Lessons in Chemistry Episode 4: Parenting Masterclass

Brie Larson holds a baby in Lessons in Chemistry
Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

The following review contains spoilers of Lessons in Chemistry Episode 4, “Primitive Instinct,” written by Elissa Karasik 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.

Last week, Lessons in Chemistry explored Elizabeth Zott’s grief. Brie Larson offered a unique take on the emotion. The continuation of this grief in Lessons in Chemistry Episode 4 appears through the physical manifestation of Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) in Zott’s vision. These magical realist moments appear in her weaker or pinnacle moments; they offer a better insight into the emotions under Larson’s hard exterior. Jumping back and forth with the timeline between infancy and childhood for Mad Zott (Alice Halsey), Lessons in Chemistry can push forward with Elizabeth’s narrative as a single parent seeking financial stability for her child.

Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman sitting on a kitchen floor in Lessons in Chemistry Episode 4
Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman in Lessons in Chemistry, streaming on Apple TV+

The latest episode of Lessons in Chemistry takes many diversions from the novel but none that I am too opposed to. Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King) and her husband, Charlie Sloane (Paul James), are actually in love, and he has shown no signs of being abusive—so far. Pastor Wakely (Patrick Walker) was not the one to read for Calvin Evans’ funeral, but he is a member of the Sloane/Zott neighbourhood as their local pastor. We step into a time machine and are thrust into the future and given a small misdirect with the framing of Amanda Pine (Shoo Shoo Parsells) as Mad. This introduction brings us to Walter Pine (Kevin Sussman), the producer of Elizabeth Zott’s Supper at Six. These parallels of failure versus success come side by side when Elizabeth discovers her research has been stolen much sooner than in the book, and storms into the Hastings building with her accusations.

I found this episode far superior to the previous and admire how the pace has quickened and we, the audience, are given more fun to chew on in this misogynistic landscape. I love a good montage, and I love some good jazz. It was a fun breath of fresh air watching Elizabeth Zott interact with these famed scientists who need her ‘inexperienced’ expertise as a scientist without a Master’s or PhD.

Aja Naomi King in Lessons in Chemistry
Aja Naomi King in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

I must praise Aja Naomi King again for her performance; she was fantastic in How to Get Away with Murder as well. She is an underused powerhouse of an actor. She gives so much in her performance as Harriet Sloane; you can see a well-rounded person, and how she interacts with the world around her is fun to watch.

The relationship between the Sloanes and Zotts continues to flourish. I appreciate the camaraderie between these two women and the cooking kinship that develops between Charlie and Elizabeth. They create a strong unit of support. However, the cracks between Charlie and Harriet are beginning to show, with Harriet demanding to follow her dreams no matter the standard for women in the home as Charlie works night shifts. I’m wondering if these cracks will persist to the point of breaking their marriage altogether and end with Harriet marrying Walter Pine, as is the storyline of Bonnie Garmus’s novel. It’s hard to see how the writers might pull that together without compromising the solid Black family unit they’ve thus far created.

Speaking of Walter Pine, I loved the adaptation’s introduction of his character, his daughter, the studio and his horrifying misogynist boss. Rainn Wilson is a fantastic villain in this evolution of Lessons in Chemistry. His characterization of a 1950s television producer is exactly as menacing as one would expect, and all you want to do is knee him in the balls and spit in his face. The weary performance of Kevin Sussman as Walter Pine perfectly matches what was depicted in the novel, and these two actors play off one another in a trope-y, predictable dynamic that I can’t wait to see destroyed later by Walter Pine’s character development with Elizabeth Zott’s divine interference.

Rainn Wilson and Kevin Sussman face one another in a hallway
Rainn Wilson and Kevin Sussman in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Alice Halsey and Shoo Shoo Parsells have good chemistry and strong roots for a fast friendship between Mad Zott and Amanda Pine. Their connection is a remarkable foreshadowing of the friendship to come between Walter Pine and Elizabeth Zott. So far, Alice Halsey’s performance as Mad Zott is precocious but still open to learning. She does not scold her parent and offer emotional insight no child should procure at such a young age; she is merely showing signs of advanced learning and some prodigal traits. It’s a fine line to toe. There was a fad in the entertainment industry of children being far too precocious, and it became annoying and lazy to see on screen. So far, Lessons in Chemistry is avoiding this shortfall, and I’m happy it’s worked out.

When Brie Larson rushes into Kevin Sussman’s office to confront Walter Pine about his inability to feed his daughter properly, I felt like I had been transported back into the pages of Bonnie Garmus’s novel. There was so much in Brie Larson’s performance here that showed the full scope of Elizabeth Zott’s character. I think the writers waited to show this side until she had become a mother. However, I feel that her empathetic and caring side was always present—especially in the novel; she was just so consumed by science it was hard to see outside her tunnel vision. Never mind, I’m glad this conversation was portrayed with such warmth by Larson.

Brie Larson standing in a doorway
Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

The ending of this week’s episode of Lessons in Chemistry, “Primitive Instinct,” also portrayed Elizabeth Zott’s warmth as she enjoyed an evening with her daughter, Mad. The movement from scene to scene, cooking, dinner, homework, reading, bedtime, and nightly clean up all culminate in the ritual of Elizabeth and Mad’s life. This routine is joyous and regular and all about to change.

This is the best-structured episode thus far, from timeline to timeline and scene to scene; the flow was easy to follow and extremely engaging. The drops of story progression flaked throughout, pushed us forward, introduced new characters and put us on a far more positive route toward Elizabeth Zott’s success. I highly commend Elissa Karasik’s writing this episode and hope to see more of this in the coming weeks.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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