This Is Us Season 5, Episode 13
Posted by Shannon
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I have to wonder what the plan was originally, when Randall and Kevin had their blow out at the end of season four. Without knowing that a pandemic and a summer of racial reckoning was just on the horizon, the creatives behind This Is Us made the move they needed to make: after four years of fits and starts and equal parts supportive work and broiling jealousy, these two brothers finally said every worst thought they had in their minds. It was all laid bare, and it was all earned. Both men went out of line; both men had valid emotional points. It’s very possible that handling constant, racist microaggressions was already on the docket for their ultimate resolution. The work was already baked into the characters; there’s nothing new in this dynamic. But by the time season five began, it was no longer an option for the show to dance around the internalized racism of the white Pearsons. They had to go there. Its white audience had to see it. And Randall deserved the release of having his complex, complicated childhood addressed holistically, not just in pieces.
“Brotherly Love” was in safe creative hands, thanks to a Black writer (Jon Dorsey), director (Kay Oyegun), and editor (Erin Wyatt). That said, I’m a white woman; I can’t speak to how this episode plays out for the Black audience, or the transracial adoptee audience, or any other non-white viewers. I will encourage everyone, though, to watch this a second time if you haven’t already. There’s so much work being done, so much care and thoughtfulness across the board, that “Brotherly Love” opens up upon rewatch. And with Sterling and Justin, the audience – and the characters – are in the best possible hands.
Let’s get to it.
There was no other way for this conversation to happen other than in person, and yet, I’ve got a ton of contradictory thoughts in my mind about what that meant. Since the brothers live on opposite coasts, it required Kevin flying over – which automatically axed any guise of normalcy. Both brothers owed the other an apology, but the weight of Kevin’s is dramatically different. (Randall was attacking the way Kevin walks through the world and interacts with their father’s memory, while Kevin was attacking Randall’s entire identity.) That, combined with the intentionality of the flight, practically guaranteed that his first attempt at an apology would be surface level. Kevin’s been raising newborn twins, adapting to life with a fiancé and a long lost Uncle; he hasn’t exactly set himself up for deep anti-racism work, even if that was something he was inclined to do to begin with. And as I said last episode, Randall’s at a delicate point in his own work to try to have this conversation. He’s still in the very early stages of his work around his identity as a transracial adoptee. Randall’s in a different place in therapy than he was a year ago, but he’s still got a way to go, and this is extremely heavy, weighty, complicated work. I believe him when he says he doesn’t even really know what he wants Kevin to say. All these factors combine to make the first missive, after some awkward-yet-familiar chit chat, extremely disappointing.
I’d imagine that, for a large portion of the white audience, Kevin’s first attempt at an apology seems fine. He remembers a real-life example of witnessing Randall bearing the brunt of a racist asshole during their childhood, acknowledges that he didn’t do anything about it, and apologizes. It’s a lot of “if I hurt you,” and “if you ever felt alone.” But this is what white people do, all too often. We think racism only “counts” if it’s obvious. If it’s undeniable. We ignore, or gloss over, racism that’s quieter, more internalized, because it means confronting our own inherent biases. It allows us to be practiced, rehearsed, and to keep our own behavior at a safe distance. That’s exactly what Kevin’s doing, and it’s why Randall’s emotional walls shoot right back up even as he fights against them. (“It is a very kind sentiment. It was a beautiful monologue.”)
I suspect Kevin and Randall getting locked out on the front stoop was more of a plot device than anything else. It acts as a nice mirror to their college years, and it forces a dialogue that I’d like to think they both would insist on continuing anyway. But I was also reminded of that big season four fight, when Kevin insisted on following Randall out as he tried to leave – and when Randall jumped on Kevin after he needed some air himself. For better or for worse, these two are never inclined to leave well enough alone, or to give each other space. One or the other of them will always try to get the last word, will always try to force the issue. In this case, it’s a blessing, because it lets Randall vocalize exactly what was wrong with Kevin’s first apology attempt: “You’re just glossing over one overt moment of racism with an obviously prepared speech of things you think I want to hear.”
