Apple TV+’s Lessons in Chemistry chiefly follows the remarkable journey of Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), whose passion for science — and defiance of patriarchy — leads her to hosting a cooking show on TV, where she finds a chance to impart her knowledge to those that need it most. However, episode three of this curious series, which is based on the hugely popular novel by Bonnie Garmus, centers the perspective of a very unexpected character: Elizabeth’s dog, who, like her, is reeling from a tragic loss to their family. It’s a jolting turn, but one that is rich in rewards.
The previous episode, “Her and Him,” ends with a shocking cliffhanger as Elizabeth’s partner Calvin (Lewis Pullman) is hit by a bus. “Living Dead Things” finds Elizabeth dealing with his death, but what she doesn’t know is that Calvin’s death was accidentally caused by their dog, Six-Thirty, whose jostling distracted his owner from an oncoming bus. Named after the exact time Elizabeth found him, Six-Thirty is also struggling with Calvin’s death. In a surprise for those who haven’t read the book, this episode is narrated by none other than this guilt-ridden dog (voiced by B.J. Novak).
Lessons in Chemistry is part of a great good-boy tradition.
Credit: Apple TV+
In true television fashion, Six-Thirty is absolutely adorable. Six-Thirty (performed by Gus) is a Goldendoodle, which is a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle. The dog’s breed is probably the most questionable casting in Lessons in Chemistry; the breed didn’t actually exist until the 1990s, a good few decades after the 1950s-set show takes place. But I’m more than willing to forgive the oversight, as Six-Thirty is outrageously cute — and gives the animal performance of a lifetime.
Through voiceover, Six-Thirty tells us of his origins as a military dog — a job he wasn’t cut out for, which is how he wound up rummaging through Elizabeth’s trash cans. But this isn’t the jovial dog story you may expect, as Six-Thirty is in a depression over the loss of Calvin.
Six-Thirty describes witnessing Calvin’s death: “In that moment, everything I ever thought about myself, every worst fear I had, it all came true.” This surprising revelation is our first clear indication that this will be a very different kind of dog story, one filled with sadness and regret.
There’s a sort of reverence when it comes to dogs on screen. From Lassie and Old Yeller to A Dog’s Purpose and Beethoven, dogs are treated as heroic and brave. Even when they cause trouble, there’s no doubt that when push comes to shove, that dog will save the day. They are man’s best friend, after all! Whether in movies, TV shows, or memes, dogs aren’t given the space to be anything but joyful heroes that would gladly lay down their own lives to protect yours, and will be as happy as can be while doing it.
But that’s not the case in “Living Dead Things.” Six-Thirty is not the gleeful dog from the first two episodes. He’s a shell of himself, attempting to reconcile that his main mission in life — protecting his humans — has been a complete failure. Each day when Elizabeth goes to work, Six-Thirty is terrified that she’s so disgusted with him that she’ll never return. At the same time, that would be a relief, since her absence would mean he wouldn’t have to face what he’d done. Seeing Elizabeth, as much as he loves her, is a painful reminder of his mistake. It’s not the kind of feelings you’d expect a dog to have, but that’s part of the surprising beauty of “Living Dead Things.” It looks behind the adorable facade of Six-Thirty to investigate something deeper; grief isn’t just felt by humans.
Animals mourn — and help us mourn as well.
Calvin and Six-Thirty in happier days.
Credit: Apple TV+
The narration proves a crucial insight into Six-Thirty’s psyche without completely abandoning the show’s scientific bent. There’s actually a pop culture precedent for this in terms of dogs and their owners — there are multiple films about Hachikō, the dog who waited for his dead owner to return for almost a decade — but there is increasing evidence that all sorts of animals grieve. Animals can also help humans process grief, whether through co-regulation or simply because taking care of another living thing can give a grieving person purpose. While having Six-Thirty narrate the episode may feel like a strange departure, it’s a smart move for such an inquisitive show to explore that which we cannot fully understand.
Though Six-Thirty is wracked with guilt, he helps the best way he can: by being a companion to Elizabeth. She’d been doing the bare minimum of feeding him and letting him outside, but at the end of the episode, a heartbroken Elizabeth finally goes outside with Six-Thirty. This is their first real moment together in what feels like forever. They walk in the middle of the road in the quiet of the night. Suddenly, Six-Thirty remembers something Calvin told him about running — something Calvin loved to do.
“‘That’s the beauty of running,’ he’d say. ‘When you don’t think you can move forward. When you’re sad about your yesterdays or not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, your purpose is just being there, putting one foot in front of the other.'”
As the dog recalls this advice, it’s as if Elizabeth remembers it too, summoning up the strength to start running to connect herself to Calvin, alongside Six-Thirty, who promptly runs with her. Elizabeth has become so overwhelmed with grief, and on top of that, all of her research with Calvin has been taken from her. She feels like she’s back to square one, and she’s lost the great love of her life. But she still has Six-Thirty, and the opportunity to start again and fight harder than ever before.
“One foot,” Six-Thirty repeats, which is all it takes. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that overwhelming grief feels more manageable with each step. “And then, sure enough,” Six-Thirty tells us, “you’ll be home.”
How to watch: Lessons in Chemistry is now streaming on Apple TV+.