Lessons in Chemistry 101-102: Introduction to Misogyny in the Workplace

Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman in Lessons in Chemistry
Episode 2. Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman in Lessons in Chemistry, streaming on Apple TV+

The following review contains spoilers for Lessons in Chemistry S1E1, “Little Miss Hastings” (written by Lee Eisenberg and directed by Sarah Adina Smith) & S1E2, “Her and Him” (written by Elissa Karasik and directed by Sarah Adina Smith).

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

In the 1950s, Elizabeth Zott, a chemist, is forced into roles unbefitting of her true calling. Bonnie Garmus wrote a stunning picture of the horrifying patriarchal society in the 1950s that belittled and muddled the great minds of women in their generation through her best-selling novel Lessons in Chemistry. These instances of misogyny are infuriating, but the reaction and wrath of Elizabeth make it worthwhile, as she comes out on top in the end with a Cinderella-esque ending.

Apple TV+ has taken on the adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry with showrunner Lee Eisenberg at the helm. Eisenberg established himself with comedic writings for the screenplay of Year One (2009) and a long stint on the hit show The Office [US]; however, since then, Eisenberg has cultivated a list of projects that reflect deeper issues in our society with some of the more popular featuring strong female leads. His most recent triumphs would be Prime’s Jury Duty and Apple TV+’s Little America. I look forward to seeing his creative direction weave in and out of the episodes written by his women-strong writers’ room, including Elissa Karasik, Victoria Bata and Susannah Grant.

It’s an unsurprising casting for Brie Larson; she’s played many characters who share qualities with our favourite fictional television cook. In Room, she was a reluctant mother who loved her children regardless of circumstance. Her portrayal of Carol Danvers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is logical, poised, blunt and charismatic. Larson’s performance as Elizabeth Zott in Lessons In Chemisty is on the nose with much owed to Bonnie Garmus’s entertaining depictions.

Where the sentiment is similar, the arrangement and context of events differ from Bonnie Garmus’s novel in Apply TV+’s adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry. It is always hard moving from one medium to another, particularly when the novel holds so much substance in the minds of its characters to lead us through their calculated actions. This kind of storytelling is tough to depict in a visual medium without narration or confessions. I’m sad to say that I missed those insights into the characters’ minds as soon as the show began.

Each actor performs admirably as their character was described in the novel, although their internal story seems lacking in their movements, conversations and implied motivations. Most of all, I miss the dog’s inner monologue, Six-Thirty, which I know is nearly impossible to include in a visual medium without straying into ludicrous Air Bud territory. Still, alas, there was something so innocent, fun and uplifting about his story that lifted the mood in every setback.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott typing at Hastings Lab
Episode 2. Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, streaming on Apple TV+

Lessons In Chemistry, the novel, was very much about Elizabeth Zott’s journey and her struggles trying to make her way through the 1950s misogynistic minefield. In the adaptation’s first two episodes, we see more of Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King) and her struggle as a Black woman in a Black community in the 1950s. Where the original material is very much a 1960s story, the adaptation set itself a decade earlier and certainly before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the USA; they’ve also adapted Harriet as a decade younger with two young children as supposed to the empty nester we saw in the novel.

As Harriet is introduced earlier in the story than expected, her connection and friendship with Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) are better explored for the audience. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling seeing Evans interact with Harriet’s children when, in the novel, we were never given the privilege of seeing how he would fare as a father. Although this foundation of friendship stole away what we might have seen of his relationship with the other rowers from the novel, it does broaden the historical context of Elizabeth Zott’s story by highlighting the struggles of women with less privilege than her.

Lewis Pullman as Calvin Evans and Aja Naomi King as Harriet Sloane at Harriet's dining table.
Episode 2. Lewis Pullman and Aja Naomi King in Lessons in Chemistry, streaming on Apple TV+

As for the obnoxiously bigoted behaviour these women face, there are glimmers of hope. Calvin Evans, for example, sees Elizabeth as an equal. It doesn’t quite make up for the awful belittlement that makes every viewer’s blood boil, but it helps. Where we may have expected or wished for Elizabeth to work within the system to get her way, she pushes against it—especially in Bonnie Garmus’s novel; plenty of moments made me nearly bulge my eyes as Elizabeth continued to make life harder for herself by having much too modern views of women than was customary in the 1960s. However, in the first two episodes of the adaptation, I found that Larson’s Elizabeth makes some concessions she would not have made in the novel.

 Lewis Pullman as Calvin Evans and Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in the cafeteria at Hastings Lab
Episode 1. Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, streaming on Apple TV+

The slow build of Zott and Evans’ romance is masterful in ticking boxes for romance book lovers. The quirks of these two awkward individuals are gleeful in their connection and understanding of one another. In the little gestures Evans makes to Zott, you can see the love and tenderness develop, mature and hold the audience on the edge of satisfaction. Sadly, their love is confined to just two episodes, but it is the same in the novel, how quickly the affair ends even when you know it’s coming. As for the adaptation’s portrayal, Pullman and Larson have good Chemistry—ha! They are geeky and cute. I wish we could have had more time.

The foreshadowing of Evans’s death is everywhere throughout the first episode, where the second takes on a bit more of a hopeful outlook for the couple as their research and love for one another come to a head. Evans makes his intention to marry clear, and Zott makes her intention to stay unmarried very clear. The two concede to carry on as is, living together, unmarried. It’s a bittersweet understanding for the book-lover viewer who knew what was yet to come.

Lewis Pullman as Calvin Evans running with Six-Thirty
Episode 2. Lewis Pullman in Lessons in Chemistry, streaming on Apple TV+

So, next week, we will see the consequences of grief for a lover when unwed. I’m queasy thinking of how much more pain and hurt Elizabeth will go through in the coming episodes. However, I am also curious to see how Harriet Sloane’s story will progress and when these two characters collide. I foresee there may be uncharted territory ahead; my biggest fear is Elizabeth will be painted as a white saviour, which I think would be in poor taste, but only time will tell.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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