This Is Us
Listen, you guys know I’m here for the Sadness Parade that is the Pearson family, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was very much relieved to get a break from them this week. They are just so sad! I know, I know, we signed up for this, but don’t we deserve a little lightness now and again? Everything is SO HEAVY and SO MUCH. Sure, Beth comes with her own brand of sadness — she’s unemployed and feeling lost, plus all the dead dad stuff — but this long-awaited Beth Pearson showcase episode ends on a truly hopeful note. Beth shines (so does Susan Kelechi Watson, yes please and thank you) and in the end, finds herself again. She can breathe. There is light. It is very much the opposite of how the Uncle Nicky adventure ended, praise be!
Beth and Zoe head down to Washington, D.C., to see Beth’s mother, Carol (a perfectly cast Phylicia Rashad), a high school principal who has just bruised her hip. (You may recall she broke her hip not too long ago, so Beth is concerned.) Post TLC sing-along, Beth and Zoe make a pact: They are going to tell Carol that she needs to think about retiring. They have to make a pact because Carol is very intimidating (remember I told you, she’s Phylicia Rashad) and Beth has a tendency to “clam up” around her. She’s a pusher who wants her children to work hard and excel in their chosen paths. (This makes it extra-tense when Beth finally tells her mother she’s been laid off and doesn’t know what to do next.) Beth has never been able to stand up to her. Thanks to our patented This Is Us Flashbacks, we get to see the evolution of Beth’s relationship with her mother, as well as learn about what happened to that other love of Beth’s life: dance.
We already knew that Beth lost her father, Abe (Carl Lumbly, also great), to cancer when she was a teenager — her grief no doubt helped her bond with Randall, and honestly if one of the Pearsons met someone without a Sad Story, I don’t think they’d know what to do with them — but what we didn’t know was how pivotal a role her father played in Beth pursuing her dreams and then losing her way once he died. Little Bethany Clark wants to be a ballerina. When she earns a coveted spot in a prestigious ballet school, her mother is skeptical but her father thinks it’s a no-brainer. Bethany is “our little island girl, who danced before she could walk,” of course she’ll go to ballet school, even if it means he’ll have to work overtime to pay for it. Carol agrees, as long as Bethany promises to work hard and become the best. No pressure or anything.
And so she goes. But things do not go according to plan. She showed much promise — with dreams of becoming the first African-American principal in the American Ballet Company or moving to London or so many things really — but by the time she’s a teenager (This Is Us again with the great teen casting: This time it’s Rachel Naomi Hilson as Teen Beth) it’s clear she hasn’t lived up to the hype. Her teacher (Goran Visnjic, in a role too small to be a one-off, no?) suggests taking up a different dance style, but no, she’s a ballerina. Her father, now dying of cancer and seeing his daughter so forlorn, tells her the story of how she became the girl who “danced before she walked” and reminds her to never forget who she really is. But then he goes and dies, she doesn’t get a solo in the senior showcase, and her mother hands her a big ol’ college guide — to find a new path, to start fresh. Without her father there to remind her, she forgets that she is his “little island girl” and she forgets dance.
Until now, that is. Being in her childhood home surrounded by memories of her father (that scene in which Beth cries as she looks at her dad’s chair and admits she forgot who she was because she can’t be her without him is Watson at her best), and of dance; feeling a little lost in her life and a little high from that joint Zoe had stashed in the house for future use; Beth finally confronts her mother. Oh boy, you guys, is this A SCENE. Beth basically blames her mother for stealing the joy from her life by making her quit dance. She was free before, and then she was not. She tells Carol that none of her kids can be around her because she has “no air” around her — “no air to be sad, no air to fail.” Because of growing up like this, of being ashamed of her dreams, even now she can’t tell her own husband that she wants “to be that little girl who dances again.” It’s all very sad and moving and honestly I feel very refreshed watching Beth Pearson finally get her day in the sun.
That scene is followed by yet another whopper of a scene in which Carol tries to explain herself to her daughter — she had a mother to impress, too — and talks about how Beth’s father lightened her up. He never took life seriously, she took it too seriously. They evened each other out. “He gave me that air that you said I don’t have on my own,” she tells her daughter. Anyone else getting Beth and Randall vibes here? Randall, a dramatic dreamer, Beth, a realist. I mean, time is a flat circle and all that, you know? Anyway, Carol proceeds to break all of our hearts, possibly a contractual obligation when appearing on this show, by admitting that after Abe died, she lost that air he gave her, and then she calls her Bethany her “little island girl, who danced before she could walk” and apologizes for taking dance away from her. And that’s all Beth ever wanted — she’s not mad, of course, because going to college put her on her path to find Randall, but recognition of the loss is important. We are all crying, but only Beth and Carol get to hold hands.
With that, Beth returns home and is finally able to tell her husband what she wants to do: She wants to teach dance. Thanks to our handy-dandy flash-forward, we know her dreams work out. The final scene where we cut between all three of the Beths, seeing Beth find that part of herself again, dancing in an empty classroom (Watson is a dancer in real life), is gorgeous. Has a Pearson ever felt so free?
This Is the Rest
• TEEN RANDALL SIGHTING. Teen Beth NOT Bethany (she changes her name to really show us Ballerina Bethany is gone) goes to a college freshman mixer and bumps into her future husband. He is smitten, she pays him no mind. How perfect!
• Teen Beth feels guilty over her father’s death. He worked so hard to be able to put her through dance school — it’s her fault he got sick and died. Man, she should really talk to Kate Pearson.
• Randall dropping Beth off at the dance school and offering to be her hype man and fully supporting her dream is very peak Randall and Beth and it’s nice to see them being SO THEM again.
• Carol seems like a great principal — equal parts terrifying and concerned. Even with her walker (she at least took a little of Beth and Zoe’s advice), she is a fearsome thing to behold in those hallways.
• The sister-cousins getting high in the laundry room was excellent. Them recognizing that Beth was scared of her mother, but Zoe seeing her as a safe space, was important. Though, now what I need to see is Carol giving Zoe The Business for dating Kevin Pearson. She must have thoughts.
• Now I want backstory on Beth’s backstory: Give me Abe feeding Carol while she studies or give me death!