This Is Us Season 3, Episode 17
“R & B”
Posted by Shannon
I thought I was ready for this. On its face, I was. I was ready for Beth and Randall to throw down, to see just how far the show was willing to take this argument. But I wasn’t ready for Randall, so often the stand-out, best possible kind of man, to spend the entire hour disappointing me. “R&B” isn’t just the story of Randall and Beth through the ages. It’s decades of female emotional labor going unnoticed, of compromises that didn’t even register as such grating at the soul of a person and wearing her down. I said last week that I’d reserve judgement until after this episode. And don’t get me wrong – I still don’t want this to end in separation for them. These two are fighters and they’ve loved each other fiercely for a long time. But this hour was a real blow to the vision of Randall as a perfect husband.
Let’s put a pin in the modern day fight and start at the beginning: with Beth and Randall, as college freshman, going out on their first ever date. It’s a sweet setup, one we already knew was orchestrated by Kevin. I love that Randall was already so charmed by Beth. I love, too, that Beth is endeared by him on the phone in spite of herself. She agrees to go out with him the following night – but once we’re there, things start to go a little sideways. Randall has never been more his father’s son than he was in this moment. He makes a reservation at an insanely fancy restaurant for dinner, wears a suit, buys flowers. The whole thing screams of Jack Pearson, but with the added layer of teen Randall being so emotionally wide open. Randall’s face is an open book and he holds nothing back. LIterally. Nothing. Beth just lost her father, too, and she broaches the subject gently with him after he talks a little about Jack, but all in all this is not the night she had in mind. Especially not once the racist restaurant management decides it’s company policy for them to pay before their meal. Beth’s refusal to eat there is the only reason they finally leave, and Randall practically chases her out, getting defensive and insisting that she’s “trying to start a fight.”
Except that’s not what was going on. Beth wasn’t poking at Randall for a fight – she was standing up for herself, telling him that all his overtures were making her uncomfortable. (“I’ve known you for ten minutes, stop telling me this stuff, it’s too much.”) She’s polite but firm. It’s very possible I would feel differently about this if we saw her pick up the phone back in her dorm and call him, or if there was even a sliver of examination for her mental space after this scene. But for Beth to leave the date saying “you’re a very nice guy but please don’t call me again” and Randall to still come home saying he’s going to marry her? With nothing from Beth even hinting at wanting to go out with him again? Not great, Bob.
The fact that the next time we see them, he’s proposed so many times she barely even notices anymore honestly doesn’t help. It’s been seven years, and these two are happy together in their delightfully grungy post-grad apartment. But Randall is just not listening to what Beth wants. At all. Ever. She doesn’t want to get married yet. She certainly doesn’t want to stop rolling around on their couch to go to their weekly (!!) dinner with Rebecca. It just gets worse when it becomes clear that Randall is telling Rebecca the details of every single one of his proposals. The fact that he refuses to allow Beth to remove Rebecca from this conversation, then acts out when Beth meets him with honesty, is distressing. He doesn’t listen to her concerns and adapt his behavior. Instead he takes off in a huff, leaving Rebecca to speak with Beth and assure her that Randall isn’t the type of person who’ll let her lose herself.
On one hand, Beth responds to all of this by taking charge. She knows exactly the kind of proposal she wants, and she knows she DOES want to marry Randall. So she sets it up for herself, ordering her nachos and ginger beer and finally opening with “Okay, I’m ready. Ask me.” And the proposal is perfect, and gorgeous, and I love it. I love that he keeps the ring on him at all times (“our front door barely locks, you think I’d leave this in our apartment?”), I love that she starts crying as soon as he starts talking, knowing the weight of the moment. It’s a GOOD proposal and I don’t mean to take away from it with what I’m about to say. But the thing is… she shouldn’t have had to set this up for herself. She’s told Randall what she wants. Hell, she told him this exact scenario was all she wanted for a first date. He should know she didn’t want a jumbotron, or a dance party, or who knows how many other scenarios as an engagement. She wanted this. She wasn’t secretive about it. She shouldn’t have had to do it on her own.
Speaking of things she shouldn’t have had to do on her own…. How about that wedding? I hate to rip it down like this, because the end result was gorgeous. Hell, the whole wedding was gorgeous. So much of it was spectacular. I love their vows, and her dress, and the setting, and the way they hold each other up and stand back to back in the bathroom promising they’ll be there for each other. These are two people who are, in so many ways, stronger together. The entire vow-writing sequence was stunning because it proved just how on point they can be when they get out of their own way. The image of those two, alone in the middle of wedding chaos, grabbing at each other and refusing to open their eyes lest they risk bad luck, expressing everything they always wanted – it’s perfect. But under the surface of all of that romance is a man who left his future wife in the lurch the week of their wedding to go off and write what would amount to, in his words, “a deeply boring dissertation on marriage.” The most telling moment of all of this was Kevin asking Randall to skip to the part in his vows where he starts talking about Beth – and Randall realizing that he hasn’t. He’s ignored her pleas for help with the wedding for a week, if not longer. And he didn’t even write his vows to her directly.
