The second episode of GENIUS solely followed young Einstein — this week, the jumping between timelines happened in Mileva Maric’s story, which was a welcome change. It’s going to be interesting to see if we follow different characters each episode, or if we’ll go back to Einstein exclusively — it seems like if you have Geoffrey Rush in your show, you should, like, put him in your show. But regardless of what happens going forward, this Mileva-centric episode was far more compelling than the previous one, even if at points, watching it as a woman, it felt like a horror film.
Mileva’s backstory is basically that she grew up brilliant and self-educated, with her father as her greatest advocate. He taught her that she could do anything, that she could be a scientist, that he would fight for her, and that she didn’t need a man to accomplish things. Her mother, however, was less keen to see her daughter, in this time period, grow up with a list of priorities that didn’t start with: 1. Marriage. It was easy to see, then, why Mileva was so hesitant to engage with Albert at first. She questions Professor Weber in class, and when he shuts her down, Albert jumps in to defend her.
The interaction that follows between them is both great and frustrating to watch — he goes to chat with her after class, and she chews him out for defending her when she didn’t need it. This is a scenario any woman, especially in a male-dominated field, can relate to. This sort of benevolent sexism is so common; men standing up for you when they feel you’re being treated unfairly, which they see as being compassionate or being an ally, but actually just undermines you in a way they don’t comprehend. So it’s great because it’s relatable. It’s frustrating because Mileva storms off, and a couple of guys come up to Albert and he’s like “golly gee I don’t know what’s up with her” and they go off to lunch. This will be Albert’s stance toward Mileva for the rest of the episode: he likes her, he cares for her, he admires her, but he has a very familiar white dude limit to his empathy where he just can’t be quiet long enough to put himself in her shoes.
Albert returns to the Winteler family, whom he stayed with in the last episode, and for all intents and purposes became engaged to Marie, but with his newfound intellectual pursuits it becomes clear that he and Marie are no longer suited to each other. They don’t have the same interests, and there isn’t anything to talk about. It’s clear in the scenes between them that Albert has decided to end things, but he doesn’t tell her. Instead, he ices her out, and she sends him gifts and letters and assumes he’s just distracted. Albert, meanwhile, is cultivating a relationship with Mileva. But at the end of the semester, Mileva realizes the potential Albert has to derail her life plans. We get flashbacks to a boy in grade school who used her for her academics, but taunted her outside of class. So Mileva moves to Heidelberg at the end of the semester to audit courses there, as she can’t officially enroll as a woman.
Albert writes her letters, and they discuss physics and science and whatever else brainy STEM people discuss. Clearly this brings them closer, but Mileva remains firm on not returning to Zurich. Albert starts to have trouble with his professors, especially Professor Weber, who resent his relentless questions and view them as impudence and disrespect as opposed to impersonal intellectual curiosity.
Mileva approaches one of her Professors in Heidelberg with an essay, looking to get him to petition for her to be able to officially take courses. Although he is supportive and respectful of her, he tells her that she’d be better off returning to Switzerland, where they’re more progressive.
And so she does. In the middle of a conversation with one of his school friends, who has since become engaged to Marie’s sister after visiting with Albert, where his friend is urging him to break things off with Marie officially instead of dragging her along, Albert spots Mileva and runs after her. And here’s where, as a woman, this episode transforms into a horror film.
Albert finds her in the library, and she basically tells him that if they’re going to pursue whatever’s between them, he has to promise her that they won’t get lost. She makes it clear that she’s held to different standards, that it’s more difficult for her as a woman in this world, and he promises her that they will help one another in their studies and he won’t derail her.
But of course he does. What follows is a montage of Albert exploiting Mileva for extensive emotional labor. They shack up in his room for ages, skipping classes at Albert’s urging, even when Mileva points out that while attendance isn’t necessary for students, it is necessary for her, who as the only woman in the program, must be above reproach. He suggests they work on a paper together, and they bounce theories off of one another — which is heartbreaking, knowing that Mileva Maric is not credited in any of Einstein’s work. Although historically there’s no real evidence that she contributed other than some thank yous from Einstein, the show seems to put forth the idea that she contributes heavily to his development. So her wrings her out, sapping up her energy and thoughts and hopes and dreams, all the while he still hasn’t broken things off with Marie. When Mileva finds a letter from her, she’s furious, and suddenly she realizes how much she’s sacrificed for this manchild who’s been using her, even if he didn’t intend to, and couldn’t even be bothered to break up with his previous fling.
With exams approaching, Albert attempts to catch up. He gets some notes from a friend and gives copies to Mileva as a peace offering, and she accepts his help in preparing for exams. When she does, I wanted to reach into the screen and snap her out of this whole thing — it’s not to say that Mileva doesn’t have culpability for letting her studies slide in favor of this physical and intellectual fling with Albert. But it is to say that he doesn’t suffer the same fate she does, that the price she pays for the exact same crime is much, much higher, and it’s something that happens famously to women all through history, and even to today.
Horror movie: brilliant young woman overcomes the odds to pursue her dreams. She works hard, but she falls in love. The man she falls for grows through their relationship, and they both let their priorities fall by the wayside. The man passes his exams and suffers no consequences for his behavior. The woman fails her exams, and ends up having to return home pregnant, unable to pursue her studies any further.
And that’s where we end. It was nice to get an episode focusing on Mileva, and really showcasing the small, subtle struggles women face when pursuing careers that aren’t traditionally “for” them that men don’t seem to understand because they’re not exactly tangible. But also, ouch. This is the worst thing about historical fiction — you know where the finish line is, even if there’s some leeway in how the characters get there. Low key heartbreaking as this episode was, it was nice to devote an hour to basically saying “god, Mileva deserved better.”
Season 1, Episode 2 (S01E02)
Genius airs Tuesdays at 9PM on Nat Geo
Alyssa Thorne | Contributor