This Is Us: “Brotherly Love” is a mix of on-the-nose and right-in-the-feels.

This Is Us, Season 5, episode 13

“Brotherly Love”

Dir. Kay Onyegun

Wri. Jon Dorsey

There’s an unspoken truth about This Is Us — about the series as a whole, about the diegesis that we see before us, about the inciting incident that kicked off all of this action, that pulled us viewers in in the first place: that it all started with William Hill.

Sure, there are aspects of the show’s universe that predate Randall Pearson, that predate his abandonment at a fire station, that predate even William Hill. William Hill had no impact on how Jack Pearson met and charmed Rebecca Malone; William Hill had no impact on teenage Kate’s abusive, destructive relationship; William Hill had no impact on Jack’s untimely death.

But the whole incident that sparked the present-day narrative and that made this family so much more compelling — more worthy of a primetime drama slot than just a sitcom actor having a meltdown on set or an overweight woman trying to find love in LA or a sixtysomething grandmother who married her late husband’s best friend — was Randall Pearson knocking on the door of his biological father, William Hill. So in the very last act of “Brotherly Love,” when Kevin finally acknowledges that ever since Randall met William more than four years ago the rift between them has been even more pronounced, it should have been obvious to me, a dedicated viewer. And yet, it brought about a whole new perspective on the show.

This Is Us might be about the ensemble, but it’s impossible to contextualize the ensemble without understanding all of the ways in which Randall’s existence within that ensemble complicates things — even if his parents insist that it’s a very uncomplicated familial love. In a sense, This Is Us has always been about Randall. And Kevin sure feels that way.

The show has spent five seasons demonstrating in flashbacks how Kevin, as a character, is simply pathos incarnate. He is the only one of his siblings who is not “the only.” Kate is the only girl. Randall is the only Black and adopted sibling. Kevin is not academically gifted and, as a smaller child, is hyperactive and a bit of a pain, so he might already get fewer favours than the much more well-behaved Randall. But the conspicuousness of Randall’s special treatment — which we can see as adults comes mostly from attempts to compensate for tragic awkwardness — is lost on young Kevin. Little Kevin waiting for a Mr. Rogers taping is so excited and so focused on what is before him that he doesn’t even see the stagehand (who looks an awful lot like Mitch Marner) mistake Randall for someone else’s child.

On that note, it’s hard to get a lot out of child actors who are so young, so the choice of director Kay Onyegun to focus instead on intense silences is not only smart, but also heartbreaking. The wee Randall — the incredible Lathan Moore — acts mostly with his eyes and face, with only a few key lines (including his whisper to Daniel Striped Tiger that he sometimes imagines a different family). But the look in his eyes is all you need. When he gazes longingly and lovingly at the weatherman on TV after the taping, his brother doesn’t understand or probably care all that much. But we known in the present day why he loved that weatherman — he was the most prominent Black male adult Randall was exposed to at the time. His female counterpart was the sweet Black librarian who adored Randall (and seriously: who wouldn’t?) and thus, the two became the king and queen of his “ghost kingdom.”

After a tense present-day visit between Randall and Kevin, in which the latter doesn’t want to admit that he might have played an active part in Randall’s pain and isolation, and the former isn’t sure he’s prepared to accept an apology of any kind anyway. One of the problems with people like Kevin is that he’s a person who wants to do well, but he also already thinks he’s doing the right thing. Kevin thinks his own intentions are good, which is why we can see so much frustration on his face when his rehearsed apology doesn’t land right. He wasn’t expecting having to defend his apology, to back it up, to hear a rebuttal from Randall. And he really loses sympathy when he follows Randall outside despite Randall needing some time to think — showing that Kevin really does overbear people into giving into him sometimes.

It’s the second week in a row we have an utterly sitcommy setup — Randall and Kevin are now locked outside Randall’s house — although the solution is much more simple and simply involves Randall asking a sweet, slightly annoying neighbour for her spare key. On the way to and from his neighbour’s place, Randall confesses to Kevin that sometimes he imagines never being adopted, and Kevin predictably tells Randall that he sees this as ungrateful.

