This Is Us Season 3, Episode 13
“Our Little Island Girl”
Posted by Shannon
In hindsight, it’s a crime how little we’ve known about Beth Pearson. I don’t fully disagree with the slow burn of her career change leading us to this, the first full hour she’s had to her name. But I still resent that it took quite so long for us to get here. Panning to Beth during the flash forward, giving us a vision of her future as a dance teacher, felt like such a stretch at first – and even second – viewing. Now, in the cold light of actual backstory, it underlines how removed her life before Randall has been in the show. Hell, it underlines how removed her life away from Randall has been in the show full stop. Doesn’t she have several siblings, along with that long-standing career success? A mom with a bad hip, and powerful female energy supporting one another in her childhood home? We know Beth is a badass. We know she’s a wonderful mom, a thoughtful wife, a fierce protector of anyone she loves. But her hopes and dreams have been a loss to us. Until now.
It’s that troublesome hip that brings Beth and Zoe to DC, in a desperate attempt to get their matriarch to consider retiring from her position as the most perfect tough-love principal a high school could ever ask for. Carol Clarke, Beth’s mother (Mama C to Zoe, Miss C to her students), is nothing short of formidable as she walks the halls of her school, calling out kids by name and insisting that moving from a C to a B can only mean that the next step best be an A. (She’ll only grant herself a proud smile when the student is out of sight.) We know this woman immediately. She’s the kind of person who will refuse to allow attention to be drawn to herself when a kid knocks into her on the stairs, pushing her bad hip directly into a banister. She’s the kind who will always say “I’m fine, darling, keep going” – and almost trick you into thinking the power of her convictions alone can heal her bones.
Did I mention she’s played by Phylicia Rashad?
Beth is, appropriately, terrified of her mother, and despite Zoe’s warnings that she needs to lay down the law (“not just lay down”) when insisting that Mama C retire, it doesn’t bode well when Beth admits she hasn’t even told her mom that she got laid off. Once they arrive at the house, it’s mere moments before her mother has smoothly and swiftly shut down follow up on proper care for her bruised hip (“that walker thing is for old ladies”), insisted that she heat up dinner for the girls, and absolutely refused to hear a word about retirement.
We all revert to childhood behaviors when we’re back in the environment in which we grew up. It’s just a psychological fact. But the Beth we know and love takes no prisoners. It’s not that she’s fearless; it’s that she radiates confidence and self assuredness, even if she’s not completely in the right. So it’s jarring to see her recoil into herself at the tiniest verbal jab from her mother. If it weren’t for Zoe, prodding and finally coming out and saying the word “retirement,” Beth wouldn’t have said a thing. But Beth is still Beth, and I love that it was the attack on Zoe’s career choices that brought Beth back to herself, pulling out her reveal that “Bethany got laid off months ago,” just to make it all stop.
There is SO much going on in this scene. It’s the first we’ve had with Zoe and Beth alone in quite some time, and I sincerely hope this is a sign of more things to come. In so many ways, these two were raised like sisters. But they weren’t, not entirely. For Beth to assume that Zoe has the same relationship with their matriarch, to be so mystified by the lack of control that Carol has over Zoe, is just the tiniest bit thoughtless. To Beth, her mother represents a cold, hard line in the sand. Someone who had the utmost control over every situation, and could only be convinced to change her mind in the most special of circumstances. She sees Carol as the resistance, remembers her father Abe as the one to make her feel special. For Zoe, though, the calculus is completely different. Zoe came to the house in need of respite, safety, a dependable adult structure. Mama C has always provided that, and it’s good for Beth to remember it even while she struggles to connect with her mom. ESPECIALLY when she struggles to connect with her mom.
This sequence also highlights the reason for my continuing mission to get all the Pearson women friends. Zoe calls Beth out in a way that only a close, dear friend can. She KNOWS something else is going on with Beth, that something bigger is holding her back and dragging her down, and that Beth “needs to find a way to talk about it” before it eats her alive. It’s exactly the kind of insight we rely on our friends to offer; it’s not something that would be obvious to anyone else, even to ourselves — but as soon as it’s out of Zoe’s mouth, everything makes sense.
