This Is Us Had an Oddly Unsettling Ending This Week
NBC pulled no punches on Tuesday night with the second episode of This Is Us season three, “A Philadelphia Story.”
Side-stepping the epically emotional Jack Pearson saga for a moment, the series went straight into a much more insidious issue. Yes, “A Philadelphia Story” briefly segued into other storylines — Toby’s antidepressant withdrawal leading to erratic behavior, Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) disagreeing about IVF, Kevin struggling to build a serious relationship with Zoe — but at it's core, this episode was all about Randall, played by Sterling K. Brown.
Unconsciously summing up the episode in its final minutes, Randall tells his wife, Beth, “Stuff’s always complicated for me — just where I fit in, how I come off to certain people. Either I’m trying too hard or I’m not trying enough. I can never get it right.” He's referring to his position as a black man adopted into a white family — and all of the contradictions and expectations that come with it. As the black adopted child of white parents and brother to two white siblings, Randall’s arc touches on the type of identity politics that we rarely see on network TV — but it wasn't until the final moments of the show that we got a brutally honest picture of how complicated those family dynamics can actually be.
While Kate tries to validate her decision to forego adoption for IVF treatment, she tells her skeptical mother that she’s the only one in the family who can “carry on a piece of dad,” implying that Kevin won’t ever settle down. Randall, who already has two children of his own, is excluded from the conversation completely. When Kevin later relays the conversation to his brother, Randall is hurt and confounded.
“She said she was the only one who could pass on a piece of dad?” he repeats, incredulous. Randall turns a cold gaze to Kate, who smiles and waves. We’re left with a shot of a thoughtful and downtrodden Randall in the moments before the episode’s credits roll.
The episode, which pivots between not two but three timelines, focuses on Randall’s acceptance to historically black college Howard University, his dedication to the apartment building his biological father lived in, and, in a change-up, a rare look at his biological father and his impact in that very building around 15 years prior. The point of it all? Randall doesn’t belong to any one group, unable to find security in both his identity within his adoptive family, and with his biological black father.
When it comes to children raised by parents of different races, this very disconnect is quite common.
In a Time article written by a white mother raising two black children, Karen Valby conveys the struggles many multi-racial families face. Two of the presumptions surrounding the role of parents in these situations is that “color doesn’t matter” and that conversations about race only create problems. Both of these, she posits, are false.
“Part of loving your child is seeing and loving the color of her skin—and accepting the reality that she will likely be painfully pigeonholed sometime in her life because of it,” Valby stated.
It's a nuanced issue for the network drama to touch upon, a move that This is Us doesn't seem like it's afraid of making (last week, the show touched on Toby's mental health issues in a very raw way). Perhaps Randall was marred by his upbringing in a white family. Though Rebecca and Jack didn’t shy away from pep talks or opportunities to help Randall understand how he became a part of their family, they didn’t make an explicit effort to connect him to his roots, either.
At any rate, it’s interesting to see a series exploring this mostly untouched dynamic — and more interesting yet that the conflict was left unresolved at the close of This is Us’ 42-minute installment. Perhaps next week there will be a stronger moment of self-actualization for Randall — then again, as in many real life cases, maybe not.