This Is Us Season 4, Episode 7
“The Dinner and the Date”
Posted by Shannon
Here’s a fun fact about tiny child me: I absolutely LOVED when my parents had people over for dinner. I’m an only child and I grew up without much in the way of family nearby. I kept to myself and didn’t have a ton of friends. But my parents friends were a whole other story. They were the absolute coolest people I knew, and nights they came over for dinner were some of the best nights ever. Suffice it to say, this is not the case for the dinner parties we see here. In fact, these are about as far away from the dinner parties of my childhood memory as you can possibly get. These involve painfully strained conversations dancing around delicate issues of identity, race, and economics. They navigate rivers of passive aggressive jabs. Pretty much no one wants to be at any of them. And yet, this week we find the Pearsons sitting around a table, sharing a meal and holding on for dear life.
Jack and Rebecca
Last week, I praised Jack’s impromptu dinner invitation as a good save after a messy conversation. But I’m sad to say I gave our dear patriarch a little too much credit for good intentions. He didn’t invite Mr. Lawrence to dinner as a gesture of gratitude for all the support he’s offered Randall, or to show his son that he encouraged this pivotal bond. Maybe he tried to convince himself those were the reasons; but in reality, he did it because he was curious and wary and more than a little jealous. And while Mr. Lawrence accepted the invitation under more innocent reasoning, he has his own thing going on, and he’s all too ready to roll up to the Pearsons with a gift of poetry that he knows will go right over their heads. (“You’re talking about black consciousness poets an hour before we go to have dinner with your only black student and his white parents?”)
One of my favorite things about this particular storyline was how attuned Rebecca and Trish both were to the ways their husbands set each other off. Trish is trying with all her might to get her husband to be more mindful of the ways his gestures can read as oversteps. And while Rebecca has had her fair share of reactionary defensiveness against black adults spending time with Randall, she seems to have learned from her past mistakes. So while she visibly responds to Mr. Lawrence and Randall’s secret handshake, she swallows any impact it has on her personally and instead registers just how unsettled her husband is. And dear lord is Jack unsettled. He rattles off different types of wood, clarifying that he built Randall’s bookcase with his own two hands – never mind the fact that Randall has filled said bookcase with a collection of works inspired by Mr. Lawrence and organized them by publication date, just like his teacher. He practically shoves Kevin out of the room for giving voice to something blatantly obvious to everyone within earshot. (“Holy crap, it’s like a grown up Randall.”) And the boiling point comes when Rebecca’s attempt at a change of subject leads the conversation to a black arts festival, prompting Randall to invite himself to attend with the Lawrences and pushing Jack to his most appallingly passive aggressive comment yet. Basically, it’s all a goddamn mess.
And it all just made me desperately sad. Jack and Rebecca aren’t perfect, but in Randall’s youth they seemed to be much more conscientious of the need to support him in the exploration of his racial identity. Maybe because it was all so new to them, and they were so focused on making sure Randall knew he was a welcome and loved member of the family. Maybe because, as Jack says later on in the episode, the questions he was asking at those younger ages were easier to explain away. I suspect, though, that Randall fell victim to something Tess also has to face in her teen years. He’s proven to his parents that he is stable, reliable, and in control. That he’s not going to make any trouble, or cause any shake ups, or bring home a bad grade. Jack and Rebecca seem to have made the all too standard parenting mistake of assuming that, because a kid looks like they have it all together, they don’t need emotional support. They’ve let the ball drop just when Randall needs them most. To make matters worse, his dad is over here trying to fight with the one man in his life who has offered a helping hand.
I desperately hope that, after this conversation with Mr. Lawrence, Jack snaps the hell out of it. (Although given his later push for Randall to attend Harvard rather than an HBCU, I have my suspicions.) Jack knows he’s failing his son in this aspect of his life – and he knows there are some things he absolutely cannot teach him. He needs to double down on his promise to spend a lot less time lecturing and a whole lot more time listening. A little concerted effort would go a long way. But I can’t help feeling like the clock has started to run out. Randall’s already memorized “I, Too” – Jack NEEDS to take Mr. Lawrence’s gift of The Weary Blues in the spirit in which it was offered, or Randall will be left to explore this aspect of his identity alone.
