The season finale of “Lessons in Chemistry” dropped over the Thanksgiving holiday, and the show’s three central female characters — Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), Harriett Sloane (Aja Naomi King) and Avery Parker (guest star Rosemarie DeWitt) — ended up in places very different from Bonnie Garmus’ best-selling novel on which the show is based.
Harriet’s legal battle to prevent the construction of a freeway through her neighborhood ends on a less than triumphant note. Instead of returning to Hastings Lab as Garmus’ Zott does in the book, Larson’s Elizabeth finds her niche teaching chemistry while on her way to finally completing her doctorate in chemistry. The arrival of DeWitt’s character signals the theme of found family, which in Elizabeth’s case, truly did happen through the collision of atoms.
TheWrap recently chatted with showrunner Lee Eisenberg to unpack Elizabeth, Harriett and Avery’s fates. Tara Miele, who directed Episodes 7 and 8, also weighed in on what the end means for the characters involved.
Elizabeth’s ending changed from Bonnie Garmus’ book where she returned to Hastings Lab as a chemist. Why did you change that in the show?
Eisenberg: For Elizabeth, we talked about everything. Does she win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry? That’s not where we wanted to go with the character. It felt like that wasn’t true to her arc. What was emerging for us as we started getting into the second half of the season was, Elizabeth had been a chemist, she’s now on TV, doing a job that she never in a million years would have expected that she’s doing. But what she does beyond kind of giving women the confidence to see the best versions of themselves is: She’s a teacher. She’s up on stage. She’s lecturing. She’s answering questions. She’s making sense of the world and making sense of cooking and giving people a sense of purpose. As we started talking about where we want to leave her, do we want her to run Hastings? Do we want to see her in a lab and she’s squeezing a pipette into a beaker alone? That didn’t feel true to the character that we had found.
We really felt like her being a professor, that she has not stopped the science, but the best version of Elizabeth is standing in front of a group that has a large, large portion that are women that have an interest in science, all of a sudden, as a result of inspiring people like Elizabeth and that she’s again building another generation of people that have curiosity and that want to explore sciences, particularly women. That felt inspiring without it feeling outsized. The US government doesn’t contact her to work on the nuclear codes or anything like that.
Miele: Every little piece leads up to this moment for Elizabeth and maybe sometimes science isn’t just in the lab or just in a book, but sometimes you’re getting pieces from the outside world that inform you. We just wanted to end it on this note of expansiveness and possibility. I just love the way that at the very end, I knew that Elizabeth is no longer Elizabeth just the chemist, she’s no longer just a TV personality, but she’s going to be able to step into her dream work in a way that allows her to be more connected with people and more presentational and so that was sort of that last shot. The TV world has like given her this gift of “I know just how to present this” and I hope that it ends on a note of optimism. Brie’s performance, she just nails it in that moment. I think we only did like two or three takes of that and she gave this little smile and we got all excited on set.
What does the end of Harriet’s arc (losing the court battle for the Sugar Hill neighborhood) send the viewer away with and how does that run parallel with Elizabeth’s struggle with sexism?
Eisenberg: We did not want to end the show in a way where everyone gets a win. That did not feel true to life. Harriet’s battle is tragic and it’s real. It’s based on real events. They didn’t win — this affluent upper-middle-class Black neighborhood filled with lawyers and doctors and the most prominent entertainers of that time was destroyed. We wanted to be factually accurate. It’s devastating. The way that Aja plays it is just heart-wrenching, but that’s a character that will never stop. Determination, stubbornness, and intelligence — those are the people that bring about change, and change is incremental. So because Harriet does not get that victory does not mean that victory will not eventually win out and it might not even exist in California, maybe it exists in a different state. Maybe Harriet goes on to become a judge. We were talking a lot about where we land them. And so it was Harriet loses the battle, but she will not lose the war. And she will mobilize, she’ll get more young people to show up at rallies and demonstrations. And eventually, those types of leaders, people with that type of power in their words and in their actions, those are the ones that bring about change. That was incredibly important in terms of Harriet.
Miele: I live in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, which is crazy. Lee had written about it in the script and added it. I was so honored and excited that I would get to tell a part of that story, even being a white woman living in this historically African-American neighborhood. But the truth is, they did put a freeway right through the middle of this space, and I do feel like for feminism and for the fight for marginalized people, it is one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, one step back. By including this story, in particular, it was not a pandering way to tell that story and that experience, because whatever white women might have been winning at that time, women of color were not really winning at that time. Harriet and Elizabeth’s relationship is a meaningful progression and there’s still a tragedy about the systemic issues that Harriet’s community was facing, and that wasn’t so easily resolved.
How does Avery Parker (Rosemarie DeWitt), who plays Calvin’s mother, factor into all of this?
Eisenberg: For Avery, the story of Calvin and his backstory with the boy’s home and a young mother who was basically, her son was pulled away from her — and that he never knew any of it that he, he missed out on this relationship with a woman that loved him that was just was looking for him for years —as really was something we want to get right. As [director] Tara [Miele] said, the theme of motherhood runs through this whole thing. You see it with Elizabeth, you see it with Harriet, you now see it with Avery, and how does Elizabeth kind of reconcile this? What does it mean to have this new woman in her life who isn’t family but is also family and her slowly allowing — one of the arcs of Elizabeth is she starts off the show, so closed off to the world. She won’t allow outside variables, contaminants into her experiment. And she eventually does, she lets down her guard, she lets Calvin in, she lets Harriet in, she has Mad, she lets Walter in. Avery is part of this evolution culminating in this final scene, where everyone’s sitting around a table, and you see this unlikely family that she has put together. It’s a found family, but there’s so much closeness and connection there. That Avery is part of that was important to us.
Miele: Obviously, Elizabeth has let go of her family, and has made a choice in her mind in the beginning of the series that she doesn’t really need that. It does feel like once she opens the gate with Calvin, the whole world rushes in on her. I feel like for women, the hardest thing is to allow yourself to be cared for, and she’s caring for all these other people. Will she be able to have a caring figure, mother figure in her life? I like how it’s a question mark. You feel like there’s still a trepidation. It’s not like, Elizabeth Zott is gonna be like, “Mommy, I’m ready. Let’s have Christmas together, so.” It’s not all perfect, it’s not all easy and who knows what it will be. But there’s going to be something.
Could you see the show going beyond just this season with all these open endings?
Eisenberg: We tried to tell as complete a story as we could, not that everything was wrapped up in the sense that we know exactly where Elizabeth’s gonna be tomorrow, or where Harriet is going to be. But it felt like emotionally, things ended, for us at least, on a satisfying note. I’m completely open to the idea of going beyond another season if we have the right idea. I think that when these things come from a place of cynicism, and it’s like, “Oh, well, ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ is doing well, let’s just keep the train going.” The result for that will never yield anything positive, but I think if we have the right idea, nothing would make me happier. I loved every single person on the show. They’ve become close friends and collaborators that I’ll work with for the rest of my career. So from a selfish perspective about who I want to spend my days with, the answer would be a resounding yes. From a creative perspective, we haven’t landed on anything that makes me think we’re ready to do that.
Season 1 of “Lessons in Chemistry” is streaming on Apple TV+ now.