March 17 was the finale for the fourth season of the NBC show, “This Is Us.”
Set in Pittsburgh, the story follows three seemingly unconnected young adults who share a birthday. “The average human being,” we’re told, “shares his or her birthday with more than 18 million people.”
In the pilot we see that Kate, a morbidly obese personal assistant, celebrates her 36th birthday by recommitting to losing weight. Kevin is an actor famous for starring on a popular sitcom. On his 36th birthday, he states his dissatisfaction with the role and abruptly quits in front of a live audience. A successful businessman, Randall, marks the same 36th birthday by finding and confronting his biological father, William, who abandoned him at a fire station on the day he was born.
We eventually discover that Kate, Kevin, and Randall are siblings. In many ways the show is about them (the big three). In 1980 their mother, Rebecca Pearson, lost one of her triplets during birth. Kevin and Kate are the surviving pair; Randall – brought to the same hospital by a fireman – is their adopted brother. By the time we get to the last two episodes of season four, many fans, my friends included, are disappointed in Randall.
Without giving too much away, Randall isn’t as emotionally developed as most of us would like him to be. But here’s my question. In 72 episodes have we really examined what it was like for Randall to grow up in a white family?
Why does that matter? Randall is Black.
One of my friends recently asked me why I loved the show. It’s because of my favorite character, Beth Pearson, Randall’s wife. Her storyline is one of the only Black female characters on television that I’ve ever related to. I was halfway through the first season of “This is Us” before I realized why Beth seemed so real to me. Unlike most shows on primetime television, “This is Us” has Black directors and writers.
The Black directors for the show are Academy Award-winner Regina King, and George Tillman Jr. (director of “Soul Food”). The writing ensemble includes Black female writers Kay Oyegun, (“Queen Sugar”) and Jas Waters, (“What Men Want”). They make up part of a 30 percent Black core writing staff that far outpaces the industry standard of 5 percent.
These are the people who create Beth, and this is why I “know her.” Actually, I don’t just know her, I’ve been her. I am 12 years older than Susan Kelechi Watson, the actress who plays the “adult” Beth. As I watch her character unfold, I can’t help but think how real life “Beths” get told how “lucky” we are. For those of us who spent our 30s managing a career, raising three kids, and supporting the “perfect” Black husband; our luck is the product of design.
Beth Pearson, originally Bethany Clarke, was accepted into a prestigious ballet academy for high school and hoped to become a pioneering African-American principal dancer. Her parents, Abe and Carol Clarke, worked long hours to pay her tuition. Four years later, Beth didn’t get a critical showcase solo, and shortly after getting this bad news, her father died of lung cancer. In the midst of the family tragedy, her mom stopped paying for her dancing and convinced Beth to attend college.
While moving into Carnegie Mellon, Beth has a chance encounter with then 17-year-old Randall Pearson, who is obviously in love with her at first sight. Beth’s mother doesn’t want Beth to marry Randall because she sees his brokenness. Beth doesn’t listen to her mother any more than my teenage daughter listens to me.
A few years after college, Beth marries Randall, and he is undoubtedly the lucky one. Randall needs Beth because she can see his racial trauma in ways that his white family just can’t. We eventually learn that Randall has a hard time acknowledging this wound as well.
Randall’s childhood is racially messy. In Season 1, Episode 4, “The Pool,” Randall gets out of the public pool and finds his way to play with the Black children who are sitting at the pool’s edge. Rebecca is upset, not because he’s with Black kids, but because she thinks that he’s wandered off. When Rebecca introduces herself to one of the Black moms, the woman says that she knows who Rebecca is. “When a white family adopts a Black child and doesn’t introduce themselves to any of us, we tend to take notice.”
The Black mom gently suggests that Randall needs a “proper” hair cut because he wouldn’t have razor bumps on his neck if Rebecca took him to a barber that knew how to cut Black hair. Rebecca is defensive and can’t receive the feedback. Rebecca, who is otherwise warm and charming, could have tried to make friends with “Black pool mom,” but instead walks away.
