Before we get started with the postmortem Q&A for this week’s episode of This Is Us, why doesn’t everyone take 30 seconds to retrieve the shoe(s) they threw at the TV when Randall left THAT voicemail for Beth?
Yeeeaaah, it was a baad week for Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown). The newly elected, ever-striving city councilman has been doing a doozy on his marriage recently. First, he declined a request from Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) to drop out of what appeared to be an unwinnable election, even though she was in turmoil. Next, he told her that she would need to table her dream of a career in dance while he continued to pursue his dream. And then… he outdid himself with a true marital facepalm.
The tenuous truce in their once-golden, now-tension-laced marriage — which was struck last week during a hospital visit to support Kate (Chrissy Metz) as she prematurely gave birth to her son — began to splinter again when an overworked Randall missed the opening part of Beth’s dance recital. But the cracks really started to resurface when he pressued her to give up drinks with her boss and co-worker — which she stressed was important for her career — because he needed her to attend a dinner at the home of the city council president, because it was good for his career. Beth relented, but when she was mysteriously late for the dinner, the worst impulses of a stressed-out Randall wreaked their havoc. He texted her repeatedly and then left a vicious voicemail in which he said she had prioritized teaching “bored housewives to twirl,” and that she needed to “grow the hell up.” (Ouch). Turns out, Beth had been stuck in traffic thanks to an accident on the freeway, and her phone battery had died. (Oops.)
Like a puppy who pooped the bed, Randall knew he had messed up, and he semi-contritely asked her to erase the voicemail he’d left her. Alas, she had already listened to his invective, and she was understandably pissed. Outside the city council president’s home, she told Randall to sleep on the cot back in his office in Philadelphia. (That’s a step down from the family couch, where he was banished last time.) Randall ignored her orders and drove back to their home, marched into their bedroom, and told his wife, “We can’t keep simmering like this forever.” “Fine. You want to do this right now?” she snapped back. “Let’s do this.” He closed the door with purpose and… end of episode.
Meanwhile, the other two-thirds of the Big Three had their own dramas to contend with, as Kate was having trouble getting Toby (Chris Sullivan) to emotionally attach to their 12-weeks-too-early baby, Jack, who remained in the NICU. And a freshly relapsed Kevin (Justin Hartley) went to couples therapy with Zoe (Melanie Liburd), only to then flirt with danger by running into his ex, Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge).
Let’s cut ourselves a slice of some weird-ass purple cheesecake, study up on mitochondria so we can get a 97.9, crank up the Billy Joel, and ask This Is Us executive producers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker to delve into those big moves (non-dance-related) of “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We thought it was bad two weeks ago when Randall asked Beth to sideline her new career. Now we saw him dig himself in thrice as deep. He seemed to reveal more of his true feelings about Beth’s new beginning, and how seriously — or not seriously — he takes her dreams and her career. How selfish is he being here, because all signs point to very?
ISAAC APTAKER: I think that is definitely not a good look for Randall, when he explodes at her in the car like that. You can try to defend it by him thinking that she’s flaked on him for this very important dinner at the last minute, but I don’t think anyone is giving him any husband of the year awards for that voicemail.
ELIZABETH BERGER: This is a man that feels he’s been pushed to the brink, work-wise and exhaustion-level-wise. So you’re seeing the moment where he kind of just loses control. We’ve all had those moments where — even if it’s only something that we half-feel — we say the worst thing that we could possibly say because we want to hurt the person on the other end of the phone or standing in front of us. I think we’re just catching him in one of those terrible moments in life where his exhaustion gets the best of him and he lets loose.
How screwed is he now? And how is he going to dig himself out of this one?
APTAKER: The end of this episode is just one of the most exciting things we’ve ever done. As a viewer, you have no idea what’s next for this couple. And it’s leading to an episode next week where we do a deep dive on all things Beth and Randall and really explore this relationship and what’s wonderful about it and what’s really messy about it — and hope that they can get through this.
In the flashback, we saw Randall’s panicked pursuit of perfection, of choosing homework over a personal commitment. We also know that he’s prone to panic attacks and crippling anxiety. In the present day, we see him massively overwhelmed before he loses it on Beth. Fans are going to be mad at him, naturally, but should they also be worried about him on that front?
BERGER: I think that they should be because we know his history and what he’s struggled with in terms of anxiety. That being said, he’s someone that’s fully aware of his anxious tendencies and how out of control things can get, so he is going to be feeling that within himself too as we go forward. Yes, they should be worried, but also know that Randall knows that side of himself by now.
What was Sterling’s direct reaction, if you remember, when you first pitched him that Randall would say those horrible, damaging things on the phone?
APTAKER: He usually screams with excitement and shock.
BERGER: He’s been totally on board. In some ways this story has made any of us that are married in a relationship uncomfortable because you see little traces of yourself, and you see traces of the things that you say to your spouse or that your spouse has said to you, or that you may be feeling under the surface. But I think there’s been something really exciting about it for all of us, Sterling included, to play those truthful, uglier, messier sides of marriage. Sterling and Susan have been completely on board throughout.
