Randall Pearson is a petty, cruel turd, and I love that for him.
In 2018, Sterling K. Brown guest-starred in an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine titled “The Box.” In it, Brown plays a dentist, one Jake and Captain Holt have deemed clearly guilty of murdering his partner, but who is holding up and keeping his cool under the pressure of the interrogation. He’s arrogant, he’s cold-hearted and he’s always one step ahead of the cops, and even when he admits to the murder, he’s boastful and sees himself as exceptional — it’s that exceptionalism that leads him to inadvertently confess in the first place.
The Season 4 finale of This is Us proves that Randall Pearson, the character that made Brown a primetime TV mainstay, might actually be a bigger psychopath.
No, Randall Pearson is not a murderous, pill-addicted dentist. But in the final episode of the season, which I consumed in its entirety in less than three days after it arrived on Canadian Netflix in late September, Randall reveals that there is but a paper-thin barrier standing between himself — soft-spoken, composed and dorky — and utter depravity. His words to Kevin aren’t just harsh, they’re gratuitous and cutting. They’re exactly the kind of vitriol that doesn’t materialize in the heat of the moment, but was locked in a vault of one’s greatest shame. They’re the angry letter you wrote with the intention of never sending because you heard that’s a healthy thing to do. They’re the sleepy fantasies in which you eviscerate your grade school bully by finding the exact combination of devastating words you never found when you were young. They’re so intentionally cruel that it’s impossible to divorce them from the context of Kevin’s addictions. It’s clear that Randall knows he is likely pushing him toward a relapse and doesn’t care.
For me, it solidified that I had indeed come to a turning point with This is Us. For the first few years, the show had been more of a guilty pleasure than anything; it was a safe show to like which could give me something to discuss with other women my age. I knew that it employed emotional manipulation with ease, and I accepted that it was filled with gratuitous grief porn. But for the last two years there was a slight redeeming quality to it, and in Randall’s final speech, I knew for sure that the show was fully aware of this: the show has known, probably all along, that the Big Three — and Jack and Rebecca — are actually the worst. They’re terrible, terrible people.
It spent the first two years of the show working overtime to lionize certain Pearsons, Clarks, Hills and Damons, and the next two years taking subtle jabs at their respective legacies, revealing that it’s fully aware that every single character on the show is prone to selfishness, cruelty and extremely judgmental tendencies. And yet, what purpose do the show’s parallel timelines and childhood flashbacks serve if not to demonstrate that none of these flaws preclude the characters from being sympathetic? The characters’ trauma is real and it shapes the adults they are, but This is Us has shown remarkable restraint by not confusing sympathy for likeability.
I have to hand it to the show, because for a long time, it fooled me. I thought the show had no self-awareness, that it wanted us to all fawn over these beautiful yet vulnerable characters and write their flaws off as quirks. I now fully believe that Dan Fogelman and the writers of This is Us know that Randall Pearson is a psychopath. And my hat’s off to them.
Writing characters for television comes with different challenges from writing characters in a single book or movie. While there are more opportunities to provide backstory, personal history and pathology for characters, it’s also easy for that pathology to become contradictory, to be introduced without much lead-up or follow-up, and for characters to be essentially re-written entirely from episode to episode and calling that “character development.” Conventional network television also comes with a tremendous pressure to make characters likeable or, at the very least, layered enough to find some shred of likeability. The longer a TV show runs, the more audiences will ask themselves why they’re still bothering to pay attention to a character whose depths have not yet been explored.
And so, writers “develop” the characters. The more competent writers rooms do so by telegraphing early on what is already underneath and then using the character’s journey to unearth those qualities — Breaking Bad is the crown jewel example of this. Walter White does not “turn into” a controlling egomaniac with relative indifference toward violence; we know from episode one that those qualities exist within Walter and it is his newfound circumstances that help to bring them out. Lesser writers rooms mistake trauma for character development. I usually point to 13 Reasons Why as the most egregious example of this. By the final season, that show takes pretty much every major character through either a sexual assault, the death or abandonment of a parent, a full-on mental breakdown, physical trauma or something that realistically should take a character to a point of being catatonic. It’s even used to rehabilitate a character who killed someone else in cold blood, without any true remorse or attempt at reparations on their part. It does this instead of having characters actually take proactive steps toward introspection and self-discovery. While that show is the most cartoonish example of it due to the sheer scale, it is the ideal example of how television shows tend to redeem and develop through gratuitous action rather than actually having characters work out their issues through therapy, introspection and self-care. Those things might help you become a better person, but they don’t make for good TV. And this This is Us did initially come off like the kind of show that required characters to be traumatized rather than redeemed, the longer it goes on, the more it shows that indeed, this traumatic event didn’t make the character more likeable or more balanced. It fucked them up and they’re now a super-weird adult.
It’s rare for shows to demonstrate an ability to balance a lack of likeability with an abundance of sympathy. Once the element of sympathy is introduced, shows feel compelled to make those characters more likeable as well. It’s even present in comedies; in Parks and Recreation, Ben is introduced as an overly serious, prickly, humourless and uncaring accountant; as soon as he’s humanized through his backstory as a disgraced ex-mayor with severe social anxiety he loses almost all of these qualities and his over-seriousness is only ever used to contrast him to Leslie. Most of the time, viewers are supposed to be on Ben’s side and see his point of view; at no point do we ever have to feel like it’s hard to root for Ben. There’s a misconception that it’s hard to feel sorry for a character if we don’t also like them. And this isn’t entirely divorced from reality — the lengths we go to prove that victims of violence and discrimination were “no angel” demonstrate that many of us might not be capable to view a person as more than the sum of their parts.