The thing I love the most about Kevin and Randall’s character dynamic is that I don’t have a favorite between them. They both hit me hard and personally; they both have their faults. For Kevin, one of the things I love the most about him is also a part of one of his most dire character defects; he’s well intentioned to the point of naivete. Sometimes that means he’s daydreaming about building a multi-family compound with Kate and Toby where the kids can all run around, and sometimes that means he just wants to cross an apology off his list because he knows it’s the right thing to do – not because he has done the work to get there himself. He only knows that he always felt like the least favorite, the least special, against Randall’s uniqueness and status as the “golden child.” Kevin has refused to consider how exhausting, draining and ultimately unkind that expectation is in and of itself.
In their youngest flashback, when Jack takes Kevin and Randall to a taping of Mister Rogers during a boy’s weekend, we see a small but exacting version of that dynamic. The boys can’t be more than four years old; and the racial dynamic is present and unignorable. When the PA assumes Randall is in a different family, Jack tells him not to worry about it, because “It’s an easy mistake, happens all the time.” And how painful in the psyche of a four year old, to be othered so constantly that everyone is “used to it.” Jack, naturally, overcorrects and tells Randall he’ll get a special seat – which feeds right into Kevin’s resentment.
All of this is mixed up in Kevin’s developing mind. He knows Randall is his mother’s favorite. He knows Randall is smart and special, and that he’s different. His Blackness is intrinsic to that difference, which leads Kevin to combine his brother’s racial identity with his bitterness, and THAT is what opens him up to commit constant microaggressions against his brother, like the ones we saw back at the pool. (“You had racial blind spot, Kev. Deep ones, that affected me. Not my prom date’s dad. You.”) Those microaggressions build on top of each other their entire lives, with countless examples and countless painful memories for both of them – memories of Kevin feeling excluded and like a failure, and lashing out, and memories for Randall of being constantly othered and blamed for his Blackness, and made to feel like he didn’t belong in either world, but should show nothing but gratitude for it all the same.
The moment the show pulls from as an example is probably fifteen years after the Mister Rogers taping, when Randall flew to LA for a Model UN competition and swung by to see Kevin, who had newly relocated and was going out for pilots. From the moment Kevin opens the door to his brother, he starts in with the “teasing,” the Fresh Prince jokes, the Carlton references. The thing that makes it so painful, especially at this age in their development, is that we KNOW at this point that Kevin knows what he’s doing. He’s clinging to willful ignorance, and acting just enough on subconscious to still claim he’s not aware of the racial impact of his cracks, but there’s a viciousness just behind his eyes – especially when it’s just the two of them. We see, too, the beginnings of Kevin’s alcoholism – his gallon jug of vodka, his use of booze as a coping mechanism. (And for the billionth time, kudos to Niles Fitch and Logan Shroyer, who have their own version of Justin and Sterling’s phenomenal chemistry going on.) Kevin’s behavior in the cab is flat-out horrific,and by the time the cabby kicks both of them out for being belligerent, Randall’s been driven to the point of physical aggression.
Which loops back around to their argument on the stoop. All those years ago, wrestling on the side of the road, Kevin lost the keys to his apartment – mirroring both brothers getting themselves locked out of Randall’s house. When Kevin and Randall were teenagers, Randall tried to talk to his brother about the racial implications of his behavior, but Kevin glosses over it (“I’m rude to all cabbies, man, it really doesn’t matter what color they are”) and after a quick pushback, Randall pivots, learning more about the tough time Kevin is having in LA and brushing his own feelings the rug. There must have been countless moments like this one, leading up to the brothers finally hashing it out at another lock-out decades later.
After recovering the keys once again (this time from a “sweet old lady that never goes anywhere”), Kevin and Randall finally both start to operate from a place of total honesty. The resulting discussion/argument/heart to heart/come to Jesus between Kevin and Randall walks the line between educating white audiences by showing us ourselves, and the fault in our arguments, while honoring Randall’s experience and ensuring that he says what he needs – and has those needs met. The writers are doing a whole lot of work here, and while it’s impossible to get everything right, they sure as hell come close. Kevin does exactly what so many white viewers would do – assume that having your intrinsic racism brought to light is the same as being called “a racist.” Randall is frustrated, exhausted, and sick of pulling punches, and the script doesn’t shy away from that.