As the parents of a transracially adopted child, she and her husband Jack stand on the periphery of the Black cultural experience that will inevitably be Randall’s adult life. Instead of managing their discomfort by engaging Black parents, they turn to each other.
In fact, the encounter with “Black pool mom” is actually preceded by an opening scene where Jack and Rebecca admit to each other that they don’t know if Randall needs sunscreen or not. The proof that they don’t feel comfortable enough with Black people to ask someone is that Randall is already eight.
It takes until Season 1, Episode 7, for one of Randall’s white family members to acknowledge the importance of Randall’s Blackness. Randall never has a conversation about race with his sister Kate. It isn’t until Kevin and Randall get into a physical altercation on the street that race becomes “real.” Onlookers stop to show concern about the fight, and Kevin is able to read the racial anxiety of the crowd. He tells them that everything is OK – he and Randall are brothers. Randall is grateful and tells Kevin it’s the only time that he has “claimed” him. They are 36.
Throughout the show it becomes clear that Randall is locked out of the closeness that Kate and Kevin share. Randall’s response is to cling to their mother Rebecca too tightly, and this is why many viewers become disappointed with Randall in the last two episodes of Season 4.
It is easy to judge Randall for his control issues, but how soon we forget that in Season 1, Episode 8, Beth, (Randall’s Black wife), gives Rebecca, (Randall’s adoptive white Mom) an ultimatum that she has to confess that she hid Randall’s Black biological father from him for 36 years.
Rebecca thinks that she was “protecting” Randall from William, because William is an addict. We need to remember that her husband Jack is a codependent alcoholic who gives their binge eating daughter, Kate, food, and passes on his alcoholic tendencies to Kevin. Randall sees Rebecca’s deception as the ultimate betrayal and doesn’t speak to her again until Episode 10.
Beth can foresee the consequences. This is not your typical mother/son disagreement. Rebecca has committed the sin of racial neglect, and Randall is left to do penance.
The scriptwriters were also able to craft a story that explains that by the young age of 10, Randall’s growing up Black in a white family will have a long-term impact. It’s there, but you won’t see it if you are colorblind.
In Season 1, Episode 13, we see the disparity at the big three’s 10th birthday party. Randall only has a handful of classmates show up, while Kevin and Kate have lots of friends. One could argue that it’s because Randall is socially awkward, (which he is), but I think we need to ask ourselves if that’s just his personality, or if his anxiety has kicked in by the fifth grade. Experts in transracial adoption might suggest that it was Jack and Rebecca’s job to expose all three of their children to Black families – like the one that Beth grew up in.
The only time that Jack and Rebecca protect Randall from racism is Season 2, Episode 4. Against Rebecca’s objections, her mother Janet arrives and is snowed in with the Pearsons. Janet is judgmental, socially tone-deaf, and ostracizes Randall. Rebecca confronts Janet, calls her a racist, and demands she leave as soon as possible. Randall overhears. Janet admits she can’t help feeling differently about Randall, but she takes an interest in his science project after originally asking why he doesn’t play basketball.
Even though Rebecca and Jack don’t see color, society does. In Season 2, Episode 7, Jack and Rebecca prepare to finalize Randall’s adoption when Randall is a year old. Their caseworker gives a glowing recommendation, but their judge is against interracial adoption. The judge eventually recuses himself, and a new judge grants the adoption.
As controversial as this statement might be, the first judge might have had a point. Jack and Rebecca are good parents and good people, but you can’t “love” racism away. They don’t even try to learn anything about Black culture while living in Pittsburgh during the 1990s. There really is no excuse for that. Randall should have known families like the Clarkes before he left for college. When he meets Beth he isn’t just yearning for love, he’s yearning for Blackness. At the age of 17, Beth is the only person, and eventually the only Pearson, who thinks it’s important for Randall to connect with Black culture.
