Lessons in Chemistry Episode 3: Lessons in Misery

“Living Dead Things”

Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in being fired for her unwed pregnancy.
Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

The following review contains spoilers of Lessons in Chemistry Episode 3, “Living Dead Things,” written by Lee Eisenberg and Emily Jane Fox and directed by Bert & Bertie.

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.

After the tumultuous ending of last week’s Lessons in Chemistry second episode, audiences familiar with the original material know that Elizabeth Zott’s life is just beginning. Those unfamiliar with Bonnie Garmus’ novel may be perplexed about where the story will go now that the romance between Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) and Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) has come to an abrupt end. I was curious as to what changes showrunner Lee Eisenberg and his band of writers made to account for personalities and quirks not yet discovered in Episodes 1 and 2 or if some characters have genuinely been axed forever.

Lessons in Chemistry Episode 3, “Living Dead Things,” portrays many interpretations of grief; although, how successfully is the question.

And so Six-Thirty has a voice, after all! But is it the right one? I spoke in my last article about the risks of voicing the mind of a dog and slipping into Air Bud territory, and now I don’t know what to feel. I’m still processing the choice of voice, B.J. Novak. His pitch is a little too high for me. I would prefer a deeper voice for a larger dog. I also think the dog who plays Six-Thirty isn’t giving quite the performance to back up the narration. This may sound ridiculous, but I genuinely don’t believe the handlers got the best reactions out of that dog. Where is the sad whining nose that dogs make when they’re sad? I find Six-Thirty to be much too chipper in the wrong moments. Nevertheless, I am glad that this inner monologue is included in the adaptation because it gives so much to the story in the novel.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott insisting she have Calvin Evans personal affects and research.
Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

The funeral is much of the same, although I don’t remember Harriet being there in the book. The writers’ room commitment to Harriet Sloane’s (Aja Naomi King) story and connection with Calvin Evans offers a greater insight into a character I wished I knew more about in the novel. Against Brie Larson’s complex portrayal of grief with a mix of fury and denial next to the outward display of sadness, Aja Naomi King creates an interesting dichotomy. Still, King’s performance ultimately undermines the supposed once-in-a-lifetime connection between Zott and Evans by skillfully emoting Sloane’s loss in the conventional norms Larson must avoid for character continuity.

Then, the stronger emotion and grief come when Brie Larson’s Elizabeth Zott is in Harriet Sloane’s dining room listening to jazz, and they both stand up to imitate Evans’ horrible dance moves. That was a connection through loss, and that moved me. The relationship between Sloan and Zott in the novel is chemistry in its strongest bond. These two women lean on one another and become great friends. The rhythm of Larson and King is intoxicating; I feel giddy already thinking about what is yet to come for these two as strong women.

When Larson’s Zott turns a corner in her grief at the end of the episode, it feels like a sigh of relief to the viewer. That final wave of acceptance washes over our main character. There is still more to come on that front, for it becomes ingrained in Elizabeth Zott that she must live on with a part of herself missing due to Calvin Evans’ death. With the ending showing Larson run, it gives me hope that this next episode will have more momentum. By the end of Episode 3, I could see how the pacing contributed to Zott’s overall journey, but it didn’t feel like the great payoff intended.

Interestingly, the writers have moved Fran Frask’s (Stephanie Koenig) character development forward; in Bonnie Garmus’ novel, Frask was much more harsh with Zott following the death of Evans. The Apple TV+ adaptation of Lessons In Chemistry gives a more empathetic portrayal of Frask’s character. It gives Brie Larson’s Elizabeth the privilege of discovering her pregnancy alone rather than the embarrassing judgment the character endures in the novel from Frask.

I admire the inclusion of Zott’s experiment to test if she’s with child. I think it leans into her scientific perspective on life. In the novel, when Frask’s diagnosis bombards Zott, it shows the tunnel vision of Zott’s grief. In the adaptation, I find it hard to reconcile with what Brie Larson presents as a mourning period, but seeing through to the end, there is evidence of a directed flow for her emotions. I partially think that were there more specific framing on Larson’s facial acting, and if we spent longer with her solely processing the emotions, there would be more to feel, but alas, we get there in the end. Zott’s pregnancy plays an interesting role in her acceptance process; finally, facing a physical exam in her third trimester marks a move toward a new life without Evans. I also appreciate the inclusion of Dr. Mason (Marc Evan Jackson) as an ally for Elizabeth Zott; she needs as many as she can get.

Stephanie Koenig as Fran Frask emphatically telling Brie Larson she can not have Calvin Evans' things.
Stephanie Koenig in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

As much as Lessons in Chemistry Episode 3 was filled with consequences and scheming, it simultaneously felt slow, and understandably so for the themes and context within the show’s timeline. Yet, they’ve moved forward with the Hastings plagiarism of Evans and Zott’s research and portrayed it as less cobbled together than in the novel. Dr. Robert Donatti (Derek Cecil) has a faster claim on Evans’ research. In the novel, Donatti leaves the research untouched for so long, and Boryweitz happens upon it while visiting Zott’s home lab. The Apple TV+ adaptation of Lessons In Chemistry gives Donatti and Boryweitz (Thomas Mann) more credit for their ability to scheme.

I read Boryweitz as a bumbling idiot and Donatti as a lazy ass. The adaptation has them far more competent than I wish they were. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it a much easier pill to swallow when the enemy is stupid; here, I don’t know how to cope with my frustrated anger for Brie Larson’s Elizabeth Zott. In the novel, Boryweitz’s idiocy was his saving grace and redemption as he came to Zott on his hands and knees; now, he seems irredeemable. I also think the minuscule scene where Donatti discusses the grant for Evans’ work with the benefactor is portrayed as too insignificant to the rest of the story. I wonder how the writers will pull it back into the narrative when it comes time for a bigger reveal.

It’s tough; I’m unsure if my feelings about the lull in this episode are valid when the themes and context are loss, grief and mourning. Those are not at all the most fun topics to handle. And despite my feelings about Brie Larson’s performance throughout the episode, I saw the vision in the final moments. I sit now debating whether running in the dark serves as marvellous a purpose as it is meant to, collecting the rest of the episode into its arms and granting the audience the bigger picture. Indeed, this week’s episode has played its role within the greater scheme of the story, but on its own, I don’t think it’s the best representation of the series’ first solo release.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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