How One Line of Dialogue Anchors the Tragic Love Story at the Heart of ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

The challenge of the first two episodes of Apple TV+’s “Lessons in Chemistry” is to establish a love story that will reverberate even after it is tragically cut short

Published Time: 11.06.2024 - 21:31:32 Modified Time: 11.06.2024 - 21:31:32

The challenge of the first two episodes of Apple TV+’s “Lessons in Chemistry” is to establish a love story that will reverberate even after it is tragically cut short.

Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) and Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) fall for each other slowly and then all at once. Two brilliant chemists who have an easier time making small talk with their beakers than they do with the rest of the world find equal footing with each other. It’s the kind of love that sweeps even two stubbornly logical people off their feet.

“It’s those beginning stages of love when you feel so much and you feel so deeply, and colors are so much more radiant and scents are so much more powerful,” Pullman tells Variety.

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It’s why Calvin is shocked to be confronted with the prejudicial hurdles of the 1950s that Elizabeth knows all too well. In the waning moments of Episode 2, the pair go before the Hastings Research Institute board to publish their groundbreaking work that proves DNA is the foundation of life. It’s rejected because it has a woman’s name on it.

A dejected but unsurprised Elizabeth tells him it’s a lost cause to change the minds of small men, and they need to take her name off. But Calvin comes back at her with a frenetically romantic declaration for the ages, penned by writer Elissa Karasik.

“I need you to understand this,” he tells Elizabeth. “You are what I treasure most in this world. Not because you are pretty, not because you are smart, but because you love me and I love you. And you can try and deny it, but I will not believe you. When certain atoms collide, it is instantaneous, and it is inevitable. It is basic chemistry.”

Pullman and Larson performed the scene a few different ways, but he says the most authentic version of it was a more kind-heartedly aggressive read on the dialogue.

“You can subvert a speech like that very well by having a different emotion than what’s act -

ually on the page,” he says. “You think it is this very soft, very accepting kind of thing. But he’s so passionately in love with her, so ruthlessly rooting for her, that it almost comes out as anger —anger in the disbelief that anyone else in the world would see her as anything other than brilliant and capable and shining.”

Karasik’s words and Pullman’s performance visibly stun Elizabeth, who simply responds with, “I don’t deny that.” It’s a genuine acceptance of what she is hearing, because with all the evidence presented, everything he is saying is as irrefutable as a scientific formula.

“How do you quantify something so esoteric and limitless, especially for somebody who is so logic-based, trying to deliver it to someone else who is so logic-based?” Pullman says. “That’s the take that felt like it had the most truth to it, and it’s how these two brains might best communicate something of this stature.”

Calvin is tragically killed at the end of the episode in a sobering reality check for Elizabeth and the audience. It means Calvin’s declaration has to give Elizabeth something to hold onto forever. That poignancy could have been undercut by literally evoking the series title in the dialogue. But Pullman credits Karasik with never letting the scene veer over the edge into hokey.

“I think that’s a testimony to the writing because it’s so tempting to pluck the low-hanging fruit of all the chemistry puns,” he says. “I think they did some great tightrope walking in that department, using it to their advantage but never taking advantage of it.”

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