This Is Us Season 5, Episode 6
Posted by Shannon
It’s time for me to admit something. I love the standard format of This Is Us. Truly, I do. I love mixed up, wide ranging, time jumping, family scattering storytelling. But my very favorite episodes of this show, almost without exception, are breaks from the form. They’re the ones that zero in on one person, one story, or one moment in time, and really let us linger in a character’s mind. The storytelling shines, and every single bit of production rises up to meet the challenge of a narrower focus. Obviously, “Birth Mother” is still complex and decades-spanning, but it’s all about Laurel. Laurel, her history, what brought her to William, where she went after he thought she was lost, and what she has to give Randall – even after she’s gone.
Randall and Beth arrive in New Orleans as fast as their hastily-referenced quarantine will allow. They get a single, quiet night to prepare before meeting Hai, and once they do, the emotional train comes barreling out of the station. They’ve not known Hai for more than five minutes before he drops the first shock: the house they’ve just complimented is actually Randall’s.
We, the audience, don’t know a whole lot about Hai before this hour. But we can surmise a few more things than what he’s told Randall on the phone. For Hai to have a picture of Laurel in her 20’s in his house, for him to have cooked for her in his youth, meant that he needed to know her for decades before her death in 2015. Because of that small touch, I just assumed that Hai knew her for most of, if not all of, her life. And I wasn’t far off! When he launched into Laurel’s story “from the beginning,” the storytelling settles in for a full life story.
And what a life this was. One of the things I loved most about this hour was the pacing of it all. In just 40 some odd minutes, we get a whole life – highlights, obviously, but not rushed, not oddly spaced, not jumbled or inconsistent. Laurel goes through so much, and so much of it is a fucking tragedy. But in classic This Is Us style, there’s just as much joy, honesty, and emotional growth as there is horrendous sadness.
Right off the bat, Laurel is the kind of character I just adore. She has a personality bigger than her snazzy last name, with a quiet wit and intelligence and a rebellious streak that gets her to convince her brother Jackson to cover for her while she hangs out with her Aunt Mae – against her father’s will, of course. Amongst the high class, southern Black society of weekends working at the bank, breakfast broaches, straightened hair and frequent church visits, Laurel and her Aunt Mae are clearly kindred spirits, looking to break out from what surrounds them. They both leap before they look, both listen to their heart more intently than their family patriarch. When Jackson, Laurel’s beloved brother, dies in Vietnam, her Aunt Mae is the only one who knows how she needs to navigate this pain – by FEELING it. By walking out into the lake, closing her eyes, and screaming everything out. Without her Aunt, it would have been easy for Laurel to never let go of this pain. And even without the quick cut to Randall, immediately struck mourning the Uncle he “met and lost in the course of five minutes,” this emotional tendency sounds all too familiar.
And this is where Hai comes in.
Despite the breakneck pace of world events we seem to be living through, it’s been hard for me to wrap my head around just how pivotal the Vietnam War was to the generation raising the Big Three. I knew it in the abstract, historical sense, and I was always fascinated by the cultural legacy surrounding one of our nation’s many low points. But for some reason, the day to day ramifications have kind of escaped me until I began writing about This Is Us. This show has really explored the way the Vietnam War seeped into every single family, every single life. Randall alone has lost (or thought he lost) two Uncles to the war, from two separate families. It’s also what brought Hai to Laurel. Hai, a fisherman, came to New Orleans as a refugee from Vietnam. He found Laurel working out her emotions in the lake one day, and assumed she was drowning. So he jumped in after her.
What a love story this is, y’all. Laurel and Hai’s courtship is stunningly beautiful. It’s a variation of a story we’ve all heard before a million times – they’re truly in love, they’re from two very different backgrounds, one is wealthy and one is not, one of their parents is insisting on a relationship with someone more aligned with the family – but Hai and Laurel hit differently. This is a Vietnamese refugee and a Black aristocrat we’re talking about. And this is our history. This is the history of countless people across the country, who never (or at the very least, very rarely) have seen their stories told. It also means this country’s malignant, systemic racism, and its violence against women of color particularly, is waiting quietly in the wings.
Laurel took off from New Orleans when her father insisted she marry Marshall, a sweet, boring boy who recently became a VP at her father’s bank. It’s the final straw for Laurel. She WANTED Hai to come with her – of course she did – but he couldn’t leave his parents, and they both knew she couldn’t get away with staying with him. And so Laurel lands herself in Pittsburgh, a cheaper bus ticket than Chicago, and it’s there she meets and falls in love with William. Randall sees an in with the ONE thing he’s already known, and his patience is running thin with Hai’s lovely, paced out story. (“Seriously, it rivals The Notebook.”) It’s not like Randall to not want to know every single detail he can, but once he gets to the part of Laurel’s life he already knows, he can’t bear the mysteries anymore. He HAS to know what stopped Laurel from finding him, and has to know why she never came back to William. Hai’s response knocks the wind out of him.
