The best strand of This Is Us’ third season has also been its most unexpected: a multi-episode storyline tracing the development of Beth and Randall’s relationship. Smartly, the show introduced this at the tail-end of its Beth-centric installment — still the very best of the season — allowing us to see its origins from her perspective. And here we see it through in “R & B,” an episode carried by two of the best actors working in TV today, but also a well-crafted, insightful, and complex piece of storytelling in its own right.
Framed around the argument between Beth and Randall which capped “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” last week, “R & B” traces the couple’s lives through a series of disagreements. If that sounds like a grim way to chart everyone’s favorite This Is Us couple’s story, the execution is much more textured and enjoyable to watch.
“We have been having the same fight since we met,” Beth says to Randall in the present-day. We cut back to the moment they met at the Carnegie Mellon mixer and then check in on Randall more settled in college, crushing hard on her. He’s on the phone with Kevin, trying to figure out the best way to express his feelings. Kevin instructs him (from New York, where he’s newly making a go of it) to call her, then to say, “I’m going to take you out to dinner tomorrow night, what time should I pick you up?” With landlines on either ear, he hears Beth respond with surprising eagerness, then asks Kevin what to do next, then they set a time — 7 o’clock. It’s a giddy, fun scene, topped off with Randall’s exuberant reaction of “Holy crap!”
But dinner doesn’t quite go as planned. Randall picks a fancy restaurant and dresses in a suit, surprising her with flowers, while Beth appears in the more age-appropriate college sweatshirt. What’s immediately apparent is the way Randall delves right into the oversharing: A few minutes into the meal, he’s already told her about his adoption and his father’s recent death. Beth tries to get on his wavelength — she confides in him about her own dad’s passing — but things get too difficult when a waiter asks Randall to pay the bill before even ordering. Beth is outraged by the clear display of racism, but Randall tries to downplay it, going so far as to take out his checkbook. She storms out and he follows. “You’re a very nice guy … but you’re a lot,” she says. “This date was a lot.” It doesn’t seem to end well, but when Randall’s roommate asks how the date went, he’s all smiles: “I’m going to marry her.”
“R&B” is, along these lines, very perceptive to how unsustainable dynamics form, even amid the joy of new love and the strength that develops over the years. We next check in on the pair seven years later, with Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson doing their best to play much younger versions of their characters. (Randall’s dorky glasses-and-polo combo helps some.) At this point in time, Randall is proposing so frequently you’d think he didn’t know the meaning of “no.” (Yeah, about that.) He proposes on a jumbotron at a baseball game. He proposes in their partly furnished apartment. Beth says Randall’s her one for life, but she’s just not ready, and she’s not in any rush.
Beth is struggling to come to terms with Randall’s close relationship with Rebecca — Sunday Dinner is a ritual he dare not break, it seems. They all go mini-golfing together, inadvertently on Beth’s suggestion, and things quickly blow up. Rebecca reveals she knows about all of the failed marriage proposals, even one that was a little illicit, and Beth is overwhelmed by this. “I love you, but I’m not ready to get married because I haven’t figured out my life yet,” she tries explaining. “I don’t want my life to be consumed by my husband’s. And Randall, I love you, but you consume things.” After cooling off — and having a heart-to-heart with Rebecca — Beth takes Randall on a mystery trip. He doesn’t know where they’re going; she won’t tell him. Finally, they wind up at an unfussy-looking diner. Beth orders nachos and ginger beer — the combo that, she told Randall on their first date, was her ideal meal. She eats the nachos and drinks the ginger beer while saying nothing. She finishes and says, “I’m ready.” She tells him to propose. He takes out the ring — of course, he has it handy — and does so, romantically and beautifully. Another drama resolved.
