SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched “Chocolate Souffle,” the Season 1 finale of “Julia,” now streaming on HBO Max.
Season 1 of “Julia” on HBO Max ends on a cozy scene of domesticity emblematic of the show itself: After a series finale in which main character Julia Child (played by actor Sarah Lancashire) suffers a crisis of confidence and backs out of her popular cooking show “The French Chef,” she is ultimately convinced to return to the show by her husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce). Once a snob who tried to forbid Julia from participating in public television, Paul has since gone through a transformative arc, learning how to support his wife while still being his own person. Apologizing for his past behavior, Paul affirms his love for Julia and makes it clear to her how important her work on television really is.
With Julia and Paul’s relationship stronger than ever, and many of the other characters having found content in their personal and professional lives, the episode closes with the main cast gathering in their households with their loved ones to watch the latest episode of “The French Chef ” — a note that can serve both as a satisfactory closer for the season while also giving viewers a taste of more to come.
Although “Julia” follows the general story of “The French Chef’s” debut season on WGBH, in adapting the life of the culinary icon, creator Daniel Goldfarb and showrunner Chris Keyser didn’t chain themselves to documented history. The two did extensive research, but Goldfarb likened their approach to history as similar to the 1979 Peter Shaffer play “Amadeus” — using the facts as a launching pad for a story that includes completely original and imagined events.
“We read a lot of the books, a lot of the interviews, and obviously we watched countless episodes of ‘The French Chef’ and her appearances on talk shows, and from all of that, we started thinking about the themes that Julia could help us explore in the show,” Goldfarb says. “And we sort of imagine what might have been and what might have happened or could have happened.”
The series includes several fictionalized moments surrounding the key milestones of Julia’s journey. The near cancellation of the cooking show served as a way to explore what it means for Julia, and have her examine her own impact in a way the creators could n’t if they had stuck to the hard facts of her life story. It also gave them an opportunity to resolve one of the core themes of the show, which is how marriages grow and evolves through shifting power dynamics. As Paul went through his journey of finding himself in retirement throughout the show, having him convince Julia to keep the show going allowed their individual arcs to resolve while also resolving the central tension between them throughout the show.
“In order for us to explore the question of what would happen if Julia Child began to wonder what the meaning of her show was, that’s a conversation she and Paul would have to have together; she can’t say it herself,” Keyser says. “It also fit very well with Paul, that he can say, ‘We’re in our second chapter, but we’re just beginning and even if I’m taking a backseat in some ways to you, I’m just beginning. ‘ It just felt like a beautiful argument for him to make and the idea that they should come to terms with it together.”
In the narrative of the show, Julia’s crisis of confidence is inspired by a difficult conversation she had with feminist icon Betty Friedan (Tracee Chimo Pallero), when they meet at an awards gala. When pressed by Julia about how she views “The French Chef,” Friedan tells her honestly that she believes the show only reinforces rigid gender roles on women, quite literally encouraging them to stay in the kitchen.
Although her role in the story is somewhat antagonistic, Keyser and Goldfarb don’t think of Friedan’s portrayal as a negative or unflattering one. As Goldfarb points out, the conversation is spurred by Julia, with Friedan attempting to avoid the subject. Furthermore, Keyser says that when writing the show, they wanted the characters to have realistic viewpoints for the era the show immerses itself in, instead of writing the show with the viewpoint and knowledge of 2022.
“One of the things that we tried to do very much, over and over again, is say, let’s put ourselves in the moment and not know what we actually know in the future,” Keyser says. “If you were Betty Friedan in 1963 looking at Julia Child and what she represented, and the idea that she says, ‘Go into a kitchen and make fancy French meals that are going to take a bunch of hours,’ she could not possibly have seen the future and realize that to Julia Child’s real influence was not on how women cooked and their relationship with their husbands and their families and being a better housewife.”
According to Goldfarb, the meeting between the two women was a part of the show from when they first pitched the series. As Keyser puts it, the two wanted to use the show to explore how Julia and “The French Chef” fit into the developing feminist movement across the country, which was still in its infancy at the time the first season was airing.
“We knew she had an interesting relationship with feminism and what she represented and the extent to which she wanted to be seen as sort of a symbol of those things,” Keyser says. “We knew all that stuff. It was really a part of her life, but we chose to do it with a loop that didn’t change the history, but allowed us to explore this question that seemed interesting about why a woman dressed like a housewife in the 1950s in a kitchen would turn out to be a meaningful model for the empowerment of women.”
The artistic liberties that “Julia” takes with real life doesn’t stop at the central conflict of the last episode. The show also played with the details of many of the people surrounding Julia and Paul. Chief among them is the character of Alice (Brittany Bradford), a young Black producer on “The French Chef” who becomes Julia’s biggest ally at the station. The character isn’t based on a real person like the other leads, instead being a composite of many producers who worked at the station. In addition, she works at the station a bit earlier than it integrated in real life. According to Keyser, the decision was made because they wanted the show to explore race and feminism from the very beginning, as opposed to waiting to introduce these elements in later seasons.
“Because we are telling a story, the purpose of which is to illuminate the present through the past, it was not the best choice to say we’re going to wait two or three seasons for WGBH to change,” Keyser says. “It’s not that we wanted to say that Alice’s story was about sexism or about racism, but she certainly faces all of that, in addition to the normal challenges of life in much the same way as every other person in that show.”
In the last two episodes, Alice gets long-awaited breaks in both her professional life — where she receives a promotion — and her personal life, where she meets and develops a relationship with a handsome lawyer Isaac (Tosin Morohunfola). According to Goldfarb, the idea for the character of Isaac, and the introduction of a personal life to the character who, in the series is often singularly focused on her professional life, came about as a way to give her a social circle outside of the main cast and provide her a satisfying close arc for the last few episodes.
“The writers room, all of us, wanted a win for Alice,” Goldfarb says. “She’s so hard working and like, I think, all the characters in ‘Julia’ she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. There’s not a lot of self pity, just like there is n’t when she does n’t get to go to San Francisco or when she does n’t get credit for some of her ideas. It doesn’t stop her. So she she’s going to keep moving forward and she’s going to keep striving, and it just felt like she needed a win. ”
In terms of the future for the series, Goldfarb says they hope to cover the entire run of “The French Chef,” from 1963 to 1973. The decade is a politically rich era, encompassing the John F. Kennedy “Camelot” era to Watergate , and the writers plan to use the characters to dig into the changing social mores of the country.
“Julia had a whole third act after ‘The French Chef,’ and at least at this point, I don’t think this show is about that,” Goldfarb says. “It’s a really amazing decade in the history of America, and all the social changes taking place in the country, and using Julia as a way to explore all those ideas and themes feel really rich.”
With Season 2 of the show confirmed, the tentative plan is for each season to cover a different season in the making of “The French Chef.” Keyser teases that they plan to use a second season as an opportunity to feature more of Isabella Rossellini, who guest starred in a few episodes of the first season as Simone “Simca” Beck. Originally meant to be a bigger part of the show, Rossellini’s appearances were limited to a few phone calls throughout the season. Otherwise, the show will largely continue its pace and approach from the first season, telling small-scale stories about the characters and their day-to-day lives.
“We’ll take it in a year or year and a half at a time and there’ll be some big events,” Keyser says. “If you know her life story, you’ll know a little bit about it. It’s obviously about her growing influence and fame. What those high points are will be left to be discovered, but most of the show is not about that. Most of the show is about what happens amongst a group of people in between the public events and that’s not gonna be any different. And the food will still matter, of course.”