant juncture for the young poet as she questions issues surrounding the notion of fame as well as her relationship with Sue. Written by creator and exec producer Alena Smith and directed by Silas Howard, the episode sees Emily and her family attend a rare night out at the opera to see Puccini’s renowned “La Traviata” (Italian for “the fallen woman”). After having been rebuffed by editor Sam Bowles, for what he senses are romantic advances from her, Emily’s emotions run high as she imagines a performance onstage to be Sue singing her poem “Split the Lark” to her.
Smith says the most important inspiration for this episode – arguably the series’ best – was, of course, Dickinson’s poem “Split the Lark.”
“It’s a really powerful, erotic, haunting and strange visual poem about a lover who is sort of pleading with their lover to believe in their faithfulness,” says Smith. “The line ‘split the lark and you’ll find the music,’ is almost inviting them to cut their heart open and select truth of the love that is inside the heart. It’s a really strange and complicated nest of metaphors that really inspired me.”
Having connected with the poem so deeply, Smith says she always knew that she would set this episode in an opera house and that the lines of the poem would be turned into song, thereby dramatizing Emily’s moment of creative inspiration through music.
“Dickinson herself would often refer to her poems as songs and to herself as a bird,” remarks Smith.
When researching, Smith also discovered that opera began to sweep across the east coast of America in the 1850s, which sparked this idea for a musical extravaganza.
“I was really interested in bringing everything into this space, that kind of enclosed metaphoric space of this opera house, where all kinds of doubling and mirroring happens,” says Smith. “And then this happens in a season that’s really all about performance and what it feels like as a woman and as a female artist to be seen, which of course for Emily is kind of her central predicament – that she wants to be recognized for the artist that she is. But she is also desperately afraid of stepping into the spotlight and losing the truth of her own voice and her own connection to herself.”
The Price Of Fame
This idea of public life versus private life is one that is not specific to this 19th Century poet – modern day audiences, swirling in a world of social media and online activity, can easily relate to this idea of where to draw the line between the public and private self.
“I think emotionally Emily is in a place she’s never been in,” says Steinfeld. “She’s sort of forced to see fame in a way that she hasn’t so far. Fame, in her head, has been built up to be the greatest thing, the worst thing, the most terrifying thing, the most enticing and exciting thing, the most rebellious and most daring thing to want.”
Throughout the second season, Emily keeps encountering different figures who cause her to reflect on this idea of public versus private, but things come to a head when she wanders backstage after the performance and meets the opera star Adelaide who extinguishes this grand notion of fame, revealing the hardship and monotony that can come with publicity.
“For a lot of this season, I was searching for some of the same answers as Emily was and one of them was answered in this conversation with Adelaide,” says Steinfeld.
“Emily expresses pure gratitude for her and what she had just done on stage. The performance she had done was so moving. And then to hear out of this star’s mouth that it meant nothing to her, that she just does this every night, time after time, doesn’t even know what city she’s in, doesn’t even know the difference between performances, it’s just lines off a page to her and she’s just getting through a performance each night, it absolutely broke Emily’s heart.
“And mine too to be honest because there is a world in which we get so wrapped up in the repetitiveness of what we do – that could be anything – and you start to lose sight of what you’re doing and why you love it so much because it starts to become so redundant.”
The episode also marks a true turning point for Emily and Sue’s relationship. Throughout the series, the tension between the two lovers is continually built up. After Sue marries Emily’s brother, her persona somewhat disappears for Emily, leaving the poet wondering where her confidant has gone. Sue continues to push Emily into the seeking of fame, which ultimately ends in a tangled web of emotions that are difficult for the young poet to comprehend.
Smith says using song to translate these emotions offered up a certain type of artistic freedom to the shoot.
“When Emily hears Sue sing to her, that is literally Emily’s own creative voice reawakening inside of her,” she says, noting that this moment becomes the beginning of Emily’s journey “back to herself”.
Steinfeld, who is proud of all the music throughout Dickinson, says that this particular moment was “so special.”
“I think there’s an instant connection through song, through a melody and it’s such a turning point for Emily and Sue,” says Steinfeld.
Smith adds: “Where Emily ends the season is in this deep recognition that she’s happy to write for one person who understands her, and that person is Sue.”
Creating A Night
At The Opera
While “Split the Lark” conjures up some deep themes and narratives, on the surface the operatic setting lends itself as a perfect canvas for some sumptuous costumes and opulent production design.
With much of the series shot on a soundstage, this episode was filmed in the Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, built in 1929. Production designer Neil Patel opted to turn the lobby of the building into the opera house for the show and drew inspiration from pictures of The Palais Garnier in Paris.
Meanwhile, costume designer Jennifer Moeller worked closely with Smith to create the luxurious dresses befit for the period. Both Patel and Smith had worked on opera sets before, so this was familiar territory for them both.
“The two things I said to Jennifer were that Emily’s dress for the opera needed to be even better than her red dress that she wears with Death and
that also I wanted her dress to be blue velvet because it was a little wink to David Lynch and the whole Mulholland Drive aspect,” says Smith.
Cast members had the added excitement of looking forward to shooting on a different location with a chance to wear more luxurious dresses.
“We had been hearing about our opera dresses long before we even started episode one,” says Steinfeld. “So, by the time we got to this amazing location and saw these gorgeous dresses, the scope of this whole episode was just so much bigger than what we’ve seen in Dickinson.”
Smith adds: “So many people involved in the production of Dickinson come from the theatre world, so we were all having so much fun with this episode. It’s all about what’s on the stage versus what’s backstage and how people act when they go out for a night at the theatre and at the opera.”