Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)
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What’s revolutionary about This Is Us isn’t the stories it tells, but the way that it tells them. There are other movies and TV shows and plays that explore issues of family conflict with even more nuance and complexity. But This Is Us has created a visual language and an expansive storytelling tapestry wherein those conversations can unfold with unique emotional resonance. A montage of three women dancing becomes a poetic exploration of dreams lost and found. Two teenagers bumping into each other at a freshman college mixer delivers a jolt of excitement akin to watching the Avengers assemble for the first time. In some ways, “Our Little Island Girl” (the first episode to delve into Beth Pearson’s backstory!) suffers from trying to cram all of Beth’s adolescence into a single episode. It sometimes winds up feeling a little bit like a CliffsNotes backstory for a character who more than deserves her own novelistic storyline. Yet if any show is built to bring emotional depth to a CliffsNotes story, it’s This Is Us.

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Though it bites off perhaps a little more than it can chew, This Is Us gives this Beth-centric episode the pomp and circumstance it deserves, particularly when it comes to its guest stars. The great Carl Lumbly plays Beth’s warmhearted, Jamaican-born father Abe. Meanwhile, the legendary Phylicia Rashad plays Beth’s mother Carol—a woman who demands excellence from everyone around her, including herself. She won’t let a little thing like a bruised hip slow her down in her job as a high school principal. It’s that injury that sends Beth and Zoe on a roadtrip to D.C., and Beth on a roadtrip down memory lane.

We learn a whole lot of new information in this episode, including the fact that the normally confident, outspoken Beth becomes a bit of a doormat around her mom. But the biggest reveal is that Beth (or Bethany, as she was called throughout her childhood) used to be a serious ballet dancer with aims of joining a company and dancing professionally. It’s a pretty revelatory piece of information—as revelatory as learning that Kevin once used to be a star football player on the path to a collegiate career. Like Kevin, Beth had her career ambitions fairly brutally ripped away from her. The shift happened not because of a single injury, but because of the slow-growing realization that despite her skill and work ethic, she just didn’t quite have the natural talent to elevate herself to the top of the pack. The fiercely practical Carol fairly unceremoniously pulled Beth from dance and set her on a collegiate path instead. Bowing to her mother’s wishes, Beth put dance behind her and never looked back.

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Again, it’s a lot to take in during one episode, and while it certainly helps explain why Beth is working as a ballet instructor in the flashforward timeline, it definitely feels a little strange that Beth’s dance background hasn’t been mentioned before (especially given Deja’s own interest in dance). But “Our Little Island Girl” mostly gets away with the retcon because the episode is infused with a palpable love of ballet. Writer Eboni Freeman has a dance background as does director/choreograher Anne Fletcher (Step Up, The Proposal). And Susan Kelechi Watson has her own extensive dance training, which she gets to show off in that lovely final montage. There’s specificity and emotional verisimilitude to all of the ballet stuff, which allows the episode to feel nuanced and lived-in despite how quickly it jumps through Beth’s adolescence.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

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It also helps that this episode is absolutely teeming with parallels between the Clark family and the Pearson one, which makes it easier to situate ourselves in the dynamics of this brand new set of characters. Both marriages are about two very different people who balance each other out, and how that balance is thrown out of whack when the husband dies young. Abe and Jack are the openhearted dreamers while Carol and Rebecca are their more practical counterpoints. One of the biggest differences between the families, however, is that Jack was the dominant force in his nuclear family, while Carol was the dominant force in hers. That means the Pearsons were big dreamers with just a touch of practicality, while the Clarks were fierce pragmatists with just a touch of whimsy.

Given how much This Is Us values big dreams, it would be easy for the show to demonize Carol’s overly pragmatic approach to life, but writer Eboni Freeman instead seeks to understand it. Carol was raised in an era in which just getting the same educational opportunities as her brothers was a huge uphill battle her mother had to fight for her. Carol’s mother believed in single-minded focus as a necessarily tool for survival, and Carol raised her own children with that same mindset—not quite realizing that the world around them had changed a bit.

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Rashad does a fantastic job conveying the fact that Carol’s strictness and high standards stem from a place of love. It’s clear she’s looking to uplift her children and her students, not tear them down. Yet Carol’s parenting style doesn’t always leave much space for emotional caretaking and mental well-being. As Beth puts it, “Just keep on going like you always do, right, Mom? Even in pain. That’s what Clark women do, right? No room for weakness.” “Our Little Island Girl” doesn’t explicitly center many of its conversations on race, but that is, of course, another major difference between the Pearsons and the Clarks. Carol’s never-ending demand for excellence is rooted in a desire to prepare her children for a world in which the odds are stacked against them. When it comes to being a black principle ballet dancer, young Beth has very few role models to look up to.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff (NBC)

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One of the most interesting parallels the episode draws is the polar opposite ways in which Rebecca and Carol respond to their husbands’ deaths. Rebecca let her grief shut her down, while Carol decided to bury hers entirely. Both reactions are flawed but understandable, and both had negative impacts on their children. Yet the imperfect ways in which Rebecca and Carol processed their grief also led their children to where they are today. If Carol hadn’t taken Beth out of ballet and if Randall hadn’t turned down Howard to attend a Pittsburgh-area school closer to Rebecca, the two never would’ve met at Carnegie Mellon.

There’s a sense of fate to Randall and Beth’s meeting, but “Our Little Island Girl” also argues that we aren’t just destined to follow preordained paths. We can shape and reshape our futures too. Beth’s journey home reminds her to recapture the “dream big” spirit that came so naturally to her father and now comes so naturally to her husband. After making peace with her mom, she decides to use her unemployment as an opportunity to recapture her artistic side and pursue a career as a dance teacher.

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In some ways, “Our Little Island Girl” feels like This Is Us clearing the decks to finally (finally!!) put Beth on an even playing field with the rest of the cast— one she should’ve been on a long time ago. The episode offers Beth a new direction in the present and officially kicks off Beth and Randall’s love story in the past. Hopefully that will lead to more stories where both present-day Beth and her teenage counterpart (a wonderful Rachel Hilson) get to take center stage again.


Stray observations

  • The episode kind of tries to make their absence a plot point, but it’s a little weird that Beth’s older siblings (Renee, Lisa, and Isaiah) are complete non-entities. I’m guessing the show didn’t want to commit to giving them concrete backstories in order to allow for maximum freedom in future storylines.
  • I really loved the scene where Zoe opens up to Beth about her own perspective on growing up in the Clark household and how, despite the high standards and emotional repression, she always felt safe there.
  • Okay, my biggest hope for the flashforward timeline is that Tess, Annie, and Deja have all maintained positive relationships with Beth. This Is Us has gotten good storytelling mileage out of fraught mother/daughter pairings, but it would be nice for the show to depict at least one largely positive relationship between a mother and her adult daughter.
  • Beth notes that Randall reminds her of her dad so much “it’s scary,” which is reflected when Randall’s “When have we ever listened to people?” perfectly echoes Abe’s “When have we ever listened to the odds?”
  • A+ usage of “I Say A Little Prayer.”

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