Every season, there's one spotlight episode of "This Is Us," the one that earns the NBC hit all of its plaudits and earns all of the ballyhooed tears. "Birth Mother" was clearly set up to be that episode, at least thus far in this young season, officially answering all of the questions asked by the season premiere's big final reveal and filling in one of the blank spots in Randall's story: Laurel, his once assumed dead birth mother who now has a whole life before and after that fateful day in Pittsburgh. So would Randall get his closure? And would "This Is Us" get another hall-of-fame episode to add to its resume?
Here are the five big takeaways from "Birth Mother," Laurel's showcase episode – but first, some absinthe to wash all of these big reveals and heavy emotions down. I like where your head's at, Beth.
1. A life in a day with Randall's birth mother
After being held on the sideline for so much of "This Is Us," Laurel finally got to have her story told on Tuesday – and it lived up to the wait ... mostly.
Infamously, my favorite episodes of the show are the ones that focus and hone in on individual characters or moments instead of trying to cram a lot of storylines into one 60-minute swoop. But while "Birth Mother" was a strong and thoughtful effort, you could also feel the strain of trying to cram an entire complicated and complex life into just one hour. Big meaningful events were hurried through; big emotional moments had little time to breathe. William got several seasons for "This Is Us" to unpack his life and impact on Randall, who he would grow up to be and beyond; Nicky, a similar surprise addition to the "This Is Us" family, got about two seasons for the show to tell his story, then and now. Laurel, on the other hand, only got this one episode for her story to be told and just a few episodes' notice that she lived a life beyond Randall's birth. That's not a lot of time to let the emotions, feelings and impact really marinate, and develop nuance and texture to make the story feel personal and special. As a result, Tuesday's episode was well done and sometimes even beautiful, but it also didn't quite have the emotional hit as some of the show's finest hours.
It's still quite the story though, as told by Hai (played with soothing grace by Vien Hong, who hopefully doesn't disappear after this brief arc). Laurel grew up as a part of the wealthy DuBois family down in New Orleans, with her father (a very welcome Chi McBride sighting, even if he's mostly playing a grump) presiding over her life with stern control. He has very specific plans and hopes for his young daughter – plans that don't involve her skipping over to her isolated Aunt Mae's house to have nice conversations, help with gardening and play in the local pond.
Unfortunately, all of their plans take a turn when her older brother Jackson gets sent off to Vietnam. (I was a little nervous we were going to get a way-too-convenient flashback to Jackson, Jack and Nicky all serving together in the same platoon; thankfully the show also thought that'd be a little too cute.) A beloved sibling, who promises to always be there and is the comforting shoulder when times get tough, heads off to war? Well there's no way this is ending well – and indeed, the DuBois household gets a visit from two military messengers with a letter, telling them Jackson lost his life in the conflict. To cope, Aunt Mae teaches Laurel her best therapy method: wading out into the water and powerfully screaming your pain and anger away.
One of those makeshift therapy sessions, however, gets an unexpected visitor: Hai, a Vietnamese refugee who moved to New Orleans with his family – as well as the most studly young fishmonger their small local farmers' market has ever seen. He happens to be fishing on his boat in the pond during one of her therapeutic yelling sessions. A woman screaming all alone in the middle of a lake? Safe to say that sounds like a rescue situation – so Hai jumps in, only to be greeted with whacks and smacks by Laurel who wasn't expecting or needing any visitors or help. So we have our meet-cute – and after another chance meeting at the market, the two sweetly attempting to communicate through the language barrier, a secret romance is born.
Of course, things couldn't be that simple. Mr. DuBois has his own plans for his daughter's heart – in particular an essentially arranged marriage with one of the young up-and-comers at his bank. Laurel, however, isn't in love with him (and the show doesn't have much love for this subplot either, barely putting much effort into it; judging by the "Notebook" references, it knows it's trite – and that they only have an hour). So she runs away from home, hoping to take Hai with her – but unfortunately he still has his family to take care of. And so she sets off alone away from home and eventually to Pittsburgh.
So yeah, it's a lot to get through in a single episode – and that's all before William shows up. After some urging from Randall to get past the "Notebook" part of the story, Hai gets to the question Randall desperately needs answered: Why did William think Laurel was dead, and why did she disappear from their lives?
As we already knew from the season premiere, after William bolted with Randall in a panick about Laurel's overdose and the growing police presence, Laurel was resuscitated back to life – though her life wasn't about to get any easier, as after her recovery in the hospital, she was whisked away to prison for five years all the way in California due to Pittsburgh's overcrowded jails. She tries to reach out to her dad amidst all of this with a phone call, but her shame keeps her from saying a word – and that's seemingly the end of Mr. DuBois' role in her life. She does, however, return to her hometown and to Aunt Mae's house, where she learns more about her relative's life – she fell in love with a married man, an affair which ended with her heart broken over a lost love and a lost child; maybe it was also the cause of her rift with her brother. But most importantly, she learns to live with her mistakes and flaws, one yell in the lake at a time.
Life hands her some good news, though, as when she returns to help her aunt at the farmers' market, she sees Hai still working his fish station – albeit with a pregnant wife. But the two have a lovely friendship expressed and held over the years through small glances and gestures and few words, one that continues through old age as Hai's wife passes away after a long beautiful life together and his kids move out. Sadly, at that point, Laurel ends up diagnosed with an aggressive cancer – but the two share her final years alive together, sharing their stories and having the life together that they never could before.
And then Randall shirtlessly danced his way across Hai's computer screen, giving him a chance to do what Laurel never could: tell and explain her story to her lost son.
