For its third episode, Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry reflects a unique element from its source material. One of the novel’s many perspectives comes from her dog, Six-Thirty, an incredibly observant Goldendoodle. Storytelling duties are turned over to Six-Thirty for “Living Dead Things.”
Calvin (Lewis Pullman) was hit by a bus at the end of Episode 2 — an episode too full of nice things to end on a happy note — and Six-Thirty was the sole witness. He is, as anyone would be, plagued by survivor’s guilt. His narration is where we begin this week.
It spells a promising and unusual creative direction for the episode, as B.J. Novak gives voice to Six-Thirty’s thoughts. Wracked with guilt, Six-Thirty witnesses Elizabeth’s (Brie Larson) grief. He tries to make sense of life and death — he knows, even before Elizabeth does, that she’s pregnant.
Six-Thirty can’t be present for every scene — Fran (Stephanie Koenig) asks Elizabeth not to bring him to work anymore — and that’s when Lessons in Chemistry returns to its familiar format. It drops the narration but it’s still emotional, and still an exploration of gender politics and workplace biases in the 1960s. Elizabeth can’t access Calvin’s personal things as she’s not a relative, and their shared work legally belongs to the laboratory.
History, theft, and frogs
Grief cannot shake Elizabeth’s scientific methods — she decides to confirm her pregnancy for herself by conducting her own experiment. Part of the experiment involves stealing a frog, and it’s a heartbreaking callback to Episode 1, when she took a chemical from Calvin’s lab without his permission.
Also out of Six-Thirty’s sight is Harriet (Aja Naomi King), Calvin’s neighbor. While Elizabeth fights for Calvin’s legacy at work — her boss underestimates Elizabeth’s work with Calvin — Harriet fights for Calvin’s place in history. When Calvin’s obituary in the Times paints him as unfeeling and cold, Harriet challenges the reporter responsible. “This is history,” Harriet says, when Elizabeth says correcting the obituary is unnecessary. “What is written is now record.” King is spectacular here, building upon her strong impression from the previous two episodes.
Some new (familiar) faces
Two new characters appear on the scene in “Living Dead Things.” First is Beau Bridges as a mysterious figure associated with the grant Elizabeth and Calvin were hoping to win. As Calvin’s work has been shelved, there’s no way he can win it, and the lab refuses to acknowledge Elizabeth’s participation. Bridges’ presence indicates that there’s more to come from his character, as it’s too substantial to be a cameo appearance. Marc Evan Jackson, best known as deadpan characters in Mike Schur sitcoms, appears in a serious role as Elizabeth’s doctor. When he asks who Elizabeth has in her life to take care of her, she responds that she has Harriet, and she has her dog.
Lessons in book-to-screen adaptations
You’d be right in thinking this return to Six-Thirty is jarring, because it is. As half of the episode happens without him present, his narration only occurs when he’s onscreen. The great thing about books is that you can jump between perspectives without it being terribly jarring. On television, however, that’s not the case.
“Living Dead Things” begins and ends with Six-Thirty, but his narration in between is minimal. Novak is a surprising but fitting choice for Six-Thirty; the narration is sentimental without being saccharine. It is not cutesy, and there are no eyeroll-inducing puns about life being “ruff.” Flashbacks to previous episodes remind you that Six-Thirty witnessed Elizabeth’s first kiss with Calvin and spent afternoons with them at the lab. He is as key to their relationship as their science experiments.
There is no shortage of character deaths on television, but Six-Thirty’s narration spares Lessons in Chemistry from making its mourning episode one of repeated tears, grief montages, or endless monologues about Calvin’s absence. Elizabeth feels alone, but Six-Thirty shares her despair, creating a bond between audience and dog that wasn’t there before. But as the episode jumps between dog-less locations — the laboratory, a newsroom, Harriet’s church — the sparseness of the narration leaves the impression that a full episode from Six-Thirty’s perspective might do him more justice.
Featured image courtesy of Apple TV+
'Lessons in Chemistry' 1x03 - 7/10