This is Us: In “Birth Mother,” we are apparently talking to ghosts now

This Is Us

“Birth Mother”

Dir. Kay Oyegun

Wri. Eboni Freeman and Kay Oyegun

8.5/10

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I won’t lie — there is a lot one could dislike about last night’s episode of This is Us.

I seemed to be in the minority last week of being barely lukewarm on an episode most people seemed to enjoy, so I have a feeling I will be back in the minority this week, loving an episode that I know in my heart is not among the series best.

After all, this episode seems to be solidifying an unlikeable pattern that is emerging this season. Last week, Kate’s post-Marc trauma was lifted off her almost as quickly as her pregnancy and abortion storyline was introduced, liberating her in an annoyingly uncomplicated way. This week, we have the same for Randall; Sterling K. Brown spends most of the episode in stunned silence with moistened eyes and a slack jaw, only to let out a cathartic scream and drive out of New Orleans a new man. His birth mother loved him after all! It’s a beautiful moment that still feels conspicuously unearned; Randall only found out last episode (one week ago, in our universe) that Laurel survived her overdose. It puts some understandable yet still very convenient bows on the Laurel plot, and it gives Randall such a reprieve from his trauma we have to think, “Okay, where is the rest of this season even going?” (If the final act is any indication, we’re about to get a “what was Kevin up to this whole time?” episode next week, similar to the Hell of a Week trio of episodes).

And, I can’t ignore the fact that I have grown weary in search of meaningful Rebecca content — especially present-day Rebecca content. While I understand that this episode needs to be about Randall (Laurel, really, but Laurel is something that Randall is very about), it is also an episode about mothers, and it struck me as odd that at the end of the episode, it is Kevin that Randall wants to call and not Rebecca.

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This season’s production issues with COVID seem to be rearing their ugly head; the Big Three are more physically separated than ever and we haven’t had a single ensemble episode since the premiere (which barely counts as Randall and Kevin essentially repelled each other the entire 120 minutes). Besides Rebecca, Jack is a non-entity, which is fine for the most part because he’s been dead on-screen for three years, but even young Jack is nowhere to be seen; Nicky hasn’t made an appearance yet, and for all his play in the first episode, it seems we might have gotten the last of William. It’s not that it’s uncommon for This is Us to make detours and tell the rest of the cast “see ya later,” but it’s yet another thing in this season that feels, well, conspicuous.

So now that we have the complaints out of the way, here is my take on what is ultimately a very good episode. I still believe this episode is very good because most of my complaints about it are within the context of this ultimately very strange season.

This is Us is great at establishing histories for characters, and even if doing so within a single episode can feel truncated and rushed, there is something impressive about creating a fully fleshed-out character with little time on screen. Here, the Laurel who was teased out in the season premiere gets some degree of pathology and context. We knew from the premiere that Laurel was not simply an aimless hippie who led William astray, and here we get to see her past filled out. It’s always delightful anytime I get to see Chi McBride on a screen, and he is a perfect fit for Laurel’s Louisiana bougie dad.

Even more perfect is Laurel herself; not since her onscreen son have I seen a casting in This is Us where I found all three versions (child, mid-life and later-in-life) exquisite. We’ve already seen the quiet sensitivity of Jennifer C. Holmes as young adult Laurel; here we meet both young Laurel (try as I might, I can’t find the name of the young actress, but she is darling; This is Us has a knack for creating kids, especially girls, who are multidimensional and not overly precocious and they truly hit it out of the park here) and old Laurel (Angela Gibbs, who is a marvel in a role I only wish we saw on screen longer).

Her story is so utterly like The Notebook that Beth can’t help but lampshade it (This is Us seems to be getting very good at pointing out its own cliches; the next step is doing something about it), but the chemistry between Laurel and Hai is so compelling that I actually did find myself getting grouchy whenever it cut to a commercial. Laurel’s story is the kind that benefits more from a minimal-interruption watch-through where the beats of traditional TV don’t do it justice. Her reasoning for being too afraid to seek out William or Randall later in life makes sense, even if it does seem like certified control freak Randall Pearson accepts it way too quickly. Call it character development, I suppose.

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Randall’s stripping and wading into the lake might have been predictable — it’s clear from the moment he gazes upon the lake what will happen — but his being comforted by his ghostly mother is beautiful, even if it’s something I’m not sure the show has done a lot before (I am sure I’ve seen a ghostly Jack or two, but it’s not something I can recall at the moment). I can forgive the random ghostliness, because after a season of Randall becoming intensely unlikeable for his need to constantly overbear and be Mr. Responsible, we see Randall, 40 years old, vulnerable and needing to be embraced and held by his mother. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen with Randall, even in the William days. And the ghostliness is significant here because even with William, Randall needed to hear it directly from him. Here, Randall seems satisfied by merely imagining what Laurel would tell him. He knows she loved him, even if she could not tell him, and that’s enough.

It might be convenient writing to fill up a script in a season challenged by a pandemic, but for what it does for Randall’s character, it’s worth it.

In summary

The good

  • I truly hope this is not the last we see of Vien Long (and, ideally, Kane Lieu) as Hai, whose presence on screen is frankly less stressful than any Pearson or Pearson-adjacent person we’ve encountered.
  • I never say this, but god it was nice to have a week away from Kevin.
  • The costume and set design for 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s New Orleans is divine.

The bad

  • My fears last week about Beth basically becoming Randall’s cheerleader are no more stifled this week; while it is nice to see them unified once again, her chirping about Hai and Laurel’s Notebook-style romance and needing absinthe to deal with the day’s events basically make her into a hype woman.
  • Last week I said I was getting used to the “Everyone tested and quarantined!” one-liners being used to excuse characters being in convenient places, but the addition of Hai’s line, coupled with obvious ADR, felt so exhausting. Note to writers: at this point, I can assume that everyone is just testing and quarantining all the time.

Episode MVP

  • Sterling K. Brown, Angela Gibbs, Jennifer C. Holmes, and whoever the young Laurel was (please Tweet or comment if you know!)

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

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