In hindsight, it would have to be something this traumatic for the plot to work. That doesn’t make any of this easier to watch. And frankly, the show goes pretty easy on the details for the worst parts of Laurel’s life through 1985. But we don’t need to know the details to know it’s a horror show. The fact that the cops swept into a hospital and arrested a woman days after giving birth because she overdosed is appalling and completely unsurprising. This was the beginning of the war on drugs, and atrocities like this were happening to Black people every day. They still happen every day. That her lawyer, probably a young, court appointed guy who could barely get his argument straight – or didn’t care enough to do so – convinced her to plead guilty and landed her with a five year sentence is fucking brutal. And it happens every day. Prison overcrowding meant Laurel couldn’t stay in the same state, and got trucked off to California. Again, it happens every day. Without enough money for a home phone, she couldn’t even try to call William and tell her what was happening to her, much less try to get back to him after her release. The only thing she could do was go back to New Orleans, to her Aunt Mae and her one reliable safe haven.
Aunt Mae is everything Randall has ever needed. The generational inheritance from Aunt Mae to Laurel to Randall was clear as day when Laurel sat with her aunt and cried, ashamed and scared and devastated and convinced that this was all her fault. Aunt Mae knew the pain of holding on to trauma, too. (“I let my broken heart be all that I was.”) That much guilt and misery is impossible to carry without showing scars. Mae was perhaps the first DuBois to figure out a healthy way to feel and move through her trauma. She found peace in the water, and she taught her niece to find it, too. “If you don’t let the guilt go, it’ll strangle you.”
Which brings us back to Hai and Laurel, waving at each other across a market for thirty years. If I’m being honest, this is where their story really got me in the gut. The idea that their lives took them away from each other and that still, they could find solace in each other’s quiet and faithful company, hit me deeply. It’s the loyalty they showed to each other, both platonic and romantic, that breaks my heart. The time jumps bring us to 2013, two years before Laurel’s death, to the Hai we now know and love and to the version of Laurel Randall and Beth may have passed in the street years earlier. It’s peaceful, and lived in, and content, and absolutely beautiful.
After living through so much, Laurel ends her days living a quiet life, with her first great love by her side. Hai never stops caring for her legacy. He tends the house, and honors her memory, and doesn’t hesitate to finish her dream of meeting Randall. (“I waited a long time to do this for Laurel. I should be thanking you.”) Just like that, Randall has answers to questions he never knew he should ask. And he has a farmhouse, in New Orleans, by a lake, with water that healed his bloodline for generations.
Everything we have ever known about Randall Pearson has led to this moment. His drive to learn more about his heritage. His tendency to hold his emotions too tightly, and all the complicated, human reasons why that tendency grew into a dangerous coping mechanism. His pain, and sadness, and all the bitter anger he’s never fully felt – much less let go. And all his resilience, too. The unflinching love he has for his family. All of it has been leading to this moment, finally safe in his family’s lake, finally letting all of it go.
Randall leaves a different man. The change is visible from miles away. Now that he knows – really, truly knows – where he came from, he can be at peace. “It’s two people, two imperfect people, that loved me.” And immediately, he wants to free himself and his brother from their bad blood. So he calls Kevin from the car – and gets the flip side of the phone call Kevin made to him just weeks ago.
Randall finds Kevin in a panic, racing back from Vancouver, across a border – somehow – trying to get back to Madison in time for her to have the twins. It’s… not gonna end well.
Colors of the Painting
- Beth was on fire this hour. From her absinthe obsession to her cheering on Hai and Laurel’s “hot sexual tension,” I loved every word that came out of her mouth.
- I am MORTIFIED that it took until my second viewing to recognize Chi McBride, also known as Edward Vogler from the first season of House, MD. (To my credit, as Kim can attest, I knew I knew him from SOMEWHERE immediately.) Chi, my man. Good to see you still out here playing characters who are generally terrible.
- A word for the work Sterling K. Brown does this hour as he listens to Hai tell Laurel’s story. He’s always next level, but this shit was Emmy submission worthy. And the way he looks PHYSICALLY lighter once he’s out of the water?? Stunning.
- Speaking of exceptional work, Jennifer C. Holmes is a STAR. I’m so grateful we got to see what she can do and I hope many, many more jobs come her way. Stat.
- I’m just gonna stay on the kudos train for one more minute because all of these people deserve it: Siddhartha Khosla pulled out all the stops with the score this week. He’s already one of my top television composers, but his work this week cemented his place.
- I loved that we closed the loop on “Forty: Part One” and learned why Laurel loved Mahalia Jackson so much. Her brother was a fan, and her music comforted her after he was gone. As Jackson says, “Mahalia Jackson sang for MLK. She’s an American queen.”
- This Joy Oladokun track, which closes out the hour, is stunning. I can’t wait to hear more from her.
What did you think of “Birth Mother”? Let us know in the comments.