This Is Us - Episode 317: “R&B”
Screenshot: NBC (YouTube)

This is it—the moment we reveal what’s behind the wizard’s “relationship goals” curtain. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The dichotomy between This Is Us faves Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) has always been apparent, but somehow it worked. Beth was the (overly) practical peanut butter to Randall’s (overly) optimistic jelly. The perfect balanced sandwich. Except for the “perfect” part, which, what great relationships are? If you look close enough, you’re bound to find flaws. Similar to Jack Pearson’s “perfect father” unraveling, it was time for Randall’s and Beth’s.

As soon as that door shut at the end of Episode 316 (aptly titled, “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away”), I knew that was also the door shutting on the 100% foolproof optimism I had for the Pearsons. I was worried. Some form of “Mom and Dad, noooooo!” escaped me, but it probably sounded like painful gurgling in real life.

“We’ve been having the same fight since we met!” exclaimed Beth as she and Randall went toe-to-toe after what was an obviously massive buildup over the years.

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I had the honor of attending an advance screening of Episode 317 “R&B” (I love how their initials are a whole black-ass music genre) and subsequent panel with episode writer Kay Oyegun, Watson, Brown, and Phylicia Rashad (who guest stars as Beth’s mother, Carol “Mama C” Clarke).

Show creator Dan Fogelman (who also attended the advance screening) has already informed us he knows the series ultimate ending; it therefore makes sense that his writers are able to piece together plot points in the storytelling puzzle—but my God are they so damn good at it. Nothing is trivial; even a simple glance from a previous episode can mean something deeper.

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“[It’s in] the script,” Rashad told The Root, when asked what she drew from to portray Beth’s mother. “It was right there.”

Following the screening, I hopped on the phone with Niles Fitch (Teen Randall) and Rachel Hilson (Teen Beth) to discuss the episode, especially one of my favorite moments: Randall and Beth’s first date. True to their respective personalities, the two young college students had two totally different views of the date. After an argument over whether the waiter’s racist request (he asked them to pay upfront, ya’ll) was enough to relinquish any transactional relationship, Beth told Randall to never call her again. Randall, however, knew then that he would marry her.

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“Beth is a really complex character,” said Hilson. “The way that Susan portrays her is just really interesting and layered and I think we’ve seen that she possesses incredible strength [yet] she’s also vulnerable at times.”

In October 2017, I wrote an ode to Beth, and as I’ve gotten to know her better since then, that love and adoration has only grown. I recently revisited my op-ed and realized something—the significance of Beth’s agency (apart from Randall) has always been highlighted. Even with Randall’s biological father William (which, it was great to see him again in this episode’s flashback), it was important to establish the fact that Beth had her own separate relationship with him.

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Again, a testament to the writers’ masterful attention to detail. During her talk with Rebecca (after Randall’s umpteenth proposal), Beth vowed never to be “consumed by [her] husband.” Rebecca assured her that this would never become the case, refusing to believe Beth was a “wallflower.”

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And yet, life happens. As their relationship evolved, adding chapters into their lives with new additions to the family and new careers, Beth started to realize a concerning pattern—she was “bending” herself for her husband and that was why their relationship worked.

In a deft callback to the time Randall witnessed Rebecca and Jack fighting about his mother’s withering dreams, we realize Randall is echoing this fight with Beth, many years later.

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“[Randall’s M.O. is] very ‘tunnel vision’ and while it is a blessing, it can also be a curse. He didn’t want to get into an argument with Beth because of the stuff he’s seen,” said Fitch, when asked about his feelings on the fight and how he channeled that into portraying his earlier iteration of Randall—since we now realize each fight the couple has had was, in fact, connected. “So, I wanted to show both sides, but I did go in looking at it from Beth’s angle.”

As this was the first episode entirely dedicated to our favorite couple, this episode was pretty damn black. Whether it was the Jagged Edge proposal song, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Living Single references, or Beth’s worry that their daughter Tess would have no rhythm, the welcome blackness reigned. And as Fitch noted, it is an episode following a black man falling in love with a black woman, written by a black woman. Black as fuck. Love it.

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As such, I asked Fitch and Hilson my now-standard “blackest moment on set” question. For Fitch, it was his mom giving him pep talks before performing his scenes. Shout-out to black moms. For Hilson, this episode provided her first experience with box braids, as well as the black-as-hell head patting and itching that comes along with it.

This story’s assembling led up to the contentious fight in what is the third season’s penultimate episode. The painful jabs went left and right. Randall accused Beth of her “revisionist history,” and next thing you know, Beth brought up his history of anxiety attacks; especially brutal, given Rebecca’s story of how Randall’s fear of never fitting in was finally salved when he met Beth. Ouch.

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Then, Randall uttered a crushing line, “I am all out of speeches.” That line clenched in my throat and has stayed put since. Maybe I’ll need to steal a bit of Randall’s eternal optimism to go with Beth’s practicality to stave off the worry consuming me right now. Or maybe... I need a combo of both for balance.

During the panel, Watson said something that stuck out to me, in regards to the sheer passion fans have for the show—and Randall and Beth, in particular. Brown even hilariously admitted that everyone came after him on social media after his character’s major voicemail flub in the previous episode. By the way, he did ultimately say he was neither Team Beth nor Team Randall, but “Team R&B.”

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If you’re connecting with [their relationship] in this passionate way, then that means that we’re mining something that really feels true to people and that you’re taking the journey with us, stepping out of perfection or what we perceive to be perfection and allowing us to show what has created this relationship [and its] various levels,” said Watson. “If you’re giving us the leeway to do that and still staying with us and staying passionate about it, then we’re kind of all in it together at this point.”

She’s right. We are all in this together. This is us, after all.