Beth hasn’t been herself, not for most of this season. Certainly not since losing her job. And the reason for that, the real crux of her emotional withdrawal, comes to light here. This is a woman who had her dream taken away. While she moved on, she never quite recovered. And now she loves a man who’s broken from his own day job to follow dream after dream after dream – and it’s too much for her to take.
Meet Bethany. A dreamy kid who sketched when she was supposed to be doing homework and auditioned for a ballet academy without telling her parents. Masterful casting aside, this is one of those moments when the child reveal suddenly, entirely, throws the vision of the adult character into crystalline view. Bethany is focused, dedicated, consistent – as well as creative, thoughtful, audacious. It’s a near-impossible combination, but it all makes so much sense for the Beth we know and love. Vincent Kelly, the ballet academy’s main instructor, sees a “raw talent” in Bethany and hopes she can be the first black principal dancer in the 53 year history of the American Ballet Theatre. If he can only convince her mother.
It’s not that Carol is against this from the start. Not really. But she has to see a path to success for her to understand venturing into the dance world – otherwise, what is her daughter working towards? And what are Abe and Carol themselves sacrificing to provide for her? It takes a substantial effort to convince Carol that such significant buy-in from a working family is worth “all these years of training … for one night of dancing.” Abe pulls it off, reminding his wife that their youngest was a born dancer, that it’s worth having a dream, even if no one else understands it. (“Baby, when have we ever listened to the odds?”) Even then, little Bethany must promise that she’ll work as hard as she can, that this is what she really truly wants – and that she’ll be the best.
That’s an extraordinary amount of pressure for a kid, even in the best of circumstances. And Beth is good, but she’s not great. While her mom sews her tutu and her dad slumps over in his chair after picking up extra hours, she works, jumps, dances, stretches – all ever so slightly behind the tempo. The years spin by in pirouettes, and as she gets closer to the end goal of a potential solo, Beth falls even farther behind the beat. Vincent even has to call her into his office after a particularly bad rehearsal. At this point, I’m far past ever doubting the This Is Us casting department. But the image of teenage Bethany, using the same pattern of speech we’re so familiar with in her adulthood – getting loud, determined, and pulling back the volume but NEVER quieting her focus – was striking. At all ages, Beth has a remarkable duality. Her face is resolute and open at the same time; it’s practically a magic trick.
After her most challenging rehearsal yet, faced with the reality that she’ll have to somehow pour even more of herself into dance if she wants to succeed, Bethany comes home to the frigid opening of “Okay, she’s home, let’s tell them.” Absolutely nothing good can come from a sentence like that. Her father’s suffering from something much worse than a bad cough; he’s been diagnosed with lung cancer. I was struck by how together Bethany stayed through this news. Sure, she cries, but who wouldn’t? Her spine stays straight, her eyes open, her face set. And still, it’s too much of a show of emotion for Carol, who insists that she stop crying, pull herself together, and set the table with Zoe. It’s pretty brutal, honestly, and it only gets worse when Bethany tries to tell her mother that it’s no longer worth her attending dance classes – only to have her mom insist that she’s being silly, that she must “not give up years of training, you are going to stick to the path you choose and you are going to be the best.”
I can’t imagine the kind of pressure Bethany has put on herself in this moment, with her father ill and her professional path closing in on itself after the arrival of a far superior dancer at the academy. With just eight weeks to the solo auditions, Abe finds precisely the emotional opening Bethany needs. There’s a real power in the stories we’re told about our childhood, for good or for ill. Bethany’s lucky; her childhood story is a blessing, even if she’s grown to forget that she’s a girl who confounded doctors who had no idea why she hadn’t walked at 18 months, only to dance across the room to Burning Spear “like it just picked you right up off the ground.” It’s an interesting, if heartbreaking, detail when her father knowingly says that her mom would never admit now that she sobbed at the sight of their little Island girl dancing across the room. For Abe, it’s always just under the surface, as he insists that Bethany “never forget, baby girl.”
