This Is Us
It’s not a stretch to assume most people would agree that season one’s “Memphis” — in which Randall and William take a road trip to the titular city so Randall can learn more about his birth father before William dies, and we all collectively raised sea levels with the amount of tears that poured from our faces — is one of, if not the, best episodes of This Is Us to date. It’s hard not to see “Birth Mother” — in which Randall and Beth travel to New Orleans to learn the story of Randall’s birth mother — as a companion piece to that episode. Honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t go ahead and title this episode “New Orleans,” because we all know that this show lives for symmetry. The two episodes work as a pair, bookends to the birth story Randall has been searching for his entire life.
“Memphis” obviously has a leg up, since by the time that episode rolled around, we had already gotten to know and love its subject, William Hill. That attachment made every emotion in that episode hit harder. Since we barely know Randall’s birth mother, Laurel, and have never met anyone in her life aside from William, so much of the emotional connection to this story rests in great performances. And guess what? They pull it off. I mean, I was even moved by the small moment when Laurel’s father whispers his daughter’s name into the phone when she calls from prison but can’t bring herself to speak. The grief and fear and pain in that moment!
A lot of the emotional heavy lifting is left to our narrator of sorts, Hai, who is the guy who saw Randall’s viral striptease, recognized the name William Hill, and reached out with the answers to the questions about Randall’s birth mother that Randall didn’t even know to ask. It’s kind of hard to believe that Hai is the type of guy to be scrolling through viral internet content and clicking on “Shirtless City Councilman Video,” but you know what? Humans are complicated.
After apparently quarantining and getting a COVID test and then (it looks like) driving from Philadelphia to New Orleans, Randall and Beth come face-to-face with the man who knew Randall’s mother. Things get real immediately: When the Pearsons comment on the lovely farmhouse by the lake where Hai seems to live, he tells them that this house actually belongs to them. It was Laurel’s, and now it’s Randall’s. There’s no turning back, folks!
Hai invites Randall and Beth inside and proceeds to tell them everything he knows about Laurel. There are jokes flying around about how Hai’s story feels akin to The Notebook … but, like, it’s not a joke. This episode is very much like The Notebook, what with the disapproving parents and lovers separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited and, yes, water-based activities. No one promises someone else that “if you’re a bird, I’m a bird,” but they could’ve and I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed.
So what is Laurel’s story? Well, Laurel DuBois grew up in a prominent New Orleans family but never felt like she fit in. She only felt understood by her Aunt Mae, who had been ex-communicated by her family, and her older brother, Jackson, who died in the Vietnam War. After Jackson’s death, Aunt Mae can see Laurel’s being swallowed up by her grief and tells her she needs to find a way to let it go. She does this by walking into the lake by her Aunt’s house and letting out a guttural scream. It becomes an act Laurel performs any time she needs to let go of her pain, and it’s how she and Hai end up meeting: Hai, a refugee from Vietnam, becomes a fisherman in New Orleans to support his family. One day while fishing in the lake, he hears Laurel screaming and tries to rescue her — but she doesn’t need rescuing. Later, they meet again at the farmers’ market, where Hai sells his fish and Laurel and her Aunt Mae sell vegetables from Mae’s garden. He offers to cook for her, and they fall madly, secretly in love. Laurel’s dad eventually tells his daughter that she must marry her boyfriend, Marshall, the guy he’s been grooming at the bank. Feeling trapped, Laurel decides to flee to Chicago. She begs Hai to come with her, but he can’t abandon his parents. And so she goes. In the present day, Hai’s holding back tears. You know he’s playing all the what-ifs in his head, even after all this time.
As Hai explains to an increasingly antsy Randall, Laurel didn’t make it to Chicago. The cheapest bus ticket was to Pittsburgh. Of course, we know most of what happens there. We end up back at the moment it looks like she has overdosed and a distraught William runs away with their son. Most of Randall’s biggest questions have to do with what happened after this moment. How could Laurel have survived but never sought out him or William? Hai explains: After a few days recovering in the hospital, Laurel was arrested for possession, and instead of going lenient on her for her first offense, she’s sentenced to five years in prison. She can’t even call William to tell him because they don’t have a phone in their apartment. Then, because the prisons in Pittsburgh are overcrowded, she’s sent to serve her time in California. By the time she’s released in 1985, Laurel’s convinced herself that she doesn’t deserve to be Randall’s mother and he’s better off without her.
So, yeah, it’s about as sad a story that you could think of, which, let’s all be real, isn’t so surprising for this show. The real This Is Us twist would be if a new character showed up and was like, “Oh, no, everything’s pretty decent in my life. No complaints here.” Sorry, friends, that’s just not the way.
Laurel gets a little taste of happiness at the end of her life at least. She moves back to Aunt Mae’s and spends decades waving and smiling at Hai, who is still working the fish stand at the farmers’ market but is married with kids. After his wife passes, he notices Laurel’s stopped selling at the market and goes to visit her, only to learn of her terminal-cancer diagnosis. Even without treatment, she goes on to live for two more years, and she and Hai spend most of that time together until she dies in 2015. She carries the guilt and regret of never telling her son she loves him until the very end. Okay, so that final part isn’t happy, but the rekindling-the-romance-with-Hai part? Come on! I’d watch a show just about that part.
This is a lot for Randall to take in, and after journaling about it (to peep my eyes on that journal! The drama! The Thanksgiving recipes!) back at the hotel, he sneaks out to return to Laurel’s — now his — house. In case you didn’t think we were headed here from the first time we saw Laurel let go of her pain, Randall strips down and walks into that lake. This scene! This scene is a This Is Us moment to remember for a long, long time. Randall envisions his mother in that lake with him, at different points the older version and younger Laurel (played by Angela Gibbs and Jennifer C. Holmes, respectively — both great in this episode). She tells him there’s a sadness weighing him down and that he needs to let his pain go. And then he screams a guttural, painful, cathartic scream. Laurel holds Randall’s face in her hands and tells him she loves him, and he tells her the same. On second thought, they should’ve just titled this episode “Sterling K. Brown’s Emmy Submission.” That man is working hard.
On the way home, Beth can already see that Randall seems different. He is: Now he knows how much he was loved by both his parents. He tells Beth he’s ready to let go of “the bad stuff.” He knows that the first thing he has to do in order to move forward is to make things right with Kevin. He doesn’t want to wait — he calls him right then and tells his brother he wants to talk.
But Kevin can’t talk. He’s freaking out in his car because Madison’s gone into labor and he’s stuck in Vancouver. She’s all alone at the hospital. “I never should’ve come here,” he tells Randall before hanging up. Oh boy. Just when we think we’ve released all the pain, we’re right back in the middle of it.
This Is the Rest
• Are we just not going to get even one glimpse at Beth and Randall’s absinthe-fueled marathon sex trip to New Orleans for their fifth wedding anniversary? This show could always use an infusion of joy, and by the sound of it, that vacation was, um, joyful.
• Of all the names for a family living in New Orleans, we’re going with DuBois? Very subtle, TIU.
• Sorry to Hai’s wife and the mother of his children, who is basically reduced to a footnote in his great love story and now also in this recap! You’re probably great!