If I may step back for a moment: I do tend to skim over other reviews of these episodes before posting mine, just to ensure that I’m not clouded by my own perceptions. And I’ve noticed that while all of these reviews talk about the race aspect of Randall’s childhood, very few discuss the adoption aspect, even in an episode as obviously about adoption (transracial adoption, to be clear) as this one. I’m not a transracial adoptee, but it’s a topic I’ve been reading a lot about in recent years. It started with my following of lifestyle blogger Elsie Larson, who has two adopted daughters from China (both of whom also have albinism). That led me to follow her friend Martha Bonneau, who has two slightly older girls from China and Inner Mongolia (the younger of whom also has albinism). Bonneau has talked extensively about the complexities of transracial adoption without ever centering herself; not only is there no saviour complex there, but she also makes great efforts to elevate the voices of adoptees, especially adult adoptees. When her elder daughter expressed interest in wanting to meet her birth family, her adoptive family spared no efforts to find them — and they did eventually travel to China and meet. Now, she will refer to her elder daughter’s birth parents as her “mom and dad” or sometimes “China mom and dad.” It doesn’t make her daughter less her daughter, but it’s an important acknowledgement that with adoption comes the loss of another family, and that family is a valid family. Additionally, the stories of adult transracial adoptees show that this is not the kind of thing that typically happened a generation ago. Many millennial transracial adoptees don’t know the native language of their parents (communicated in last week’s episode), don’t know how to make the foods their parents make and are made to feel ungrateful for holding that grief.

So when Kevin straight-up calls Randall ungrateful, it feels a little on-the-nose to me, but then again, this isn’t the type of thing that’s talked about a lot. It’s certainly less annoyingly on-the-nose than some of the discussions about racism — like when Randall informs Kevin that just because he was not, in Kevin’s words, a “grand wizard” who was outwardly racist toward his brother doesn’t mean he also perpetuated microaggressions (he even uses the word microaggressions, as well as “othering”!), like handing his teenage brother a fake ID of a Black man who is larger, older, balder and lighter-skinned than Randall.

The mid-aged Kevin and Randall stuff is probably the weakest aspect of the story, simply because of the artlessness in the style of direction. It feels a tad rushed, spends way too much time in the dark (that poor cab driver) and the tension feels inconsistent. It is a nice way to show how Randall has also been a bit of a dick to Kevin, and I will say that for as much praise as I’m always heaping on Parker Bates for matching Justin Hartley’s expressions and body language, Logan Shroyer does a formidable job here as well. Perhaps my only real problem with Shroyer is that he’s started looking barely younger than Justin Hartley, so it’s much harder to reconcile that he’s the visage in between Bates and Hartley.

In the present, Randall finally gives Kevin the perspective that is still new to him, sharing his “ghost kingdom” with him. When he admits, though, that he always felt guilty imagining the kingdom because of how much he loved his adoptive family — hi, Mandy Moore! — that’s when the tears threaten to flow. Randall also, in this moment, takes (some) accountability for manipulating Rebecca and apologizes to Kevin for everything he said a year ago. All seems mostly well — you can never count on everything being perfect on this show — and at the end, when Randall sleeps, he goes to a new ghost kingdom, one where William plays his trumpet and Laurel lovingly makes dinner for their son. If the tears weren’t flowing during Randall’s kitchen confession, they are flowing now.

The Good

  • Niles Fitch really is fantastic at portraying Randall-before-he-became-cool.
  • The lone shot of Mandy Moore in this episode really does capture the way tiny Randall saw his mom as an angelic figure of sorts.
  • We finally acknowledge that it’s public knowledge that Kevin walked off a set and still has a movie to finish.

The Bad

  • Beth and the girls are accounted for, but where is Mama C supposed to be?
  • Are we just never going to acknowledge again that Beth owns a dance studio?
  • Adding to the “just how famous is Kevin?” confusion, we’re just learning now that Kevin — within the present timeline of the show — was nominated for a Golden Globe? Okay.
  • I hate to say it, because I love Justin Hartley, but scenes that focus solely on him and Brown really reveal how much Brown acts circles around him.

Episode MVP

  • Sterling K. Brown (again), Lathan Moore, Logan Shroyer

I have a lot of feelings about movies and TV shows that would be embarrassing if it weren’t 2020.