There are so many turning points in this conversation. There’s the moment Randall finally plugs into exactly what it is he needs Kevin to do. (“I want you to acknowledge that you’ve always resented the fact that I’m Black. And not just as kids, man.”) There’s Randall speaking to the loss and trauma of not having William and Laurel around as a kid, and clarifying exactly how toxic it is for Kevin to say he sounds ungrateful. (“It is a prison, Kevin, having to show gratitude and nothing but gratitude all the damn time.”) And there’s a true moment of catharsis and forgiveness when Randall tells Kevin about his ghost kingdom: the family he built in his mind as a child, with the only two Black adults he consistently saw standing in for his birth parents. He tells Kevin that he felt too guilty to fully escape into that fantasy, that he loved the Pearsons too much – and so he folded them into his ghost kingdom, too. Kevin finally, truly hears his brother at this point. He gives a real apology, one that acknowledges all the things he still doesn’t understand, and they both apologize for the things they said outside Kevin’s house last year.
And still… as real as it was, it felt too cursory, even upon first viewing. It felt like Randall was taking the best he could hope for, and moving on, because he loves his brother and his family that much. Which leads to the final sequence, and the kind of scene that makes me proud to watch and write about this show. Kevin and Randall are just sitting on the couch, relaxing and chatting about Bobby DeNiro, when Kevin asks again about the ghost kingdom, and if it still lives in Randall’s memories. It does – and it’s always Randall “at the same age, always with the weather man and the librarian and all of you guys.” Even after meeting William and finding Laurel, they haven’t found their way into the ghost kingdom. There’s something keeping Randall at that same phase of processing, still emotionally stuck.
I’m not sure what it is that clicks in for Kevin at this moment. It’s a testament to the script, and to Justin Hartley’s performance, that we don’t get all the answers to Kevin’s processing. We don’t need them; they’re not what’s important. What’s important is that Kevin finally “says the ugly things” and acknowledges the deepest, darkest truth about his relationship with his brother: “You’re not just my smart, successful brother, Randall. You’re my Black, smart, successful brother. And I think maybe I did resent that. And maybe I thought you getting special treatment was mixed up with you being Black. And I wanted to take you down a notch, and I overlooked things that I shouldn’t have. And I took shots at you that I shouldn’t have taken. And I was more jealous of you than I should have been.”
It’s cut short after a quick lightening of the mood when Beth and the girls finally come home, but there was nothing else Kevin needed to say. THIS is the apology Randall deserved. This shakes his heart loose. (And this is the work Kevin truly needed to do.) When he sleeps that night, Randall dreams of his ghost kingdom – complete with William and Laurel.
Colors of the Painting
- The moment of young Randall talking to Daniel Tiger and confiding in him about his ghost kingdom – whether that conversation was real, or imagined, or a combination of both – was magnificent. We did not deserve Mister Rogers but all of us were so lucky to have him.
- The whole DeNiro thing is the nonsensical gift that keeps on giving. (You’re telling me that director DIDN’T fire Kevin after he walked out? Really?) As Kevin says, “He’s either the most forgiving person on the planet or he doesn’t care about me at all.” In this hour alone, we got Randall quoting Heat at a moment’s notice, Justin Hartley’s delivery of “DeNiro’s gonna be pissed. Again,” and my personal favorite one-two dialogue punch: “DeNiro good?” “DeNiro Great!”
- In college-age Kevin’s sparsely decorated room, we do get one subtle nod to Jack: a Rocky poster. Nice touch, design folks.
- It goes without saying that Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown brought their very best selves to this episode, but goddamn did Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown bring their very best selves to this episode.
- Can Kevin please stay long enough to meet Mama C? I need Justin Hartley and Phylicia Rashad in a scene together and I need it now.
- “What in the world is the Manny and the councilman doing at my door?”
- Playing the part of the weatherman and Randall’s ghost kingdom Dad is the modern Broadway legend Brandon Victor Dixon. If you haven’t heard him sing before, correct that immediately.
It was a perfect touch to have William and Laurel listening to this masterpiece of a track from Nina Simone. (And with a Thelonious Monk poster up in the kitchen!) Enjoy…
What are your thoughts on Randall and Kevin’s reconciliation? Let us know in the comments.