It's a nice and touching story, told lovingly by Vien Hong, who mixes a thoughtful gravity to the tale with a casual air that makes it feel truly like a story just being told over the table. But as great as his performance is (and Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson's, reacting to the story in modern times), the episode just doesn't have time to include the texture that the best moments and episodes can have. You want more of Laurel's relationship with her dad – especially after she returned home. (Had he passed away by then, or were they just never on speaking terms again, with Laurel still too ashamed and scared?) You want more of her young romance with Hai, and the complex nuances and emotions of a Vietnamese refugee dating a black woman who lost her brother in Vietnam in the South fifty years ago. You want more of her path through the prison system.
There's just too much story for one hour to rewardingly tell. I guess the SparkNotes will do.
2. Randall finally finds peace
The SparkNotes are certainly sufficient for Randall. Hearing the story from Hai at Laurel's old home, he's impatient for much of the first half of his birth mother's tale – though he does have one powerful reaction in the early going, pointing out that, "I just met and lost an uncle in five minutes," after hearing about Jackson and his death in Vietnam. But after the love story portion, he just wants to get to the important part: Why did Laurel never find him? And he gets the answer he wants: She wanted to. She always wanted to – but the long wait through prison, plus her own guilt and emotional wounds from recovery, made it a goal she could never achieve. But she always thought of him.
And in the end, she gets to be.
After hearing his birth mother's story, Randall decides to give his mother's preferred form of therapy a shot: stripping down naked, walking into the pond and screaming his feelings out. (Quick very mature side note to this very emotional moment: Any episode in which we get to see Sterling K. Brown's side tush is the Golden Age of Television.) There in the water, he sees his mother – a spiritual, almost ghostly moment of connection where he finally gets to talk and communicate with his birth mother, a missing piece of his past found. In an episode of big emotional material, it's the most profound moment of the hour, Randall and Laurel together across time and existence, sharing a moment, sharing love and sharing a sense of peace they could never express in reality.
It's a healing rebirth for Randall, seemingly finally able to release his feelings about his complicated past – and newly committed to letting go of all of his anger, pain and grudges. That includes finally breaking the ice between him and Kevin, a relationship that's oh-so-slowly thawing since their climactic explosion last season but still solidly in permafrost. Hopefully Kevin's not in the middle of a newly discovered life crisis! On this show? NEVER!
3. Randall's got bonus land now
Randall Pearson: father, alderman and ... growing land baron? You see, Randall didn't just get his mother's story and some much-needed closure from Hai during their visit. He also got a whole bunch of land!
At the end of telling Laurel's powerful story, Hai then hands the keys to the farmhouse and essentially the estate over to Randall. After all, it's technically his family's land, and going by Laurel's wishes, as apparently the lone heir, he gets the gorgeous lakefront property as Hai's just basically been serving as caretaker for the interim years. Knowing how tightly written "This Is Us" is, I doubt they introduced this land just to never mention it again – never mind that that's exactly what happened with the apartment complex, NEVER MIND THAT! – so I expect this is far from the last visit the show makes to New Orleans.
4. How's Rebecca doing?
Not to take the attention off Laurel's much deserved and much delayed time in the spotlight, all of this talk about Randall's birth mother and matriarchs did cause my mind to wander over to Randall's adopted mother as well. It's been a while since we've checked in on Mama Pearson; in fact, the last time we saw modern day Rebecca was the season premiere all the way back in October.
No news likely means good news on that story's front, and while it sure seemed like her battle with Alzheimer's was going to be a major subject for the show, I appreciate that it isn't shoehorning drama for the sake of hitting each character in every episode. Plus, there are only so many ways to make "Rebecca is forgetting things" new, dramatic or engaging. And considering there's a pandemic going on, it makes sense the Pearson kids wouldn't be visiting their older-aged, and therefore at-risk, mother anyways (though it hasn't stopped them from traveling to San Diego and New Orleans thus far; I DO wonder what Randall's constituents think about their viral dancing alderman bailing town for a bit in the middle of an unprecedented modern health crisis. Maybe, "This Is Us," we should've left COVID to the real world.)
Anyways, my guess, at this point, is that Rebecca will be very much a periphery character for the rest of the season – maybe some check-ins here or there – but then moved back to the center for the upcoming final season, with her slow fade out, the future we've briefly seen, a heartfelt goodbye and a reunion with Jack in heaven wrapping the show up. It's just a matter of how everyone else gets there now.
5. Kevin's work trip doesn't seem to be going well
For most of Tuesday night's episode, the world was focused on Randall and Laurel – but at the very end of the hour, "This Is Us" briefly gave us some insight into how Kevin's doing in Vancouver filming his new movie. And oh Canada, are things going poorly up north for the Pearson thespian.
Yes, as hard as it is to believe, apparently spending MORE time with his wormy triple-named director Jordan Martin Foster didn't make Kevin's life any better as, during his brief call with Randall, it sounds like his professional career is about to collapse. For what, we don't know yet – maybe this is just Kevin being melodramatic, but it sure seems like something serious. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Madison's gone into labor, and judging by Kevin's tone, it doesn't seem to be going well – or, again, maybe he's just stressing out. Maybe the director didn't like the concept of Kevin leaving set and holding the shoot to be there for the birth, because Jordan Martin Foster is (*sings in Jean Ralphio voice*) THE WOOOORST.
No matter how related the two things are, Kevin's in a sweat, currently speeding assumably to the hospital to be there for Madison and the babies. So I guess we know what the next episode's going to be about ...
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.