Deja and Malik
Moving to a new city is a weird, multi-phased process. The tourist spots come first, along with building out a map of the whole place in your head. It takes time to settle into your own routines, your own neighborhood favorites. And before you know it, you may just realize that you’ve spent months in a town without really connecting to its heart. Randall and Beth have done just that, although they don’t quite know it. But on some gut level, Deja feels that lack. She has fleeting memories of a visit during her childhood that felt so much more connected than the months she’s spent living there now. She doesn’t just skip out on school to get to know Malik better, although she’s clearly falling for him. Deja does it because she’s searching for something real to connect her to her new town. It all comes back to the fear she offered up during Worst Case Scenario: she has an inescapable desire for independence, for a place to call her own. For the family to trust that she knows how to make her own decisions.
Now yes, skipping out on school is not the BEST display of Deja’s decision making prowess, even if she didn’t get caught immediately. But at least Malik checked first to make sure she didn’t have any tests. And wow, what a day these two have.
As Malik swept Deja around Philly, from the best cheesesteak spot in town – with a sandwich named after his grandfather – to a tour of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, to the Magic Gardens, I had one thought that just would not let go of me. Jack Pearson would fucking LOVE this kid. Malik’s instincts, especially during the trip to Max’s Steaks, would have made Jack proud. He can take the smallest sentiment from Deja and drill into the emotional heart of it in a second. Despite the very real evidence to the contrary, Malik just doesn’t read like a player. He’s a sweet kid, and he’s thoughtful, and considerate, and generous. Deja can see all of that – and she still keeps her head about her, feeling her very real feelings and acting on them when she gets overwhelmed.
I loved both of the monologues given to Lyric Ross and Asante Black at the mid point of their day. And damn, did both of them knock it out of the park. To say Deja is a remarkable kid feels like a patronizing understatement. She is completely attuned to her feelings, to her concern over Malik’s experience and her wariness around relationships in general after watching her mother fall for terrible man after terrible man. (“I only know one man who doesn’t lie, and now, maybe I know two.”) She’s overwhelmed, and freaked out, and also undeniably feeling something very real – and she wants to trust those feelings, despite all evidence to the contrary. (“All I know is I got plans for my life, real plans, and this is all too scary.)
And Malik finally has some space to speak to his own life experience, and the doubts and fears he wrestles with daily. Details around the how and why of Janelle coming into being are pretty scarce, but honestly they don’t really matter. Janelle’s mother was his first girlfriend, and some shit went down, and here he is. Meanwhile Malik’s parents have been together 22 years – his grandparents, 60. He’s carrying what feels like generations of guilt around having a child at so young an age, with a woman he will not be with for the rest of his life. (“Hell, I bet my ancestors in Africa were even booed up. And I let them all down.”) They both have to walk around with some seriously heavy shit for teenagers, and somehow they’ve found each other, and that’s beautiful.
Randall and Beth
But that beauty doesn’t make it easy for their respective parental units. Not one bit. Here we have the high water mark for awkward, difficult dinner parties – and not a single adult is without blame. Inviting Malik’s parents to dinner after the kids skip school for the day WOULD have been a fine idea, IF Randall wasn’t still smarting from Deja skipping in the first pace, making it impossible for him to come in with a clear head. And it would have been a much better plan if the adults in the room had executive decision-ed from the get go that it should only be the four of them, free of the distrust and suspicion that each set has for the other’s kid. The absolute last thing they needed was for Janelle to be around as the physical representation of Randall and Beth’s anxiety, OR for Tess and Annie to jump around tripping out both sets of parents with their running commentary. This whole thing is a disaster waiting to happen, regardless of Beth’s “open toed shoes for an open mind” mantra.