Our best glimpse into Randall and Beth’s lives arrives next, on their Wedding Day. (Situated, judging by Randall and Kevin’s new looks, within the weird Pearson beard timeframe.) We find them each in a mini-crisis which distills the dynamic of their marriage. Beth hasn’t written her vows yet, with approximately five minutes to ceremony time, and is frantically asking Kate for solid rhymes to beef them up with. She didn’t have time, she explains, to write them, since so much of the wedding planning fell on her shoulders. And Randall meanwhile is having the opposite problem — he’s written his vows obsessively, but as he reads them to Kevin, they’re less romantic than “a deeply boring dissertation on marriage.” Both ask the respective Pearson siblings to stall the other. But word quickly gets out, and before long, Randall and Beth find themselves in the same room, turned away from each other to preserve the tradition, bickering about how they’ve gotten to this point.
“Let’s just write them together, right now,” Beth suddenly suggests. “We’re better together. That’s why we’re doing this whole thing. Let’s just take turns and speak from the heart.” What follows ranks easily among the most romantic and heartwarming This Is Us moments to date — a recitation of the vows, cutting between these two standing back-to-back in the bathroom and looking into each other’s eyes in their backyard, where the wedding is taking place. It’s just beautifully written and delivered intimately by both actors. “I want to be the man that you deserve,” Randall says. “You are the only thing I am ever going to need.” She says later, “I’ve never been seen so completely, loved so passionately, protected so fiercely.”
The show’s snapshot of Randall and Beth in new parenthood is less successful, a little slight and mainly slotted in to highlight the continued, simmering conflict between them — “If somebody has to make it work, it’s going to be me,” Beth says as they discuss her end of maternity leave and going back to work — rather than really living in a genuinely emotional moment. But what comes after really stings: A very recent flashback of Randall and Beth, now parents of two, around the time William and Kevin were both staying in the house. Beth is headed out of town overnight for a development conference, leaving Randall and William to handle picking Annie up from a sleepover. Simple enough, right? Not quite. They stop by a convenience store and run into… Beth, whose cart is filled with Swedish fish and a bottle of wine. William, instantly noticing what’s going on here, leaves them alone.
Neither Randall nor Beth blow up once the latter is officially busted. She comes clean about lying, with the intention of spending a day in a luxury hotel room, left to herself to watch Living Single and relax away from the “house of men.” Randall is hurt, but understands why she felt she had to do it; the real, resonant pain of the scene comes not in their arguing, but in Beth’s acquiescence. He tells her she can still have her night; she thanks him. But then he asks what episode of Living Single she’s going to start with. Before long they’re laughing over their favorite moments in the series, and a strong sense of guilt seeps in for Beth. She decides she’s not going to have her day. Consciously or not, Randall was undermining Beth here. And while Beth isn’t angry about changing her mind, there’s a sadness in her face once she realizes she’s going back home with Randall and William. It’s devastating to watch, an understated but enormously moving moment in the episode.
Which brings us back to where we are now. “We made a promise to one another that we would never get lost in each other,” Beth says as we return to the present, “and I broke that promise — and you let me.” The show’s neat trick is showing exactly how this came to pass; a real melancholy settles into “R & B,” since that “same fight” has felt so real every time. But we can see Randall’s side of it too, even if it’s less convincing: His eagerness and passion, often for Beth, becoming a little too much. In a viscerally acted moment by Watson, Beth demands Randall admit he thinks his job is more important than hers. “I will not be bullied into saying something even more awful to you,” he says. But she doesn’t back down. She runs through the many times she’s supported him without going after what she really wanted. How she’s always the one bending to keep their lives running smoothly. “Our lives don’t work unless I’m doing the bending,” she continues. “And we both know it.”
Randall still doesn’t back down, either, but Beth goes too far — just like Randall did on the voicemail last week — with a nasty, cutting comment that feels all too real to a marriage feeling its strain. He suggests she had time to find what she wanted but is now 20 years too late. “Between which of your anxiety attacks?” she responds. She immediately regrets the comment. But he’s already out the door. “I don’t want to be in this house with you right now,” he says. It’s good news for you, I guess. I’m all out of speeches.”
As to what this portends for next week’s finale and season 4, stay tuned.
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