It’s there in the title: Lessons in Chemistry implies that its brilliant heroine, Elizabeth (Brie Larson) has a lot to learn. We’ve seen before that she’s a smart, capable, and determined scientist, as well as being an avid cook, but Episode 4, “Primitive Instinct,” brings on a new dimension of her education — motherhood.
Lessons in parenthood
The arrival of baby Mad — not quite short for Madeline — sends Elizabeth to Harriet’s (Aja Naomi King) doorstep, desperate for help.
Harriet’s presence has steadily grown on the show since Episode 1, and though “Primitive Instinct” centers on Elizabeth’s early motherhood, it’s just as much about Harriet’s life beyond her own children. Harriet’s advice and experience are the mentorship Elizabeth has never had, and Elizabeth needs it. Science, of course, is precise. Babies are not precise, as Elizabeth learns after attempting to monitor Mad’s cries. An adorable scene finds Elizabeth attempting to make Mad laugh, with mixed results.
While Elizabeth continues her scientific research, Harriet is determined to actually practice the law. She’s more than qualified, but marriage and parenthood postponed her professional dreams. Now that her kids are older, she’s ready to pursue her interests on her own terms. Elizabeth and Harriet’s parallel discoveries of themselves illuminate their determination to be multifaceted in a society that limits them. They want to have the opportunities society is reluctant to give them, and make the world better for women everywhere. Harriet is still rallying against gentrification — a cause she first took up in Episode 1— and by finally becoming a lawyer, she believes she can save her neighborhood.
Back to basics
“Primitive Instinct” isn’t just about motherly instinct, but the skills Harriet and Elizabeth have. Their motherhood has been a learned skillset. But law and science, respectively, come naturally to them. Harriet’s advocacy and Elizabeth’s precision are their most primitive instincts. They can’t, and won’t, stay in the boxes society has prescribed for them. It’s no coincidence that this episode’s writer, Elissa Karasik, also wrote Episode 2. “Her & Him” and “Primitive Instinct” both lingered on tender moments between people learning from one another.
After last week’s melancholy episode, this week spells promise and hope just as it seems both have run out for Elizabeth. “Primitive Instinct” jumps between Mad’s babyhood and her elementary school days, and only the end hints at what becomes of Elizabeth. Remember her first appearance in Episode 1, addressing a legion of nationwide fans? A chance meeting indicates that her tenacity and sensibility create a recipe for success. She’s a star in the making. She doesn’t know that yet, but we do.
Lessons in Chemistry drops on AppleTV+ on Fridays through November 24.
'Lessons in Chemistry' 1x04 - 8/10