Kelly comes in just as hot, positive that Beth and Randall’s wealth means they don’t pay attention to their kids and suspicious of Randall’s familial connection to The Manny. Darnell starts out extremely chill, defending the kids in the car, but Randall squanders that fast when he can’t pull together an ounce of humility around the size of their house. (Thank god he at least didn’t start talking about it as downsizing.) These two couples would have been oil and water under the best of circumstances, much less when they’re all high on distrust.
The whole thing is just a nightmare, and frankly it’s a beast to dissect. Much like the earlier storyline, neither of the couples are at their best. But here, the stakes are even higher, messier, and more volatile. Randall and Beth have not, that we’ve seen, been challenged in their form of privilege yet in Philly. William was the last man of color to come into their home and speak to their wealth, and his energy was on a completely different level. The show has danced around the fact that Randall is representing a community that he has still kept at a distance, but Darnell and Kelly are the first real people to make that confrontation unavoidable. They’re not Sol Brown people – they don’t even vote. Darnell has roots in this community that Randall isn’t even aware of; he seems shocked when Darnell says that this neighborhood was one of mystique and wealth. And the tension between Kelly and Beth is a whole other thing. Both mothers are dead set on finding the fault on the other kid, and both are equally protective of their own. After Kelly fires the first shot at Beth with the absolutely inexcusable “it must be hard raising someone else’s child,” Beth cannot be talked down. She counters by acknowledging that while yes, Deja has been through a lot, “so have you, right? Having to raise your child’s child and all.” It only gets worse from there.
The fact that Randall and Darnell are at least TRYING to play nice in the kitchen doesn’t get anyone very far. Especially once Kelly and Beth start jabbing at each other during grace. Janelle’s crying jag spins the whole thing out, but honestly, it’s a blessing, since it gets the five individuals under the age of 18 out of the damn dining room. I really do think that, if the kids hadn’t been there in the first place, the parents might have avoided the absolutely fucking ignorant things that three of the four of them say. I swear, it is not just my overwhelming love for Omar Epps driving this take, but Darnell is the only person to keep his wits about him. He responds to Randall’s classist misstep with steadfast dignity, insisting that while it would be easy to write of Malik, he should instead “choose to see a straight A student, a sweet boy who loves to make his mother and daughter smile. But what you’re not gonna do is write him off.”
Deja is the only person with a foot in both the Pearson’s and Hodge’s lives, the only one who can see both couples for what they have to offer AND for their implicit weaknesses. So she’s the only one who can stop the madness. Her tearful apology, respectful to both sets of parents while also insisting that “I’m not sorry for yesterday because that was the best day of my life,” snaps everyone out of it. The Hodges take off, and the Pearsons ground her for a week, but Malik and Deja are allowed to see each other – with supervision. This will not be the last time the Hodges and the Pearsons interact. And it will likely never be great between the two couples. But at least they can respect the relationship their kids have formed.
Colors of the Painting
- It broke my heart into a million pieces to hear Mr. Lawrence assuring Jack that only he will be the grandfather to Randall’s children.
- Tess’s immediate response to Janelle crying was to jump up and try to help, and all I could think of was her future job as a social worker. This kid. I love her so much.
- For a dude who does not want his kid in this relationship, Randall needs to chill on the ship names. That said – Dejik and Maleja are both top fucking notch.
- I would like to put in a personal request for the Lawrence’s whole entire floor to ceiling bookcase, thank you very much.
- “They’re Rastafarian vegans who love outdoor sports.”
- Shout out to Susan Kelechi Watson for absolutely killing it this week.
- Mr. Lawrence gave one line that I need to pick apart: “If I’m lucky, one day he’ll remember me as someone who was vaguely important to him once.” First, speaking as someone who had very formative relationships with educators, I can say that this is a dramatic understatement. Secondly, if we don’t get some time with adult Randall remembering his childhood teacher it will be an absolute waste of the format of the show. It can be tiny, or fleeting, or in the form of a poem. I don’t care. I need this.
- This week’s musical entry comes to us from the one and only Frank Ocean. Enjoy.
What did you think of “The Dinner and the Date”? Let us know in the comments.