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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This Is Us takes a very special road trip to New Orleans

Illustration for article titled This Is Us takes a very special road trip to New Orleans
Photo: NBC
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“Birth Mother” ends with one of the most beautifully original sequences in This Is Us history. Having finally learned the full story of his biological mother, Laurel, Randall wades into the lake that served as her place of baptism and renewal during her long and complicated life. There he sees a vision of his birth mom that helps him finally let go of the pain he’s been carrying since he was a child. “I didn’t even know I was looking for you,” Randall explains, heartbroken and yet in many ways more at peace than we’ve ever seen him. Then Laurel finally gets the chance to tell her son that she loves him—first in her old age and then as the young woman who gave birth to him.

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It’s the most overtly spiritual moment This Is Us has ever delivered, yet one that still fits seamlessly with a show that often operates best on feel and tone rather than plot. “Birth Mother” doesn’t overexplain the emotional arc Randall experiences after finally learning the last missing piece of his family history. But it’s right there in Sterling K. Brown’s breathtaking performance. So much of Randall’s lifelong anxiety and need for control stem from the sense of abandonment he’s carried ever since he was left at that fire station forty years ago. No amount of love from his parents, his siblings, his wife, or even his kids could quite fill that void. But in finally learning his full birth story—and learning how much he was loved by his birth parents—Randall finds a sense of peace he maybe didn’t even think was possible.

It’s such a stellar final sequence that it retroactively elevates the more uneven episode that came before it. The rest of “Birth Mother” struggles to find that same sort of impressionistic magic. Like the William-centric episode “Memphis” or the Deja-centric “This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life,” “Birth Mother” aims to flesh out the life of one of This Is Us’ supporting players. But while those previous episodes filled in the stories of characters we already knew and loved, “Birth Mother” has the trickier task of re-introducing a deceased character who never interacted with our main cast. By its very nature, “Birth Mother” feels more like a standalone short story than an episode of This Is Us—and a rushed one at that.

Though it’s clear that writers Kay Oyegun and Eboni Freeman have created a lovingly detailed backstory for Laurel’s entire life, cramming that much story into just one hour leaves the episode feeling like a melodramatic movie on fast-forward. Hai may claim that Laurel’s life was nothing like The Notebook, but dramatic class divisions, reunited lovers, cancer, jail, and a Southern setting are classic Nicholas Sparks staples (if Nicholas Sparks wrote about people of color, that is). And like many a Sparks project, the story stumbles by prioritizing breadth over depth.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us takes a very special road trip to New Orleans
Photo: NBC

Hai’s narration methodically lays out Laurel’s life as the free-spirited daughter of a wealthy, well-respected New Orleans family. Stifled by her propriety minded parents, Laurel finds solace in her bohemian Aunt Mae and her kindly older brother Jackson. But as with the Pearsons, the Vietnam War changes everything for the Dubois family. Jackson is killed in combat. And an ocean away, Hai is forced to flee Vietnam and resettle in New Orleans. That’s where he meets Laurel and begins a romance that first echoes Jack and Rebecca’s youthful passion and later calls to mind Rebecca and Miguel’s quiet maturity.

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In fact, I wish this episode had made some of those parallels more explicit, as what we’re left with is an overstuffed story told through straightforward narration and clunky exposition. Instead of embracing the evocative, montage-heavy style This Is Us does best, “Birth Mother” prioritizes plot and dialogue, which is where the show often struggles. It doesn’t help that the episode largely skips over Laurel’s time with William to focus on her life on either side of Randall’s birth, which makes her story feel even more detached from the rest of the series.

We do eventually get answers as to why Laurel never tracked down William or Randall after surviving her overdose. It turns out she was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to drug possession—her first and only criminal offense. As with so much of this episode, Laurel’s harsh sentencing is a commentary on the Black experience that’s all the more powerful for not being explicitly named as such. Laurel’s harrowing postpartum experience also leads to one of the most moving moments of the episode, as a newly freed Laurel breaks down while discussing her feelings of guilt with Aunt Mae.

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Yet because we have to take in so much of Laurel’s story at once, it’s hard to fully process the wide-ranging emotions of her complicated journey. I almost wonder if “Birth Mother” would’ve been stronger if it had focused less on the actual details of Laurel’s life and more on how hearing her story for the first time impacts Randall, which is ultimately what makes the climax so powerful. As is, “Birth Mother” can never quite shake the feeling that it’s serving as a slightly clunky retcon for how weirdly uninterested This Is Us was in Randall’s biological mom for its first four seasons.

Illustration for article titled This Is Us takes a very special road trip to New Orleans
Photo: NBC
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Thankfully, the actors are capable enough that “Birth Mother” is always watchable, even in its weaker moments. Given that Jennifer C. Holmes was originally cast as Laurel for a brief, wordless montage way back in season one, it’s remarkable how powerfully she anchors this hour all these years later. Meanwhile, Angela Gibbs brings a fascinating new energy to the older version of Laurel—one that’s regretful but also full of warmth. And as present-day Hai, Vien Hong’s understated delivery is crucial to selling the heart of his bifurcated love story with Laurel.

But it’s only once “Birth Mother” returns to Randall’s story that it truly sings. Given how effectively this episode sticks the landing, a lot of my concerns seem more like nitpicks in retrospect. While this isn’t a perfect hour of TV, it is an emotionally affecting one. And there’s a power to that, even when the path to getting there is a little uneven.

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Stray observations

  • The episode ends with the cliffhanger that Madison has gone into labor and Kevin is rushing to get to her from his set in Vancouver. Who could’ve predicted this shocking turn of events!
  • Back in the season premiere, we saw Laurel tell William that she doesn’t like to talk about her past, which is why William didn’t have much of her life story to share with Randall.
  • You can ostensibly explain away any of this episode’s plot holes with the idea that its characters are acting emotionally or irrationality, but it does seem odd that after Laurel laments the fact that she can’t call William because he doesn’t own a phone, she doesn’t make any other attempts to contact him—not calling the building super to knock on his door or sending him a letter from prison, etc.
  • Beth brings some much-needed levity to this episode, especially when she suggests that Hai should start a podcast. Also her short hair is super cute!
  • So Randall now owns his father’s apartment complex in Philly and his mom’s house in New Orleans. What an eclectic real estate collection!
  • At the beginning of the episode, Beth mentions that she and Randall just got into New Orleans last night. So are we meant to believe they quarantined for two weeks in their own home, drove 19 hours straight to New Orleans, spent two nights there, and then drove the 19 hours back to Philly? With an unnamed babysitter watching their three daughters? All to have a conversation they easily could’ve had over the phone? Okay!
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.