May 18, 2024

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers from “Introduction to Chemistry,” the series finale of “Lessons in Chemistry,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Elizabeth Zott, hero of the people. It’s not exactly where the scientist and reluctant television star thought she would end up, but Apple TV+’s “Lessons in Chemistry” is all about surrendering the inevitability of change.

The finale of the eight-episode limited series certainly asks fans of Bonnie Garmus’ best-selling book on which it is based to do just that. In the book, Elizabeth (Brie Larson) leaves behind her nationally renowned cooking show “Supper at Six” and returns to the lab to continue her abiogenesis research, fully funded by the generosity of Avery (Rosemarie DeWitt), the mother of her late partner, Calvin (Lewis Pullman) — whom he’d never met, and who Elizabeth didn’t previously know existed.

In the show’s finale, Elizabeth has a similar revelation about what she wants in life after talking to her daughter, Mad (Alice Halsey). But three years later, Elizabeth isn’t seen in a lab with her faithful dog Six-Thirty at her feet. Instead, she stands at the head of a college classroom, teaching an Introduction to Chemistry course while she finishes her Ph.D. At home, she and Mad are also slowly warming up to Avery (Rosemarie Dewitt), who wants to show up for them like she always tried to with her son.

Courtesy of Michael Becker/Apple TV+

Evoking Calvin’s love of “Great Expectations,” as well as her own experience with accepting life’s unexpected variables, Larson tells Variety that diverging from the book’s final scene was the show’s way of letting Elizabeth pay it forward.

“I think we wanted to acknowledge and honor a profound life that is also a fairly average life,” says Larson, who also serves as executive producer. “It doesn’t mean that, in order for us to love her and hold her up as being heroic, she had to invent the thing that saves the world from whatever. It means she is creating a pathway for herself, and for her students, using her past and all that she has learned. That’s the change. She is imparting all this wisdom she has learned and changing the culture from the inside to offer the things she wasn’t provided.”

Whether that bit about everyday heroism is a subtle reference to the galactic implications of the other hero Larson plays –– Captain Marvel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe –– is unclear. But she is adamant in saying the Elizabeth at the end of the show is the same person at the end of Garmus’ book.

“This doesn’t mean she’s not in a lab anymore,” Larson says. “She’s always a scientist. It is just that, as the pathway goes, this is one of the stops. It is one of the necessary stops. And I love the idea that the ending is open-ended enough for people to have their own life with her. They can continue to dream about her like I’ve been, and what she’s doing and where she’s at.”

Where Elizabeth would end the series was heavily debated behind the scenes, according to creator and showrunner Lee Eisenberg. Among the ideas considered was a 30-year time jump into the future that would have found Elizabeth as a grandmother alongside an adult Mad. But in the end, Eisenberg says the slight change in Elizabeth’s trajectory from book to screen was purely meant to marry everything she and the audience have gone through.

“I had this thought that if you take the chemistry part of her and the television part of her, the logical conclusion for me was a professor,” says Eisenberg, who penned the finale. “Also, this is a place that she is reclaiming. She has suffered so much unthinkable trauma at a university. For her to be back in that space and in a classroom filled largely with women, inspiring this next generation to become chemists and see their potential, felt like the natural evolution.”

The episode makes a point to show how powerful the platform of “Supper at Six” can be when a former audience member returns to reveal she entered medical school, something Elizabeth had urged her to do. When she finally announces she is stepping down as host, Elizabeth fortifies the platform by bringing on a sponsor she believes in –– Tampax –– and putting the power in the hands of her audience, one of whom will be chosen to succeed her as host.

“When I think about the time between the Tampax moment and what happened before that, I imagine she sat there with her notebook and asked, “What are the things working for me here?’” Larson says. “She likes sharing what she’s learned; she likes inspiring others. She doesn’t like being degraded. She doesn’t like being told to say things she doesn’t believe in. She wants to give this part of her life dignity and respect. I think there’s a sense of empowerment and clarity that she gets through in handing it over.”

That clarity is precisely why Eisenberg thought the post-TV Elizabeth would find an unexpected ease in the classroom.

“Being in front of that classroom, there’s a self-assuredness,” he says. “There’s a hint of a smile, even. She’s more comfortable in her own skin; she is more settled and calmer. I feel all of those things from her through Brie.”

But her story isn’t just a matter of where Elizabeth ends up professionally. Intercut with her opening lecture to a captivated class are images of all those unexpected variables she had to reckon with, and a glimpse at the life born from them. It all brings her back to the holiday she once disliked before Calvin. Only now for Christmas, Elizabeth’s house is filled with her found family –– Harriet (Aja Naomi King) and her family; new couple Walter (Kevin Sussman) and Fran (Stephanie Keonig); Reverend Wakely (Patrick Walker); Mad’s grandmother Avery; and of course, Mad and Six-Thirty.

“I feel a lot of pride for her,” Larson says. “She made it, and the story is not over.”

As Elizabeth begins her next chapter, Larson says “Lessons in Chemistry” is one big love story between Elizabeth and all the kinds of love she learns to embrace.

“As I hope many people have experienced, there’s that feeling when love makes your heart open and it makes you see color differently,” Larson says. “Once Elizabeth sees it, she can’t go back. It can break your heart a little bit, but you can’t go back. She becomes this even more deep character because she understands what’s possible. She knows how to love and how to be loved — and if you have that mixed with all of her tenacity and intelligence, look out world.”

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