“Lessons in Chemistry” star Aja Naomi King still finds hope in the devastating end to her character Harriet’s arc in the Apple TV+ drama series.
Based on real historical events, the show’s finale finds politicians passing the act that enabled the Santa Monica freeway construction that destroyed the Sugar Hill neighborhood in which Harriet and Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) live. When Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) first started at Hastings Lab before Elizabeth entered the picture and moved in with him, he forged a bond with Harriet and her husband Charlie (Paul James). Even before she grew closer to Elizabeth in the wake of Calvin’s death, Harriet advocated for the dismissal of building a freeway through her and Calvin’s neighborhood, which would render them homeless.
“The thing that I want people to take away is that it’s always worth it to fight. No matter what happens,” King said. “It’s the fight that matters. To know that you didn’t sit idly by and just let it happen. You stood up. You showed up and you fought against it.”
Episode 6 of the Apple adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’ best-selling novel contained a sobering and serious protest scene led by Harriet and joined by Elizabeth. A group of peaceful protesters conducted a sit-in at a freeway site to stop cars and raise awareness in the form of civil disobedience.
“There’s just a gravity that falls over everyone because it means so much to get it right. It’s funny, I think someone had said we don’t have a lot of time, but no one was stressing that. No one was making us feel like ‘Hurry up, hurry up.’ It was like, we’re gonna take our time and do this right. That’s how we honor the people that went through this experience,” King said. “There is something about living inside of an act that happened on this freeway. It happened in these marches. It happened all across the U.S. time and time again. It continues to happen. There is a feeling that comes over you because it’s just so real and sometimes there’s a little bit of sadness because it continues to be real. It is something that we continue to do, and there’s a pain in that, and there’s a responsibility in that, and there’s a gravity to it that has to be honored and captured. I really think we did that. I was proud of all of us walking away that day for the way we supported each other and made sure that it felt right.”
King centered Harriet’s arc around stories from her mother and grandmother about living in the period depicted by the show — the late 50s and early 60s. She also incorporated family photos of her grandmother and mother into the set dressing of Harriet’s home.
“The guiding light of what grounded me in this is the shared stories from my grandmother, my mother, the things that they would tell me about living in this period. It was very intimate,” she said. “These are my ancestors and their experience flows through me and now I get to be part of sharing their stories, their intimate personal struggles and joys with the world. And that’s a really powerful feeling.”
Harriet’s relationship with her husband goes through obstacles on the path to the couples’ similar desire, but different methods, of improving the United States for Black people. King described their conflict as “opposing points of view” shown “in a really loving way.”
“[Charlie] is a Black man and going against his own very real struggles, but what is expected of him is very different than what is expected of Harriet. She’s an ambitious black woman, but she still has the burden of being expected to stay at home and raise the kids,” King said. “I really appreciated that it wasn’t just one scene, like, ‘Oh, Harriet and Charlie had this conversation this one time and now we’ve moved on to other things.’ You see it as something that they’re continuing to struggle with because even though they both want the same thing, which is to be able to provide for their families and to create a better world for themselves, they’re going about it in very different ways. Harriet is going the more activist route while Charlie wants to feel safe, and he doesn’t want anything to happen to his family so he’s working hard to just earn the money to be able to be in this neighborhood.”
Harriet’s friendship with Elizabeth marks another pivotal point of complexity in the series. Both Brie Larson and King described their characters’ friendship as “earned.”
“They’re two women who are fighting back against the ideas of how women should exist in this period. of time. Elizabeth and Harriet both face discrimination, albeit different kinds of discrimination, but I think that is the thing that links them, that allows them to understand each other more deeply, especially when Harriet has to say to her friend, ‘This isn’t about me, Look, this is about this community, our community because you live here too,’” King said. “You get to see this conversation where Elizabeth is worried about her responsibilities to the people that are working for her on the show whereas Harriet’s worried about what is happening to Black people in America, and she’s able to call her friend in a loving way. To Elizabeth’s credit, it’s a blind spot, but she is open to it and that is what true allyship is. She wants to hear it and learn how to be a better friend and we talked from the beginning about how the two of them earn this friendship and I think that’s how: with these really deeply intimate, honest conversations.”
All eight episodes of “Lessons in Chemistry” are now streaming on Apple TV+.