Randall was once the most sacred and untouchable character of This is Us’s cast, not only because he was handsome, funny and boasted excess chemistry with his onscreen wife, but also because he had such an impossibly sympathetic backstory. He’s what the TVTropes crowd would refer to as “the Woobie”: abandoned as a baby and adopted into a family for an absurd-bordering-on-arbitrary reason, growing up alienated from his siblings, classmates and neighbours due to his race, meeting his birth father only to have him die less than a year later and suffering from panic attacks since childhood basically make him trauma incarnate. It’s not much of a stretch to say that most of my motivation for tuning in from episode to episode in Season 1 was to see, “What else are they going to put Randall through” and “How will he prevail?” As addictive as that is, it’s not necessarily the sign of a quality show, and by Season 2 I was beginning to wonder if This is Us could have much to offer beyond trauma porn.
(By contrast, Season 1 made Kevin Pearson have to work for redemption. As a good-looking, self-absorbed actor whose life situation was so far removed from reality that it absolutely undermined the “relatable” title of “This is Us”, Kevin’s presence served as little more than an irritant. Not only was Kevin forced to redeem himself through sacrifice in order to be considered likeable, but he also had to specifically redeem himself by taking a dive to save Randall.)
Randall’s selfishness and ego showed hints in the second season before fully stepping into the spotlight in the third season, during his city council run. At the very least, the show writers demonstrated that they knew that Randall was misguided for this new mission, and they went to lengths to show the strain that it put on his marriage and personal life. Still, the show has also displayed a repeat tendency to still reward Randall for his impulsive ego; his performative removal of his office door was sneered at by one of his more experienced staffers, and despite the show leading us to believe that he would come upon a moment of introspection, his ultimate response is to fire her. At times it feels as though the show can’t bring itself to let Randall fail. His unseating of a very popular incumbent in his race to become a city councillor when he was not even a resident of Pennsylvania was evidence enough of this. But lately the show has teetered on an interesting edge: have Randall learn even harsher lessons — or the wrong lessons — when he succeeds.
His pummeling of the purse snatcher, for example, is the perfect juxtaposition. On the outside, it’s heroic and noble. On the inside, Randall is an unstable mess. When he seeks treatment for his anxiety, his therapist — Bobby Hill herself, Pamela Adlon, in a delightful portrayal of a humourless mental health professional who seems to be one of the only people in Pennsylvania not enchanted by Randall — succinctly calls out the way he projects his trauma onto those around him and his utterly skewed sense of self-perception. And while Randall acknowledges her assessment, he stops just short of fully processing it, and then in turn weaponizes it against Rebecca. Over the next few episodes, the real Randall finally reveals himself to his family: he has never let go of the idea that he is a victim, and it’s up to others around him to repay him for his misfortunes.
It’s an ugly, emotionally immature and petty side of his. And while three years ago, the audience might have viewed Kevin as an acceptable target of his wrath, Kevin is now a character bathed in context — not necessarily redemption, but context. When Randall gloats that Kevin’s “chasing Dad” (already a brutal blow) was really chasing Randall, most viewers will grip their seats and cringe knowing that those taunts are a recipe for relapse.
This is Us is not necessarily a show about family, but rather a show about legacy. After spending two seasons with its tiresome “how does Jack Pearson die?” taunting, it finally got down to business: yes, Jack Pearson died of a heart attack after a house fire. Yes, Jack Pearson died a hero. Yes, Jack Pearson lives forever in the minds of his children as the selfless backbone of the family. But as the show goes on and explores life after Jack, it touches on a discomforting reality we all deal with: the fact that we lionize the dead, especially in our families. The third and especially fourth season of the show explore the sides of Jack that are ugly, awkward and incomplete, the sides that none of his children are capable of viewing objectively. It demonstrates the ways in which Jack’s intentions come up short, and the fact that sometimes, Jack is more motivated by being seen as a helper than actually being a helper. His “colourblind” approach to parenting Randall is eviscerated, and his awkward competitiveness with Randall’s teacher creates butter-thick tension. Still, the Big Three remember Jack for his rousing speeches and affectionate nicknames. The most realistic vision of Jack we see is in Randall’s “worst-case scenario” prediction for his life after the fire, in which a rift has formed between Jack and Rebecca, and Randall has pulled away from his family. In this vision, Jack is gruff, detached and has lost his zest for life — and the fact that this exists all in Randall’s subconscious says that he knows there was a part of Jack that wasn’t all he seemed to be.
Meanwhile, poor Rebecca, the homemaker, the clueless one, has spent her post-Jack years with the “lesser parent” shadow hanging over her. Rebecca wasn’t the unlucky one for surviving the fire because she had to soldier on without her spouse; she was the unlucky one for surviving the fire because she had to continue to live and be human, to make wrong decisions, to piss off her children, to alienate people. We still haven’t seen what the Big Three’s reaction was when she got together with Miguel, but judging by the fact that even in 2016 they weren’t fond of him, my guess is we’ll be treated to another delicious Big Three overreaction. After all, we’ve already seen how long her children hold a grudge for something like not picking up on the queues of an emotionally abusive boyfriend, not having the right reaction to a surprise wedding and, for Randall, needing a bit of help around the house.
Only now that the dark cloud of Alzheimer’s has befallen Rebecca do the Big Three regard her as someone that they want to save as though she has run back into a burning house. Which says that even the Pearsons are guilty of what we all are: only being able to truly appreciate someone because they’ve endured life-changing tragedy.
Season 5 of This is Us premieres Oct. 27.