There’s nothing conventional about Dickinson, the Apple TV+ series that dramatizes the world and works of Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) into a 30-minute sitcom-esque serial. Whereas season 1 gently blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality (a Jason Mantzoukas-voiced bee visits the poet during an opium-induced bender; Emily imagines escaping to the circus after a vicious fight with her father), season 2 edges further into surreality, from regular visits with a ghostly manifestation of Dickinson’s famous “Nobody” to a hallucinated heart-to-heart with Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted (Timothy Simons).
It all culminates in a trip to the opera in episode 6, which represents an emotional juncture for the poet: on one hand, she’s scorned by her editor, Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), for perceived romantic advances (she just feels too much, you see!); on the other, she enters a near-religious rapture during the performance, imagining that her estranged lover and sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt) is singing her poem “Split the Lark” onstage.
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“I was really trying to write a version of a psychological thriller,” Dickinson creator Alena Smith tells ELLE.com of the episode, also titled “Split the Lark.” “A sense of angles and surfaces slipping under each other and nobody quite knows what anyone else is thinking or feeling—and the audience doesn’t know either.”
It’s a particularly destabilizing effect when it comes to Smith’s interpretation of Emily. She cannot divorce the emotional from the artistic, so even bruises like Bowles’ rejection can manifest in a sort of creative ecstasy. Whereas another character would sink into despair, Emily is soon distracted and overcome by the art she’s witnessing in real-time—so much so that it causes her to hallucinate Sue, her greatest muse, performing her own work.
For Hunt, the episode offered an opportunity to flex her own singing skills while building upon the version of Sue Emily idolizes in her mind. “It was exciting to enjoy the freedom that Emily’s surreal sequences give us, to do something that [the real] Sue would never do,” she says. “To be standing in that incredible gold dress and singing and looking into Hailee’s eyes was the most wonderful shooting experience.”
It’s a blissful interlude in a season steeped in private battles. As Emily wars with the prospects of fame and fortune, Sue masks the agony of a miscarriage by throwing the most glamorous parties in the county. For the first time in their relationship, the two women are incapable of giving the other exactly what she needs, and a distance threatens to engulf them for good.
Below, Hunt opens up to ELLE.com about transforming Sue for season 2, the grief her character carries with her, and why Emily has always been Sue’s endgame.
Last year you told me that Sue would be a completely different person in season 2. Can you talk me through transforming into “influencer Sue” and how you prepared for it?
I knew when I signed onto season 1 that the Sue of the history book was this infamous hostess socialite. It was a bizarre thing, actually, shooting season 1 and playing this very grounded, pained, mourning-stricken Sue when I knew that, at some point, we were going to get around to her being this fabulous hostess. She’s like a girl you knew in school who went home for the summer as this prim, quiet kid and comes back in September as the queen bee with the best clothes and the most money.
I had a lot of conversations with Alena about how we ground Sue’s transition in understanding why she’s doing that: what she’s been through and how the mourning she’s experienced in the past, coupled with the miscarriage, impacts her. I think the way she’s written Sue this season, the audience has a lot of windows into moments of Sue in pain and trying to hide it and push it beneath the parties, the clothes, and the house.
Did you bring any threads from season 1?
Oh, for sure. Hailee and I talked a lot about finding moments in the season, particularly right in the first episode and in some of the later episodes, where we see the original Sue coming out. And really, Emily brings out Sue’s true self. I love in the edit, there’s a moment in episode 1 where Sue’s looking at herself in the mirror. It’s like she almost doesn’t recognize herself. She takes a deep breath and puts a smile back on.
And there’s a moment with Austin in episode 4 when he comes in and tells her that the twins are going to move in with them. She’s so cold and vicious to him when he’s in the room, but the minute he’s out, she curls up in a ball and we have this moment of seeing how vulnerable and she is. I think Alena really, really carefully wrote and edited the story so we are constantly reminded that the old Sue is in there.
What was one thing you wanted to convey between seasons 1 and 2?
The thing I came to set thinking about most each morning was, How do I keep the audience understanding why Sue is the way she is? How do I keep reminding them of her past and the difficulty of her life and how isolated she is? Lonely in a crowd is such a huge part of Sue this season, and actually, it’s something I haven’t been able to talk about much so far because I haven’t been allowed to talk about the miscarriage. It was a spoiler. But now that the episode is out, I can.