Another time jump finds Randall and Beth, delirious with exhaustion, caring for their first-born. They’re both bone-tired. Randall’s back at work and Beth’s maternity leave is about to end, but they still take a few moments in the middle of the night to make some nachos and originate my favorite game, worst case scenario. They start off superficially enough, worrying about tattoos and a lack of rhythm. (“Don’t look at me like that, that’s a real fear.”) Things start to get real when Beth broaches the impending end of her maternity leave, admitting to Randall that she’s scared Tess will forget her. This sequence is the most direct through-line to the fight Randall and Beth are having in modern day because by now, Beth has already bent. At minimum, twice – in reality, probably a whole lot more than that. Randall’s assurance that they’ll make it work already has a different meaning in her mind. (“If somebody is gonna make it work, it has to be me.”) The whole nacho metaphor was silly and weird and inspired middle of the night talk – and it was honest. Beth feels both truths she’s expressed here so deeply. She loves that Randall is the kind of man who knows what she needs and wants to provide it. And she knows that he’s also the kind of man who will just go for what he wants, without really thinking about the crumbs he’s leaving behind.
The most important moment in this sequence for me was his reaction. Again, he doesn’t hear her out. He doesn’t take a beat to listen to what she’s saying. Instead, he insists he’ll never eat nachos again and starts to spiral. Beth talks him down, leading him up to bed – no doubt, remembering the breakdown that at this point was barely a year in their rearview. But this was a real moment for potential growth for Randall, and he ignores it.
He does the same thing over a decade later, when the Pearson men have taken over the house. Kevin’s in the basement, William is in Annie’s room, and the whole place is in chaos. (It’s total madness in the kitchen, but my heart still burst at the image of Kevin, Randall and William sitting around the island chatting and making jokes. There has not been nearly enough William this season. I want more William.) As soon as Beth started talking about a work conference, I knew she was making it up. But the woman just needed a night off, no questions asked or explanations demanded. Except when William and Randall stop off at a grocery store on their way to pick up Annie, they find Beth staring down some swedish fish and finishing up her getaway cart.
Again, the most upsetting thing here isn’t the scene’s direct focus. It’s that Randall truly thinks Beth hasn’t already been crystal clear about what she needs. She had asked for a night to herself already, who knows how many times. But he wasn’t able to give it to her, spiraling out and worrying about why she needed the time off in the first place. Randall has shown, time and time again, that he’s incapable of hearing this lesson and really changing his behavior. So who can blame her for breaking out of the house with a bottle of wine and a iPad full of Living Single episodes? Granted, she should have taken yes for an answer and not taken the bait of Randall wanting to watch with her. The moment Beth started rattling off other things he needed to pick up at the store (up to and including Kevin’s lavender scented toilet paper) any hope of relaxation she had was lost.
Which brings us up to present day; with the help of that cold hearted voicemail from her husband, Beth has finally snapped. It’s not like him to be so callous, so intentionally cruel. Randall calling it a “gross misstep” is a hell of an understatement (and shows how much he’s already inhabiting the voice of a politician, to be honest). All Randall had to do was take a breath and look at their history; Beth has always had his back, even in the darkest days. But Randall has a point too. Their rhythm IS off, and Beth hung up from that call in a huff. Their interactions throughout the whole argument have the crackle of uncertainty. Randall and Beth have been through so much together. But the audience is given every reason to believe that they’ve never quite been here. And it really is because Beth has never fought back like this. She has always bent. Always.
Beth knows Randall’s family dynamics arguably better than he does. While the “Moonshadow” flashback is meant to be in Randall’s head (and damn was that whole thing brutal and perfectly placed), Beth knows about that fight too. Hell, 18-year-old Randall tried to tell her all the dirty details of that fight on their first date. So while she loves and respects Rebecca, she knows that Rebecca had been swallowed up by Jack. And she knows that Randall has done the exact same thing his father did – even though they promised, before their engagement, that they would stay whole people. (“I broke that promise. And you let me.”)
This time, she’s not going to bend. She doesn’t want to hear another monologue, doesn’t want to be talked down. Doesn’t want to hear a WORD about Randall’s claims that she’s revising history. It is obviously way out of line for Beth to speak about Randall’s anxiety in the way that she does. There’s no excuse for it. Except…time and time again, as we saw in this hour, she had tried to talk to him for real. And time and time again, he’s refused to hear it, so she took a step back, worried about setting off another spiral. So no, people with anxiety should not be treated with kid gloves and yes, it was way out of line for her to say that. But his words at the start of the hour were just as painful. Just as callous. They just weren’t said after hours of emotionally draining arguments. Randall does exactly what he did all those years ago after Beth explained precisely why she didn’t want to get married: he takes off. And she doesn’t follow him.
Colors of the Painting
- Randall and Beth’s wedding was a great spot for some cameos. There’s a woman who MIGHT have looked like Zoe standing up in the wedding party, but I could have used a more direct dance moment with her sistercousin.
- A brief, non-Randall or Beth aside: seeing Kevin in New York at that age was jarring. It’s so strange to think of him so young, out on his own, fending for himself. Part of me hopes we get to see a little more of Kevin and Sophie’s early years in the city, but I’m also a little scared that it just eats him alive.
- While we’re on the subject of Kevin, his weird little goatee cracked me the hell up and I LOVED him yelling “WOW, SO PRETTY” at Beth the moment she leaves her bedroom.
- “I adore William. I tolerate Kevin.”
- If Randall ever called William “Will-Hill” before, I missed it, and I am not above using that nickname alone as evidence that we need more WIlliam flashbacks.
- “You don’t dance to Lauryn Hill, you groove.”
- “Every part of me belongs to you.” “What about Janet?” “Right again, except that very small part of me that I promised to Janet Jackson when I was sixteen.”
What are your thoughts on “R & B”? Are you ready for the finale? Let us know in the comments.