Jack expects teenage Randall to attend Harvard, but Randall prefers the historically Black college, Howard. While Jack takes the official tour, a friend shows Randall around. Randall tells Jack that others’ reactions make him feel “off balance” as the only Black member in his family. Jack deflects this by talking about his re-entry as a Vietnam veteran.
Jack’s character is revered in the show. We learn that he dies when the big three are in the 12th grade. Despite his commitment to family, “Saint” Jack doesn’t have any words of comfort for Randall when he misses the prom after red-headed Allison's father won’t let her to go with Randall, because he is Black. Once again, this situation was easily avoidable if Randall had been introduced to both Akeelahs and Allisons.
Jack was even threatened when Randall had a Black male teacher. Jack invites Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence for dinner. The interactions between Jack and Mr. Lawrence are awkward. Mr. Lawrence had planned to gift Randall a copy of Langston Hughes’ Weary Blues, but instead gives it to Jack. We have no indication that Jack reads it or understands that Randall’s weary blues might be (B)lack.
This racial trauma is the house that Jack and Rebecca built. Randall inherits it, and Beth marries it.
Beth ends up the heroine in a three generation, racially mixed family. From my perspective, Beth is the strongest character in the show. She is solid and she sees her husband clearly for who he is, while fighting to maintain her own identity under his need for control. When they have marital problems and he ends up sleeping at his office, Beth is the one who finds a solution that everyone can live with.
Every heroine has a tragic flaw. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, Beth’s flaw is that love is never any better than the lover. Randall needs Beth to be Michelle Obama, yet he isn’t insightful enough to realize that he isn’t Barack. When Randall insists that he doesn’t need therapy, Beth shares with him that she needs him to go.
When Randall’s (white female) therapist tells him that he hasn’t forgiven his white adoptive mother for hiding his Black biological father from him for 36 years, Beth quips, “Why are we paying for therapy?” It’s as if she has a thought bubble above her head that reads, “Even Stevie Wonder could see that.”
Randall’s therapist points out that they are in Philadelphia and that he could have chosen a Black male therapist. Instead he chooses a white woman, roughly the age that Rebecca was when Jack died. The therapist is the only white character in the show to recognize his racial trauma. I don’t know if white viewers pick up on this, but as a Black viewer, and admittedly a race scholar, what I learn from this is that white people need a doctorate in psychology to acknowledge what Beth can see on her first day of college.
The therapist encourages Randall to confront Rebecca about her deception. Instead, he makes a choice that many viewers seem to reject. He emotionally blackmails Rebecca into entering a clinical trial that she does not want to participate in. Randall’s neediness and perfectionism fuel a competitiveness for his mother’s love – to the point of pushing her to prove not only that she chooses him over his siblings, but that she is willing to possibly spend her last months of mental clarity away from Kate and Kevin, which will prove her love for Randall.
It’s not a good look. Certainly not one of his finest moments, and the audience has reason to be disappointed by Randall’s manipulation of his mother. That’s fair. However, Rebecca might have agreed so quickly because, self- help books like “Simple Abundance” teach that “regrets are wounds from which the soul never recovers.” Rebecca has wounded Randall’s soul. She has regret, but he’s the one who doesn’t recover.
I also urge fans to consider Randall’s desperation. He never meets his biological mother who overdoses when he is a baby. Jack dies when he’s 17, and his biological father William dies less than a year after Randall finds him. Kate and Kevin are resentful for Randall’s need to control, but this is what women like Beth and I know … Randall wants to save Rebecca, but he doesn’t have the tools to save himself. Randall can’t see his racial trauma because he was taught not to look. Rebecca broke Randall, but Beth will have to fix him.
Saving Randall will be a full-time job and won’t leave much room for Beth to love herself. It’s quite the burden for one Black woman to bear. But, real talk; this is us.
Duchess Harris, JD, PhD is a professor of American Studies at Macalester College. You can find her other publications at www.duchessharris.com.