A promise from a teenager, even the most well-meaning, is a challenge. So while she promises her dad she won’t forget, and that she won’t let go of her dream, it’s just not the way her life will lead. Shortly after the moment in the living room, Abe passes away, and while Bethany barely takes a day off from her ballet classes, her name isn’t up on that list. I would say it all goes to hell from there – but it doesn’t, not entirely. And Beth wouldn’t say that either.
What she does say, decades later, after mourning her broken promise to her father and confronting her mother about the cold, callous way she shut down dance after losing the solo, is that this is not about regret. That’s not the monster she’s been carrying around with her. It’s the way her mother insisted she shove emotions down, never to pause and feel her feelings, never to take a breath and mourn. We see it in Carol’s refusal to let her hip heal, we see it in her insisting that the next morning Beth sit down with her at the kitchen table to make a list of the best firms in the city to send out resumes, we see it in her shutting down her teenage daughter’s tears, and we see it in the distance that’s formed between Carol and the rest of her kids.
The confrontation – and resolution – for Beth and Carol is swift, but fully realized. We feel the weight of the years behind Beth as she lays out the emotional reality of her and her siblings’ experience; that “there’s no air around you…no air to breathe, no air to fail.” And the energy surrounding Beth as she explains to her mother that, as a result of her stopping dance so abruptly, she’s unable to face her husband while he chases his dreams, is that of a woman who’s realizing everything the very same moment the words tumble out of her mouth.
These things don’t come out of nowhere. It’s generational; it’s always generational. It’s the show’s thesis, but it’s also just a fact. We’re all reacting to the generations that came before us, in one way or another. So as Carol sits Beth down to apologize and talk to her daughter about the reality of her own upbringing, she draws a clear line to her grandmother. A woman who also insisted on the best, and who fought against her daughter’s choice of partner, thinking he was bad company. (“He wasn’t bad company, he just didn’t take life so seriously.”) Carol never fought against her mother, except when it came to Abe. She knew this was the partner she needed, the one who “gave me that air that you said I don’t have on my own.” It all makes perfect sense, but my favorite part of this scene was that Beth never demanded an explanation. She truly doesn’t regret the path her mother put her on, not when it led to her family and her job. All Beth wanted – all she ever wanted – was an apology. When it’s delivered, gracefully and without pretense, she puts her hand to her heart and really FEELS it. It’s a breathtaking bit of acting from both women.
The denouement of this episode, almost more than anything else in the season, left me a weepy mess. It’s that Randall throws his support behind his partner so completely and without hesitation. It’s that Beth walks in so fearlessly, despite her nerves. And more than anything else, it’s the sheer, unadulterated freedom that she radiates the moment she starts dancing. She looks at home. She looks fully realized. She knows what she wants, she sees a path forward, and she jumps in with both feet. Beth has merged the model and vision of both of her parents: she’s going to teach dance.
Colors of the Painting
- My mother was a modern dancer, and taught me to love and respect Mikhail Baryshnikov when I was tiny. But her first instinct when discussing dance is always, ALWAYS to call him Misha. So hearing Vincent Kelly affectionately refer to Baryshnikov as Misha before correcting himself and teaching Bethany about the best dancer of our time was the most accurate moment in the entire hour for me.
- Shout out to Siddhartha Khosla, the composer for This Is Us, who’s been working tirelessly to score the show for all three seasons. He’s done some great work along the way, but Beth’s theme in particular this hour was top notch.
- Susan Kelechi Watson has shaped Beth in several ways: both women share a Jamaican heritage, and Watson also has a history of dance. She’s doing the whole thing herself at the close of the episode, and I hope we get a lot more of it.
- While she fights to keep the support of Vincent, Beth mentions Lauren Anderson: Ms. Anderson is a trailblazer for the American ballet, and one of the first principal black ballerinas in the country.
- The song little 18-month-old Bethany dances to is “Dread River” by Burning Spear, a legendary reggae band from the 70’s. Do yourself a favor and check it.
What are your thoughts on “Our Little Island Girl”? Let us know in the comments!