‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Director Roots Elizabeth and Walter’s Friendship in ‘Constructive Criticism’

“We want to have men that are allies, we want to have men that are s–theads,” showrunner Lee Eisenberg tells TheWrap

(From left to right): Kevin Sussman and Rainn Wilson in "Lessons in Chemistry" (Apple TV+)

Millicent Shelton, who directed the fifth and sixth episodes of “Lessons in Chemistry,” emphasized that the relationship between Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) and Walter (Kevin Sussman) is purely platonic, and that they bond over constructive criticism.

Episode 5 introduces Rainn Wilson’s aggressive station owner and manager Phil, who meets his match in Elizabeth’s stubbornness. His hateful views of women don’t stand a chance against Zott’s fight for equality and stress of the importance of women’s work in the kitchen. In certain ways, Phil foils Walter Pine.

Shelton directed her analysis to a particular scene between the TV producer and chemist in the Apple TV+ drama’s fifth episode when they sit and have a heart-to-heart chat. 

“One of my favorite scenes in 105 is the scene between Kevin and Brie sitting on the stairs in front of the studio, and for me, that is when the beginning of the friendship happens. Prior to that, the only man that was kind of a friend but not really was Calvin because having an intimate relationship with somebody and friendship is different,” Shelton said. “But, she and Walter really are just friends. And that moment on the stairs where he could sit there, and he could be honest with her and he wasn’t trying to have any type of sexual relationship with her. It was just about how a man and a woman can be friends and can honor and respect each other. for who they are as beings.” 

Shelton also emphasized the mutual respect that Walter and Elizabeth have for each other, which is rare for Elizabeth in the show as she experiences all kinds of forms of misogyny and antifeminism in her day-to-day life.

“At first I read the scene and I was like, ‘Okay,’ and then when they started acting, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is, this is an amazing moment’. you see the journey of them from the beginning of the episode when he’s just looking to have somebody make him be successful as a producer,” Shelton said. “And at the end of the episode, he sees her as a human being and a person that he likes and they’re gonna work together. She, who was a person who was always defending herself, and a little prickly, by the end, she realizes that he’s a friend and he’s giving her constructive criticism, not just criticism, which there’s a big difference, because constructive criticism is based on trying to help that person improve themselves, not tear them down. And in the end, she realizes that and that’s why they’re friends.”

Showrunner Lee Eisenberg explained the types of men Elizabeth encounters in the show from Phil to Walter to Calvin and more.

“I think it was very important for us to not paint anyone, either gender or orbit, we kind of want to avoid stereotypes as much as possible. And the easiest thing is, ‘Oh, all the men in Elizabeth’s life are bad. That would be the most simplistic version and that’s not at all true. I think that when Calvin and Elizabeth first meet, they don’t meet on good terms. He accuses her of stealing his ribose, which she did, and is pretty unapologetic about it. As the series evolves, we want to have men that are that are allies. We want to have men that are shitheads. We want to have varying degrees of shitheads. And we also want to have men that are passive, that are that that could have done something and don’t,” Eisenberg told TheWrap.

“That was something that was really interesting to us. And then as she gets into supper at six, and you see a relationship with Walter, we never wanted that to feel romantic in any way. We wanted it to feel like a single father and a single mother that are both struggling through their own situations, both at home and at work, are able to lean on each other and really formed kind of this unlikely friendship, which I really hadn’t seen before between two people at a later stage in their life. They’re not teenagers that are swept up in it. They really lean on each other, they become family rather than romantic partners. And that was a relationship that we loved exploring.”

The first five episodes of “Lessons in Chemistry” are now streaming on Apple TV+.

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