Yearning wafts through every crevice of the second season of Dickinson—and honestly, most of the first season too. There’s that ever-present longing for love that Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) inks in her poems, but there’s also a longing for acceptance in society, for an understanding of emotions, and for fame. Nobody, a new character personified by Will Pullman, stalks Emily around every corner, warning her of a fretfully anonymous fate. If Emily wants to be known, she’ll have to make a name for herself before Death (Wiz Khalifa) arrives. Enter Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), editor-in-chief of The Springfield Republican, who promises to publish Emily’s poems. Finally, her yearning seems to be satisfied.
Or, perhaps, another option for her to consider: Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), Emily’s best friend, confidant, once-lover, and new sister-in-law. If she’s not acclaimed by the world, at least Emily will be known by the one she loves most. But this season barricades Emily and Sue from considering their complex feelings for one another, forcing them to grapple with that all-familiar chasm between the mortifying ideal of being known versus the rewards of being loved. Then, there’s the equally difficult fact that they’re queer women in the 19th century—and Sue’s already struggling to come to terms with her role as a housewife to Emily’s brother, Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe).
The final two episodes of Dickinson’s second season embody all of these concerns, finally bringing this relationship to the forefront of Alena Smith’s jubilously anachronistic, though always honest series. Paste got to chat with Ella Hunt about Season 2 of Dickinson, including Emisue, that rhapsodic cake scene, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste: The one thing that really grabbed my attention was in the finale, that one euphoric scene with you and Emily at the end—the one with the cake and the desserts.
Ella Hunt: Oh, yeah! That was a lot of fun to shoot. Also, it’s a season of such pain and yearning, with so much brewing under the surface for Emily and Sue. For Hailee and I to have a scene together where we truly just get to let go of that pain and enjoy each other’s company and relish, for a moment, in these two characters being blissfully happy in each other’s company without a care in the world, was so much fun to get to shoot. It was a great day. I ate so much cake! I don’t know whether it ended up in the scene, but she shoves a piece of cake into my mouth. I’m a cake lover by trade, in fact. But even for me, it was a lot of cake.
Paste: I was going to say, I’m not sure if that would be a dream to shoot that over and over again or if it would be tricky.
Hunt: It was definitely fun. And hilarious. I also did nearly set myself on fire when I was crawling across the table in my corset. There were all of these candles lit, and I’m so clumsy. There were a few takes where we had to call cut and somebody would come in and move the candles away from me, because I was approaching my doom.
Paste: Also, what kind of cake was it?
Hunt: I’m trying to remember. I think it was a pretty classic Victoria sponge. I’m pretty sure that it was that or a chocolate cake. Which, both are cakes that I’m so down for eating copious amounts of. I’m obsessed with cake. At one point, I want to say my Instagram or Twitter bio was, “Actress. Musician. Cake-lover.” And it’s still true.
Paste: That finale clearly leaves you in a weird place with Austin, and an entirely different place with Emily. Do you think Sue’s feeling freed by confessing her feelings to Emily, or do you think those final scenes may come from a place of anger towards Austin?
Hunt: It is incredibly freeing for Sue to declare, both to herself and to Emily, that she’s in love with her. I don’t think that comes out of spite or hatred towards Austin. Austin is in an unfortunate situation of really being the middleman between two people who are intensely in love. It’s a beautiful season for Adrian’s character; he does such an incredible job playing the pain of realizing that you’re in a marriage with someone who doesn’t want the same thing, doesn’t even want to be with you. In the slow unraveling of it, his character is beautifully explored.
But for Sue, it’s incredibly freeing. Also, we know that there was no conversation around queerness—let alone acceptance of it—in the 19th century and before. Although it is freeing, it is constantly going to be something that we grapple with in the show, the difficulty of being in love with a woman in the 19th century. Being queer in the 19th century means a life spent in the closet, basically.
Paste: I kind of forget that with the show sometimes, just because it feels so down-to-earth with contemporary society. You can lose track of the time period.
Hunt: Yeah, and I’m so proud to get to work on a show—especially one that’s set in the 19th century—that’s focused on a queer romance at its heart. Because we know that this romance existed. We know that there were people, so many people in the world, who didn’t know how to identify themselves at that time. They knew, in their heart, that they weren’t heterosexuals. But I’m grateful for this show in that it shows me how far we’ve come, and the generations and generations before me who have done such hard work to get to the point where we are now where there is a beautiful, open conversation around the LGBTQ community and rights for the LGBTQ community.
