Anyone who’s been keeping up with “This Is Us” knew Episode 17, “R & B,” was going to be a knockdown, drag-out fight, but they may not have expected to see such a scrupulous assessment of male privilege. Yet writer Kay Oyegun’s entry is a savvy culmination of the series’ offscreen efforts to elevate Susan Kelechi Watson’s character, Beth, and her onscreen issues with Randall. Far more than a magnificent showcase for two magnificent actors, “R&B” isn’t just about checking Randall’s privilege, but solidifying Beth’s autonomy.
For everyone who isn’t caught up, let’s take a step back: Last week’s episode ended with Randall (Sterling K. Brown) returning home to Beth (Watson) and declaring they’re going to settle their long-simmering disputes right then and there. She’s working nights and weekends as a dance instructor, while he’s been elected to public office… in Philadelphia. Their incongruent schedules have caused some tension; tension which boiled over when Beth was late to an important dinner, and Randall left a heated voicemail belittling her rediscovered passion.
So when the beloved husband and father walked in with a head of steam and slammed the door, the stage was set for an hourlong examination of one of television’s favorite marriages — from the frightening new perspective that it’s failing. At hour’s end, the eponymous initials were no closer to reconnecting than when R and B first started airing their grievances. Randall is on the couch in Philly, hurt by Beth’s cold dismissal of his anxiety attacks, and Beth is still simmering from a million minor slights that became a lifetime of her playing the supportive wife.
For all the flashbacks to Randall’s many proposals and the couple’s emotional wedding day, “R & B” is built on the back of one problem: privilege. Speaking at a private pre-screening event in West Hollywood, actors Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson broke down their perception of the hidden hitch in R&B’s giddy-up.
“The central issue seems to be a matter of equality, or lack thereof in Beth’s opinion — in her ability to fully express herself,” Watson said. “She kind of feels like she usually supports what Randall’s 100 percent in support of, and now at a time when she wants to live to the fullest, she feels like that’s being squelched in some way — that she’s not getting the same support [from Randall].”
Brown took it a step further, stopping short of taking Beth’s side flat-out, but pointing to a similar situation in his own marriage: when he promised to be the stay-at-home dad before his acting career took off — and took him away from his family.
“It’s this sort of privilege,” Brown said. “This sort of heterosexual, cisgendered, unwitting privilege that says, ‘I don’t have to take a break’ — at least [not] in the same way.”
Brown is acknowledging the persistence of an outdated and sexist convention that’s nevertheless hard to shake: that the man of the house will go out and provide for the family, while the woman is expected to take care of the home. Admittedly, both Beth and Randall work, and both Beth and Randall spend time with the kids, yet those lingering historical standards can manifest in unexpected ways, even in progressive households striving toward true equality.
“With Beth and Randall, he’s this dreamer and has been his whole life,” Brown said. “He’s got big ideas and goes for them, and — like she said — folks get caught up in the wake of that. Now there’s this thing where she’s found her passion, and he’s found a job that takes him three hours both ways away from his family. In his mind, this wouldn’t have worked at any other point in time, but you kind of have to own the privilege and recognize it. Sometimes you have to play the tambourine, man.”
But so far, Randall is unwilling to step down as lead guitarist. Episode 17 shows him rejecting Beth’s argument that she’s been “steamrolled” by him. He thinks she’s just picked the wrong time to follow her dream, and he could’ve been supportive if she’d wanted to pursue a career in dance prior to his new gig in Philadelphia.
Watson points to patterns as part of the problem. Beth started going along with Randall’s dreamy whims and, over the course of their nearly 20-year relationship, he’s gotten used to her supporting him.
“It’s hard for me to say who’s right and here’s why,” Watson said. “She kind of bent, and he let her. It becomes a role that we play, and in the moments they’ve gone through, it makes sense for her to say, ‘OK [I’ll support him on this.] What else am I supposed to think?’ From her perspective, she’s always felt she had to compromise something to do this [for him], and now she’s at a stage where she does not want to compromise anymore. […] Now the whole relationship has to adjust.”
That’s a tricky thing to do, and it’s been one of the more fascinating elements of “This Is Us” Season 3. While Beth and Randall’s fight is about acknowledging privilege and adjusting their relationship dynamic, the series has been focused on elevating Beth as a character all year. She’s been given a standalone episode (Episode 13, “Our Little Island Girl,” with guest star Phylicia Rashad), and the writers have been digging into her backstory, her perspective, and her dreams more and more. Just as part of Beth’s problem with Randall has been finding space for herself amid his many ambitions, Season 3 has been about establishing Beth’s autonomy in a relationship and series that’s often swept up in loving Randall. (After all, he’s very easy to love.)
It’s also important to note this is the second “This Is Us” episode in as many seasons built around a central couple’s rare blowup. In Season 2, it was Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) who exploded, but their long, largely uncut argument is a far cry from what Randall and Beth go through. Despite what audiences were prepared for, most of “R & B” isn’t a fight. It’s flashbacks. The fight bookends the episode and drives the story forward, and its raw power (courtesy of the choice words and the people saying them) is what most will remember.
Still, the flashbacks are there to reassure us Beth and Randall will be OK, as creator Dan Fogelman has promised all along. It’s up to Watson and Brown to convince us they might not be, and the performers do an immaculate job drawing their characters through decades of love and pain. “R & B” may not be as flashy as last year’s play-like fight, but it’s more nuanced, searing, and important. The “This Is Us” team didn’t coast with everyone’s favorite couple; they dug in, made changes, and are on the brink of bringing their show through to the other side.
Or, as Brown put it when teasing the finale: “There were a few people who said they’d riot if we broke up, so please don’t riot,” he said. “These are two people who are willing to go through [hard times] with one another and can hopefully find a way out to the other side. That’s what makes something worth holding onto. We still hope to represent people’s [relationship] goals, but in a way that feels even more realistic than the first two seasons.”
By checking Randall’s privilege and building out Beth’s autonomy, they’re well on their way.
“This Is Us” airs new episodes Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC. The Season 3 finale is scheduled for April 2.