One of the remarkable and sad things about miscarriages is they are something women predominantly go through silently. It’s been really incredible recently, seeing how women in the public eye like Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigen have both spoken publicly about their experiences. Shooting this arc of Sue, it was amazing to me how many women I had conversations with at work and in my family who had gone through miscarriages. They’re really not something we talk about very much. I took it as a great responsibility to portray this story of a woman violently grieving.
In the show, Sue has always existed as both herself and an image of perfection in Emily’s imagination. How do you separate those two characterizations as you perform?
Often, before we shoot a scene taking place in Emily’s imagination, I’ll have a conversation with Hailee and Alena about what they’d like to see of Sue, because at the end of the day, it’s Hailee’s Emily imagining Sue. So I often come to Hailee with questions of, “How do you think Emily is imagining Sue here?” It’s wonderful to be on a set that collaborative. And Sue is in Emily’s poetry as well, so finding the Sue of Emily’s poetry, the Sue of history, and the Sue of Alena’s imagination—it’s so many levels to be functioning on. I never get bored for a moment on the Dickinson set.
And the fallout that happens between Emily and Sue this season…Sue is responsible for a large part of it, but also Emily’s expectations of her. Emily’s so enraveled in her own personal quest to work out what she wants for herself as an artist and as a human, that at times she forgets the pain that Sue is working to suppress. She can be selfish in that way. They’re both coming at their relationship from selfish points of view.
What’s going on between Sue, Emily, and Sam Bowles? We can see that Sue really wants Emily to be fulfilled as a creative, and to her, that means publishing her work under this major editor. But is Sue also self-serving? Is she trying to prove something? What was that triangle about for you?
In terms of Sue pushing Emily towards Sam, I see it as, there is a part of Sue that really believes Emily should publish. She thinks Emily’s poetry is extraordinary and wants to see it in the world, and she can’t fathom why Emily wouldn’t want that. Especially because in the first season, Emily is kind of youthfully excited by the idea of publishing her work without really thinking much deeper into the impact it could have on her as an artist—because she’s fighting the patriarchy and her father’s expectation of her. But I also think Sue wants to push away anything that makes her think or feel deeply. And Emily’s poetry is really the epicenter of that for Sue. It’s a huge responsibility to be Emily’s only reader and one Sue doesn’t feel emotionally able to handle when we meet her at the beginning of season 2.
And her own interest in Sam, I think, comes from a place of [how] women had so little power. Being a socialite was a form of power, was a way for her to get the intellectual stimulation she was craving in her life and a way of escaping, not only from the pain of her miscarriage and from the pain of Emily’s poetry, but also from a very unhappy marriage to Austin. I loved researching for this season. In the 1700s, there were these Parisian salonnières, they called themselves, and they were very wealthy women in unhappy marriages who threw these salons. They got to choose the guest list. They would choose the talking points, they got to control the conversation, and they would mediate between the men. It wasn’t only a form of intellectual stimulation; it was also political power that they didn’t have because they couldn’t vote, but they could get these men together and make them have conversations. It is an incredible form of power within a societal structure that doesn’t leave a place for women otherwise. Sue is interested in Sam because him reviewing her parties and writing about her in her newspaper gives her more of that power she otherwise wouldn’t.
Where do you see the breakdown between Sue and Austin this season?
Adrian talks about this so beautifully, that the pressure of toxic masculinity creates this environment where it’s very, very difficult for Austin not to feel like he has to tick the boxes of the grand house, the baby, the best job. He’s coming up against both wanting to be a different kind of man but also feeling the pressure of those expectations.
This is a super relevant conversation for couples now as much as then: He gets to a point where he realizes he does want to have children. Divorce isn’t something that exists in those times. They’re stuck with each other. So Austin is trying to find a delicate way of bringing children into the house, and Sue, having not communicated the pain of the miscarriage, leaves Austin in a place where he doesn’t understand why she’s so cold on the subject. If they could only communicate to each other and be honest with each other, they wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in. But at the heart of it, Austin and Sue are never going to be able to be honest with each other in the way Emily and Sue are.
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