Lessons in Chemistry Episode 5: Parenting II – Guilt

Mad sitting in a booth at a diner
Alice Halsey in Lessons in Chemistry on Apple TV+

The following review contains spoilers of Lessons in Chemistry Episode 5, ” CH3COOH,” written by Lee Eisenberg and Emily Jane Fox and directed by Millicent Shelton.

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 an unexpected turn of events, the hierarchy at Hastings Lab has changed. Despite Boryweitz (Thomas Mann) being in charge, the new system will not help Elizabeth (Brie Larson) achieve her full potential at another lab. Her hustle as a Tupperware saleswoman is working but not giving her pleasure either, so… TV show it is.

Brie Larson offers many oblivious moments as she walks the sound stage for Supper at Six. There are elements to her performance and how Elizabeth is written that make her seem unequipped to read people, places, situations, etc. At times, I find it effective, and at others, I feel it plays a detriment to the character’s intelligence. Elizabeth takes people at face value, for their word; she does not have the capacity to see beyond what is in front of her to manipulate a situation, at least not while she’s written by these two (Lee Eisenberg and Emily Jane Fox). She’s missing a layer in Lessons in Chemistry Episode 5, and I’m sad to see it gone while the plot is taking such exciting turns.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth wearing glasses in a kitchen
Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Walter Pine (Kevin Sussman) is perfect. The nervous energy is ever-present while he is also simultaneously filled with emotional intelligence to provide impassioned speeches to inspire Elizabeth. Kevin Sussman was an excellent choice for casting. Rainn Wilson continues to infuriate as Phil Lebensmal; congratulations to him.

The first episode of Supper at Six does not run as the smooth sailing ship it becomes, but what speaks volumes to us is the sample group of men with two women and the difference between their opinions. From their eager attention during Elizabeth’s opening speech to their inspired gazes in the conference room afterward, we see the women’s appreciation of Elizabeth combatting the grotesque opinions of the men around them. It made an outstanding point about the misogyny of the time.

Predictably, the show’s growing success comes between Elizabeth and her daughter, Mad, as it keeps Elizabeth from home. Mad desperately needs some Mommy and Me time, attention and a home-cooked meal. However, this was never explored as an issue in the novel by Bonnie Garmus. Neither was the idea that Mad needed to switch schools to cater to her higher intellect. While it offers drama to Elizabeth’s growing success, it also straddles the line of mother shaming and adds to the ever-growing pile of guilt women feel over leaving the home to carry on with their dreams after giving birth. It’s a delicate issue I hope is treated as such. I would hate for some of Lessons in Chemistry’s motif to be hijacked by overbearing gender norms and expectations.

Elizabeth and Mad in a grocery store produce aisle
Brie Larson and Alice Halsey in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

Madeline “Mad” Evans Zott (Alice Halsey) is perfectly childish and smart. Alice Halsey and Brie Larson make a great pair; their chemistry is brilliant. The love and joy in their conversations is contagious. Mad’s adventurous and curious side is explored in this episode through her seeking a better understanding of her father. Mad meets Paster Wakely (Patrick Walker) at church, where she is taken while her mother is at the TV station. This relationship between Mad and Wakely in Bonnie Garmus’s novel was fun and led us all to understand Calvin Evans’ past better.

I like Patrick Walker’s interactions with the rest of the cast. He does not portray a prickly religious figure but a youthful, compassionate and curious individual. His interactions with Mad are cute and compelling. There is a soft and caretaker element to his conversation with Mad; he doesn’t talk down to her, but he also isn’t talking to her like an adult. There’s a balance of respect and indulgence for Mad’s age.

Mad talks to a priest in a church
Patrick Walker and Alice Halsey in Lessons in Chemistry, now streaming on Apple TV+.

In general, I’ve felt that the portrayal of children in Lessons in Chemistry has been well done. I’ve never felt annoyed by one of their performances because they’re not portrayed as annoying; there is a genuine understanding of childish curiosity and the joy of being young in this show that feels generous.

We don’t see much from Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King) and Charlie Sloane (Paul James) in Lessons in Chemistry Episode 5, but their marriage is still going strong, aside from their disagreements over Charlie’s working hours. I am curious to see how their storyline pans out while intertwined with the rest of the plot. I would hate to be introduced to these characters, their struggles and their story only for it never to be resolved once the main characters’ story picks up.

We’re certainly heading into more fun with Mad looking into her father’s history and Elizabeth being on the show. I can’t wait to see what happens next week.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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