For the past few weeks on Lessons in Chemistry, seven-year-old Mad (Alice Halsey) has searched for information on Calvin (Lewis Pullman), the father she never knew. “Book of Calvin” brings the audience the answers Mad doesn’t have. Who was Calvin before he met Elizabeth (Brie Larson), before chemistry was just science and not a spark between people?
Last week introduced Elizabeth’s sad childhood, and this week introduces Calvin’s. Raised in a strict boys’ home, Calvin grows curious about science. The more he learns about the world, the more he’s convinced that science is the only absolute in life. Religion is a sham.
Before the lab and before Elizabeth
As we learned last week, Alice’s friend Reverend Wakely (Patrick Walker) knew Calvin. The pair correspond about faith and science — Wakely sees them as compatible entities, Calvin does not. Calvin is a solitary creature whose sole social efforts include writing to Wakely and meeting his neighbors, Harriet (Aja Naomi King) and Charlie (Paul James). It parallels Elizabeth’s own solitude at the beginning of the series — Calvin rows in his spare time, Elizabeth cooks. With their similar interests and outlooks, no wonder the pair hit it off six episodes ago.
A flashback episode that tugs at your heartstrings
“Book of Calvin” unfolds as you might expect a flashback episode to with even more voiceovers than the episode about the dog, and montages of moments we’ve seen before. In less capable hands, it’s an unnecessary retread, but Pullman’s performance is so endearing that “Book of Calvin” makes for one of Lessons’ sweetest hours so far. We get to dig deeper into the lonely scientist we saw before — Pullman plays Calvin as a wide-eyed, determined man whose way of belonging in the world comes by discovering it. The correspondence with Wakely is charming; his previous appearances have been brief and usually accompanied by Mad. Here, Wakely gets to communicate more complex ideas and grapple with the mysteries of life and faith. And, as with last week, Wakely makes another comment about his love of Agatha Christie novels. Can we get an episode just about Wakely’s book recommendations, please?)
Flashback episodes should only exist to expand what we already know about a character, and “Book of Calvin” does. Other than their terse initial meeting in the pilot, Elizabeth and Calvin’s interactions were ones of love, curiosity, and scientific discovery. Here, we see Calvin lonely, angry, full of conviction. Elizabeth opens up Calvin’s world to one beyond lab experiments and early morning rowing. Science is reliable and predictable in their mind, but not love. Revisiting their early chemistry through Calvin’s eyes indicates that their transformation was a symbiotic, mutually beneficial one.
When we return to the series’ present, the early 1960s, we already know what’s befallen Calvin. His curiosity lives on in Mad. It seems odd to reveal Calvin’s story before Mad discovers it for herself, but series writer Elissa Karasik is one step ahead of her audience. Just when we think we know the whole story, there’s another element left to discover — in next week’s finale.
Lessons in Chemistry drops Fridays on AppleTV+ through November 24.
Featured image courtesy of Apple TV+
'Lessons in Chemistry' 1x07 - 8/10