APTAKER: Sterling’s one of the most fun people ever to pitch stories to, because he just feels everything in his entire body so intensely. So when he likes something, it’s the best feeling in the world because he goes crazy for it. [Laughs]… What I love about Sterling and Susan is that they’re so not afraid to go there. A lot of actors would be worried about always seeming likable and always making the right choice, and these two love to be flawed, and they love to let their characters make mistakes. And I think that makes you root for them more.
What were the different versions of the voicemail message that evolved in the writers’ room? Were some of them even meaner?
APTAKER: With really sensitive stuff like that, we always discuss it endlessly. Yeah, there were some that were even meaner, there were some that were too soft; it was really about finding that perfect line, both in the content of what he said and in how rough the delivery was, to make sure that it really did feel scary — one of the worst moments in their marriage — but that it wasn’t like you leave that message and she’s instantly filing for divorce. It was sort of finding that middle [ground].
Sum up the state of their marriage in a word, after the events of this episode.
Beth was taking off her jewelry, including her wedding ring, when he walked into the bedroom. That could be normal, everyday routine, but as you know, fans pay close attention to who is not wearing a wedding ring. How much should they be reading into that?
BERGER: I think not very much, because that was more part of Beth’s nighttime routine.
APTAKER: That’s an exhausted woman who just wants to be in her pajamas; that’s not “I’m not wearing a wedding ring anymore.”
Next week’s episode takes us through the history of their relationship. What should viewers brace for?
BERGER: Next week’s episode is one of our favorite we’ve ever done, and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just focusing on fraught moments of their relationship or difficult ones; we wanted to really show the whole picture. So you’re going to see some really beautiful moments, some really funny moments, some really difficult moments. And there are just powerhouse performances by Susan, Sterling, Niles [Fitch, who plays teenage Randall], and Rachel [Hilson, who plays teenage Beth], and we can’t wait for everyone to see them.
And can they expect any resolution by the end of next week’s episode — or will that carry into the finale?
APTAKER: This one’s going to carry through the rest of our season.
Switching over to Kevin: One read is that Kevin got closure from his meeting with Sophie, and as a mensch-y move of closure to their disastrous end, he got her and her fiancé the front-row Billy Joel tickets. Another read is that he still seems pretty lost. He was hiding his relapse from Zoe, he tried to charm his way through couples therapy, and now he may be changing his tune on having kids to please her. Sophie tells Kevin that he always seems to get what he wants. By sending Sophie those tickets, is he subconsciously sending the message that what he actually wants is kids and Sophie, not no kids and Zoe?
BERGER: I think you could definitely interpret it that way, especially considering how much history he has with Sophie. This has been someone that’s been in his life and been so meaningful to him from almost the very beginning. It’s hard to walk away from seeing her and let that feeling go immediately. So, as with everything, every character in our show that we bring back, you never know really if you’ve seen the last of them, and I think it’s safe to assume that this made a meaningful impression on him.
APTAKER: I don’t think Kevin even totally knows. What’s so great about humans in general is we don’t ever even fully understand the real reasons why we do what we do. On the surface I think he really does think he’s sending those tickets as an “I’m so happy for you in your new relationship” gesture. Beneath the surface in a way, as you said he’s probably not even aware of, I’m sure some of that is about, “Let me make sure Sophie knows that I’m a really great guy because who knows, one day?”
Which leads to the next question: Will we see her again before the end of the season?
BERGER: Not before the end of the season. But who knows after that?
APTAKER: If people are hungry for more Sophie and Kevin, that’s a good thing.
If we’re being cynical here about Kevin, and he does still have feelings for Sophie and he sabotages everything, will Beth murder two-thirds of the Big Three by the end of the season?
BERGER: She really got more than she bargained for with these Pearson brothers, but yeah, I think that it’s safe to assume that if Kevin crosses Zoe, he’s really in for it.
APTAKER: Yeah, our season 4 premiere is just Beth driving down the freeway with Randall and Kevin’s bodies in the trunk.
Toby finally pushed through the pain and finally connected with his son, seeing him more than just the tubes and the wires. Are they starting to move out of the woods? And is that tension drawn out until the finale?
APTAKER: Yes, this Randall and Beth episode is exclusively Randall and Beth. Other characters are in it, but only in the context of Randall and Beth’s relationship. We’re not moving forward on any other story lines, but all the answers in terms of baby Jack’s health and all that will be wrapped up in our finale, which is the week after.
What’s one more hint you can drop about next week’s Randall and Beth episode?
APTAKER: We will see Randall and Beth on their wedding day, which is something that we’ve been wanting to show for a really long time. We’re going to see Randall and Beth’s engagement and their wedding day, and neither of them go exactly as you expect for such a loving couple.