SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details about the Feb. 19 This is Us episode “Our Little Island Girl”.
Susan Kelechi Watson has built quite the solid fan base among This is Us viewers, with her portrayal of the patient-but-steely, witty and whipsmart Beth Pearson. So it’s no surprise that tonight’s episode, “Our Little Island Girl,” was devoted almost entirely to her. It guest stars Phylicia Rashad as Beth’s controlling mother and features some intense mother-daughter drama and revelations about Beth’s past and future.
The episode, directed by Anne Fletcher, explores Beth’s early ambitions as a dancer in a storyline that is somewhat reminiscent of Misty Copeland, and it turns out Kelechi Watson herself is no slouch in that area, having studied dance.
For Fletcher, directing dance scenes with an actor who could genuinely perform the moves was a major bonus. “Susan actually did all of her dancing,” she said during a panel discussion following a special screening of the episode earlier this month. “It’s a joy to be able to watch her character that you’ve been in love with for all this period of time actually express themselves through dance, and not have to cut away to shoot a double. It was all Susan through the whole time, and she did an amazingly beautiful job.”
“I found out maybe in September of 2018 that that was going to happen, and I was joyous because I loved it,” Kelechi Watson said. “I was so excited by the opportunity to go back and do that again, because I’ve been dancing all my life…For me, it was such a great opportunity to combine the things that I love.”
To kick off the episode, Beth and her cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd) head to Washington D.C. to check on Beth’s mom who has injured her hip at the school where she’s the Principal.
Almost immediately, Zoe begins riding Beth for “clamming up” around her mother and never confronting her, and Beth grudgingly admits she hasn’t yet told her mom about being laid off from her job. Thus, the scene is set for some serious mother-daughter drama.
Enter Rashad as Beth’s mom Carol Clarke. This Is Us creator/EP Fogelman told Deadline he was thrilled to cast Rashad in this role, particularly as she had been part of creating a scholarship at Howard, which then benefitted Kelechi Watson during her college years—there was already a meaningful connection there.
There’s a laugh-out-loud moment when the truth of Beth’s unemployment comes out over a dinner of Carol’s chicken curry. As soon as that bombshell is dropped we cut straight to black, which is the sensible way to go, since obviously Carol’s head is about to start spinning around Exorcist-style.
We then witness Beth cowering under the powerful and somewhat overbearing personality of her mom, but in classic This is Us style, we also go way back into Beth’s past, when her father Abe (Carl Lumbly) was still alive, and providing the much-needed light contrast to Carol’s Type A ambition for their daughter.
When the young Beth (Akira Akbar) wins a place at ballet school, her mom is skeptical about the odds of her making it as a professional, but a smiling, spontaneous Abe says, “When did we ever listen to the odds?” And Carol relents.
But by the time teen Beth (Rachel Naomi Hilson) isn’t cutting it in class, and even her teacher (Goran Višnjić) is warning her she may not make it, her dad has passed away from lung cancer and Beth’s world has become unforgiving. With her tough mom allowing barely a day to cry and mourn Abe, Beth is handed a college directory and told she’ll be taking “a different path” from now on.
Present-day Beth has clearly been in a funk since losing her job, and has seemingly lost her way, and when she and Zoe sneak away to smoke a decades-old joint Zoe finds behind a photo frame, Zoe tells Beth it’s time to face whatever is bothering her deep inside. “Sister-cousin, I know you so well,” she says, “and something is going on with you, and you need to find a way to talk about it.”
So Beth does exactly that. The next evening, when Carol announces she’s going to help Beth find a new job, Beth stops her, saying she doesn’t want the help. And as with all good parent/adult-child confrontations, this of course devolves into a much bigger-picture argument about the past.
In their house growing up there was, “No room for weakness” Beth says. Then she sticks the knife in, saying the reason her other siblings don’t come to visit their mom is because there’s “no air to breathe, no air to fail” around Carol. Carol tries to explain that she promised her own mother she’d push her kids “as hard as she pushed me”, but Beth can’t take that in. She says she envies her husband Randall (Sterling K. Brown)—who also reminds her so much of her dad—for chasing his dreams. “I haven’t had my head in the clouds for years,” Beth says. She can’t tell Randall, “I want to be that little girl who dances again.”
And there’s the revelation: Beth wants to revisit her passion for dance.
The next morning at the breakfast table, Rashad really brings it, in what Fogelman described to Deadline as a “tour de force” and a theatrical-level performance. Carol talks about her own childhood and recalls how her own mother had once rejected Abe, but how she came around; how Abe gave her the “air” Beth pointed out was so badly missing.
The moment when Carol sincerely apologizes for taking dance away from Beth and Beth simply says, “Thank you,” feels like the closing of an old wound and the beginning of a new life for Beth.
And so it proves, as next, see Beth and Randall in the car headed to a mystery destination. People will think I’m crazy, Beth says. And then, echoing Abe’s earlier support of his daughter, the episode is perfectly bookended by Randall’s reply: “When did we ever listen to people?”
They pull up outside a dance studio and Beth goes inside, not only to dance with abandon and obvious joy, but to tell the staff that she herself wants to teach.
So the This is Us team has done it again, demonstrating how past and present can coexist, with imperfection, redemption and connection as the overarching themes that continue to tug at our heartstrings.
The episode came from a team of almost entirely women — Elizabeth Berger as EP/co-showrunner, Fletcher directing, Kay Oyegun producing and Eboni Freeman writing. “We have eight women out of twelve people on our writing staff,” Berger said after the screening. “That’s the way our writers’ room works. It’s always a group effort…our staff was put together by [creator and showrunner] Dan Fogelman who wasn’t afraid to have eight women on his staff.”
Of making Beth the focus of this episode, Freeman said, “I think a lot of people were yearning for a Beth backstory, because everybody really loved the character. She’s such a beloved character, so that was something that I think was heavily on Dan’s mind and Isaac (Aptaker) and Elizabeth, our showrunners.”
This is Us airs Tuesdays on NBC at 9pm.