And we’re still working. But I’m super proud to be a part of a show that doesn’t sugarcoat that, and really looks at it honestly. In that way, it’s been a tough season for the fans of Emisue. We know that we want them to be together. We know that they should end up in each other’s arms. But there are so many obstacles, both internal and external, for them to grapple with. Episode 10 is just a beautiful moment of relief for them, as a couple, to just get that moment of being purely in love.
Paste: If you had to give Sue some relationship advice to figure out her emotions in this love triangle, what would you tell her?
Hunt: To communicate—especially with the people that she loves. Because so much of Sue’s pain this season comes out of her trying to hide her feelings from the people she loves, and from the people that she doesn’t love, too. It just creates an atmosphere of dysfunction, and it also isolates her. I love the scene in Episode 9 with Mary Bowles, where she finally talks to someone who experienced the same thing, going through a miscarriage herself. I love that scene of solidarity between women. It’s a scene where we finally see her get to unravel and be honest about where she’s at, because she knows she’s with someone who truly understands the pain of where she’s at. Even Emily can’t see fully the pain of having a miscarriage, because she’s never experienced it.
Paste: I’ve read a lot about you enjoying that the show takes risks new risks did you particularly liked about this season of Dickinson, as a whole? And what risks do you foresee the show taking next?
Hunt: I find this season completely thrilling. It really does go pretty deep into exploring the dysfunctionality of all of our core characters. I love the storyline between Lavinia and Ship; Lavinia coming to terms with her womanhood and how she wants to be in her life. Lavinia’s storyline is one that we so rarely see on screen. It’s so exciting to see a horny woman on screen! I love it so much. It’s so empowering. I’m like, “Fuck yes! We are horny women!” That storyline is a real joy to me. It’s probably one of the most avant-garde of the season and the show as a whole. Anna Baryshnikov just fucking kills it. Honestly, on a more grounded note, what I was mentioning earlier about Adrian Blake Enscoe’s storyline, seeing such a vulnerable young man on screen coming to terms that he’s in a relationship that isn’t fulfilling to him. He wants children, and the person he’s with doesn’t. All of the pain and expectation for his character this season—I find that really beautiful.
As far as the next season goes, I’m just really excited to go deeper again with these characters. I fully trust that Alena Smith is going to provide that, because she’s just an extraordinary showrunner and writer. Every time I read a new script of Dickinson, I go, “Wait! She took it further. I didn’t know that was possible.” But here we are again: we’re in a barn watching an abolitionist underground journalist group having a crazy dance. Or we’re on a tabletop shoving cake into each other’s faces, we make out with the fire of a thousand suns. This show just keeps pushing, but it pushes in a way that feels too good. It’s a real privilege, as an actor, to be a part of a show that is fearless and does take those story arc risks.
Paste: What do you hope to see from Emily and Sue’s relationship in Season 3?
Hunt: I hope that they really, truly get to a place of togetherness. We’ve explored their yearning, but we haven’t explored what they’re like when they truly just get to be together. I wonder if we’ll ever get that, because as I was saying, they are a queer couple in the 19th century. That is always going to have to be something that we grapple with. But I’m excited to see dialogue between these two incredibly intelligent women, and to see them love and the work that comes out of that. I’m so excited about Season 3.
Paste: Is there anything else you’d like viewers to know, in regards to the finale, or the season as a whole?
Hunt: I feel like the argument scene in Episode 10, between Emily and Sue, it was a really extraordinary day of shooting. We had a whole day to shoot that five-minute-long scene. We’re just unpacking all of the pain that both of the characters have been working through across the season. It was an incredible thing to shoot—this season as a whole, but specifically Episode 10 and specifically that scene between Emily and Sue. Hailee’s acting is a real tour-de-force. She’s so extraordinary in that scene. Actually, shooting it with her, there were moments that I was truly terrified of her, of Emily. Emily has so much emotion that she’s just throwing at Sue, I truly wanted to take a step back and just watch her. She’s extraordinary in the scene. I’m so proud. I’ve said this before, but I really am so proud to get to play the Sue to Hailee’s Emily, and to get to watch her fucking storm the show every episode.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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