"This Is Us" recap: Beth and Randall's fight cut even deeper than expected
We all knew Tuesday night's episode of "This Is Us" was going to be tough, that it would feel like watching your actual parents fight and that no matter who won the war of words, we would lose. What we didn't know, however, was that "R&B" would, in the process, deliver a nuanced, complex and tricky deconstruction of relationships that would have any couple watching debating and contemplating their own lives together.
Oh Randall, always overachieving.
Indeed, instead of lingering on Beth and Randall's fight in the current day and then hopping back and forth in time to happy moments and important moments for maximum sad irony, "R&B" uses the argument as a jumping-off point. In fact, one argument in particular: Beth's exhausted note that the two "have been having the same fight since they met."
Cue a trip through the once-happy couple's entire relationship, from their first date to their proposal to their wedding and a whole lot of nachos. (God help you if you watched the episode on an empty stomach.) And at each step, even if nothing malicious or purposefully malicious is going on, Beth finds herself being the one worn down by Randall, the one making the compromises, the one having to say, "Fine," the one left with all the crumbs when Randall's inadvertently eaten all the good cheesy nachos that he made for Beth in the first place.
It's not only a nuanced and all-too-real approach to a relationship at a breaking point; the structure also nicely puts the audience in Beth's shoes, wearying the viewer with Randall over the hour – something "This Is Us" somewhat has to do since we've spent much more time watching from his perspective than Beth's across three seasons. It's the rare episode, especially after the political campaign subplot, that seems to call Randall out on his shenanigans.
Admittedly, the first of the flashbacks doesn't seem to quite do that. Starting from their first meeting in college, the show follows Randall as he tries to ask Beth out – with Kevin's help of course. Using some sort of very confusing phone logic, Kevin feeds lines to Randall – the first of which is "You don't know who I am, but you're about to." I'm no grand poet here, but that's a bad line. That's a murderer line. That's how the Ghostface guy from the "Scream" movies starts phone conversations.
Yet the line works and the two go on a date – in classic Randall fashion, to the bougie-est restaurant in the area, with him dressed up in a suit and dumping his entire life story on this poor girl's night. Eventually, the two bail when the restaurant gets a little racist and ageist on them, forcing the two to prepay for their meal – which instead forces them to bail from the place, though not before Randall drops some more of his life story and his love for her onto Beth's shoulders. Poor girl just wanted nachos. (Honestly, I don't even like nachos that much and I was feeling hangry.)
I think the show gets that he's A LOT in this moment, that, as like the rest of their life together, he's putting all of his hopes, dreams, feelings and ambitions onto Beth, making her the one having to conform and carry the load. But then the flashback ends with him dreamily laying in bed proclaiming that, "I'm going to marry her" – and I think the show thinks it's a little sweet instead of the kind of "I'm going to love you until you love me back," obsessive, Noah hanging off the Ferris wheel in "The Notebook" manipulative creepiness that it really is.
Considering the rest of the episode, I think "This Is Us" is critiquing him and his emotional forcefulness, but it's also trying to be cute too, having its cake and eating it too. I had flashbacks to creator Dan Fogelman's movie "Life Itself" – and I am never in the mood to have flashbacks to "Life Itself."
Cut to seven years later, and Randall's on about his seventh wedding proposal to Beth. (One of which was on the Jumbotron at a Pittsburgh Pirates game. Aw, Randall, really?! Don't be that guy.) After Beth bristles at having yet another dinner with Becca, instead of having their own life, Randall smartly agrees to a date night of mini golf ... with Becca invited along, too. Once again, he's putting his own feelings and wants ahead of Beth, and you can already feel the growing weight of each of these little losses, this territory given up in the name of their relationship.
But this time, after Randall admits that he tells his mom about just about everything, Beth snaps on the putting green. Let the person who has never lost their temper whilst mini-golfing throw the first stone, I say.
Thankfully Becca's there with a speech, and Beth and Randall team back up at her favorite restaurant, complete with her favorite pile of nachos with her favorite man in the world, the two agreeing to never let one another be consumed by the other's life and also agreeing to get married – with Randall getting down on one knee and everything. And judging by the look of this restaurant, they don't see many of these kinds of moments. Those patrons were NOT expecting a proposal at their local dive.
And so moments like these keep piling up and piling up. There's their wedding day, which Beth herself had to plan and put in all the work so Randall could write his perfect vows ... only for him to realize at the last minute that he wrote a very boring dissertation on the definition of marriage instead. (Thanks to Kevin – but not just any regular Kevin. GOATEE KEVIN! Not his finest form.) After their first kid, the two decompress with a pile of – what else – nachos that Randall makes for Beth ... only for Randall to eat all the best bits, leaving Beth with cold crumbs, an all-too-potent metaphor for Randall accidentally pursuing all his whims while leaving Beth to live a life in his shadow, pulled in whatever direction he chooses while she's left finding her joy in whatever she can find along the way.
When Randall fills the house with Pearsons both official (Kevin) and honorary (William), Beth tries to take a break for herself with a secret hotel stay ... only to be caught by Randall snagging snacks and wine at the grocery store. He sees her need to flee for a bit, for some time to herself while his messy life literally invades their home ... but once again, she's the one who compromises, who breaks, who gives in for the good of the whole while Randall get to follow his fancy.
Again, none of this is on purpose, but relationships are a push-pull situation – and as we see across the episode, Randall tends to do the pulling, inadvertent or no, and Beth's stuck making it work, her own life lost in their shared life.
So who's "wins" this fight? That's the beauty of the episode – and what makes it rare, because how often does a show actually invite debate and conversation at the end instead of pat conclusions. Beth's not wrong – and we feel her weariness from feeling manipulated into choosing with Randall and their relationship rather than fighting for herself, letting her bend and contort her life to his. (I also like the meta note of her saying he won't be able to speech his way out of this one.)
But from Randall's perspective, he's forced none of this on her. She's been fine! She chose to bail on her hotel stay to watch "Living Single" with him – not that she felt she had to. Or that once you've established yourself in a particular role in a relationship, all of sudden that's taken for granted and you've suddenly found yourself locked into those expectations.
Like all true, real fights in a relationship, everyone's right from their perspective. It's nice to see the show truly commit to calling out Randall – something a long time coming since even before the political campaign but even purchasing the housing complex (which ... is still a thing on this show, right?) – but also finding the nuances, sweet and ugly, in a relationship.
That's what really cut about Tuesday night's episode: not just the fight based on a night of bad voicemails and even worse purple cheesecake, but looking back at a whole lifetime of compromise gathering and accumulating weight until one person breaks. And I'm not sure the two can put it back together – especially knowing what the future looks like, at least considering that one quick glimpse we've seen.
All I know is that I'm really, really craving nachos now.
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