“Our Little Island Girl” doesn’t feel like an episode of This Is Us — which, if anything, speaks to how consistently surprising and fresh this show can be, even in a relatively uneven season such as this. Focusing exclusively on Beth lends This Is Us a critical new point-of-view, and with that, a reminder of its elastic storytelling potential.
The episode feels in step with the likes of season 1’s “Memphis” and season 2’s “Number” trilogy, installments which allow the show to focus on one character and let their stories breathe more than usual. But this one’s got a particularly unique vibe: a different score, a whole new bench of characters. Building off of last week’s tease, “Our Little Island Girl” finds Beth driving down to her mother Carol’s place with Zoe; she and her cousin plan to convince Carol (played by Phylicia Rashad) to retire after she’s yet again hurt her hip. The episode begins by showing how Carol hurt herself — filling that short cold-open, introducing Carol as a strict high-school principal, with plenty of intrigue — a hint of what Beth and Zoe may be in for.
Beth and Zoe seem to know their mission won’t be easy to execute; on the car ride over, the latter cracks, “Telling that woman she needs to retire is definitely a two-woman job.” But there’s an undercurrent to this trip: Beth hasn’t told her mother she’s been laid off, and judging by Zoe’s reaction, that’s a very big deal. They arrive at Carol’s house and find her immediately resistant to any “take-it-easy nonsense,” as she puts it. They enter the house and Zoe says, “She’s still scary as hell.”
This being This Is Us, a single timeline won’t suffice. But the show works between past and present especially gracefully here, a thorough investigation into who Beth is and where she comes from. Flashbacks begin with Zoe’s new arrival to the household, and with Beth — known to all back then as Bethany — exploring her passion for dance. She’d secretly auditioned for a prestigious ballet academy and, early in this first glimpse at “Bethany,” is informed she’s been accepted. Her loving, more relaxed father, Abe, is thrilled by the news, reminding the family (as he will perhaps one too many times in the episode) that Bethany “danced before she walked.” Her mother is a bit unsettled by the news, but reluctantly agrees to let her join the academy — on one condition: “You will have to give it everything. You will have to be the best.”
This sets up the central conflict of “Our Little Island Girl”: Beth’s complicated relationship with her mother, and the impact a lifetime of such high — or rigid — expectations has had on her. Persuasively, the episode posits that Beth is at a critical moment in her life, left to look toward the past to forge ahead. An early, luminous moment captures Beth staring at pictures of herself as a kid on the wall, often in various ballet poses. She’s looking so closely it’s clear something in that child version of herself is speaking to her core.
In both timelines, things begin to unravel. Young Bethany excitedly works through the program, but finds her body not developing in step with ballet’s particular demands; she’s still committed and passionate about the work, but is not “the best,” as her mother requested she be. We watch her develop into a teenager, and linger on the night she comes home to her family and learns that her father has lung cancer. Bethany’s impulse is to quit — she says it’s too expensive and blames herself for the extra hours her father had to work to pay for the academy — but her mother won’t hear it. She’s resistant, in general, to showing any emotion over her husband’s pending death. She tells her daughter, merely, “You will stick to the path you chose and you will be the best.”
As an adult, meanwhile, tension builds between Zoe and Carol. Beth takes the heat off her cousin by revealing she was laid off months ago. Carol doesn’t react well, saying she’s been lied to; but even on this, she quickly puts it behind her, laying out how, first-thing tomorrow, she’ll work with Beth on identifying every potential firm she could work at. No point in delaying action goes Carol’s reasoning. Beth needs to keep pushing. (Recap continues on Page 2)