The No. 2 pencil in Elizabeth Zott’s hair in “Lessons in Chemistry” serves as a potent symbol of her resilience and inner strength. This specific physical trait, much like the distinctive features of other iconic fictional characters, sets Elizabeth apart in the narrative.
Portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson in the Apple TV Plus adaptation of Bonnie Garmus’ bestselling novel, Elizabeth is introduced to viewers as a chemist turned cooking show host. Her unique entrance involves plunging a pencil into her pulled-back bun just before going live for Supper at Six, a show that combines cooking with chemistry education.
Throughout the series, the No. 2 pencil remains a consistent presence in Elizabeth’s appearance, whether tucked behind her ear or securely lodged in her bun. What might initially seem like a trivial detail takes on greater significance through haunting flashbacks in episode 1. These flashbacks are triggered whenever someone enters a room with Elizabeth and closes the door behind them. It becomes clear that Elizabeth has a profound aversion to closed doors, demonstrated by the firm grip she maintains on her pencil in such moments. When Calvin Evans unknowingly triggers this reaction at the end of episode 1, Elizabeth abruptly leaves the room and severs all contact with him.
Initially, this choice to keep a pencil in her hair could be perceived as a stylistic or practical one, perhaps intended to emphasize Elizabeth’s intelligence to viewers. However, as viewers delve deeper into Elizabeth’s character, it becomes evident that this trait holds a far deeper significance. The No. 2 pencil serves as a security blanket, providing her with a sense of control and comfort.
Episode 2 takes us back to Elizabeth’s time as a UCLA PhD student in 1950. Her unwavering intelligence unsettles the men around her, much as it does in the present day. During her qualifying exam, her detailed answers leave the board in uncomfortable silence, except for Dr. Bates, who reacts similarly to Calvin Evans. However, the scene takes a dark turn when Dr. Bates sexually assaults Elizabeth. In a moment of self-defense, Elizabeth uses her pencil to fight back.
The aftermath of this traumatic event is deeply disheartening. Elizabeth faces the choice of submitting a “formal statement of regret” in order to continue her PhD. She refuses to apologize, boldly stating that her only “regret” is not having more pencils.
In the present day, Elizabeth continues to grapple with the impact of this traumatic event. Her PTSD is triggered by closed doors, reflecting the enduring effects of that fateful day. Her firm grip on the No. 2 pencil in moments of high anxiety is a poignant reminder of her determination to protect herself in a world that has not always been kind to her.
In summary, the No. 2 pencil in Elizabeth Zott’s hair is a powerful symbol of her resilience, defiance, and inner strength. It represents her ability to find comfort and control in a world that often seeks to diminish her. Through this seemingly small detail, Elizabeth emerges as a compelling and unforgettable character in “Lessons in Chemistry.”