The thing about watching an award-winning ensemble drama like NBC’s This Is Us, is that, depending on who you are and what you’re interested in, you could be watching a totally different show than another fan. I’ve been watching This Is The Black Pearsons, about a young Black couple, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), trying to raise their three beautiful daughters, stay in love, and stay true to themselves. For three seasons, I’ve been dying to know the backstory of matriarch Beth Pearson. Finally, in last night’s episode, “Our Little Island Girl,” major pieces of Beth’s backstory were revealed.
Written by Eboni Freeman, this episode was the breakout moment Kelechi Watson’s skills deserved. Matched with the incomparable Phylicia Rashad who plays Beth’s mom Carol in this episode, Kelechi Watson deftly plays a woman cycling through emotions and different versions of herself when her mother’s hip injury brings Beth back home to Washington, D.C.
Taking the road trip with her is her cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd), whom Beth’s mom adopted when the girls were young and who knows what the audience will soon find out: strong, witty, take-no-prisoners Beth shrinks when she’s in the presence of her mother.
“Don’t clam up,” Zoe warns Beth as they prepare to have a difficult conversation with Carol about the need for her to slow down and maybe consider retirement in light of her latest injury. Beth insists she won’t and denies that she ever does, and yet as soon as Carol opens the door for her daughters, Beth is almost instantly a teenager again.
Deconstructing the “strong Black woman” stereotype, “Our Little Island Girl” shows that Beth became the backbone of her family, the realist to Randall’s head-in-the-clouds personality, because of her stern mother and her grief over her father’s (Carl Lumbly) death. The episode’s title speaks to both Beth and Kelechi Watson’s ethnicity as Jamaican, and Beth’s father’s nickname for her.
“Our little island girl. She danced before she walked,” Lumbly’s character recalls of Beth’s destiny to be a dancer. Flashing back to Beth’s childhood, we see she was not far off from Randall’s dreamer personality, sneaking away from her parents to audition for a prestigious ballet instructor. Called by her full name, Bethany, her dream was to be Misty Copeland before Misty Copeland, the first Black woman principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre. When she gets invited to join the ballet school, her parents sacrifice by working overtime to pay for her training, thanks to her father convincing her mother that this was the path for their daughter.
As a teen, Beth’s dreams begin to crumble when her instructor’s confidence in her talent diminishes. She comes home late after a long practice to learn that her father is dying of lung cancer, even though he never smokes. Carol immediately tries to take control by removing Beth and Zoe’s ability to grieve the news. “Wipe those tears. We have to be strong,” Carol says, even as Zoe asks for a minute.
Beth starts to blame herself for his illness because of all the years he worked overtime on her behalf but Carol stops her. “You’re not going to throw away years of training. You’re going to stick to the path you chose and be the best.” But a new Black ballerina in class proves that Beth is not the best. And her father dies. Beth is determined to keep dancing, to keep getting better, but Carol puts an end to her dancing in favor of a more practical career, no longer willing to pay the ballet school tuition considering that Beth didn’t get the solo she was working so hard to get. “It’s setting you up to fail,” Carol warns her daughter of ballet. And failure is not an option.
Beth goes to college, and during a freshman mixer, she changes her name from Bethany to Beth. And then she bumps right into the love of her life, Randall, and a whole new world begins for her.
Back in the present, Beth finally finds her voice and tells her mother that the perfect plan–college, corporate job, marriage, children–haven’t healed the holes in her heart. She’s been laid off for months. She’s unhappy and purposeless. Her father died and so did her dreams of dancing. Her mother took her air.
It’s a heart-wrenching admission for Beth to make. But instead of villainizing Carol, Rashad’s portrayal is nuanced and deep-rooted. Carol’s not the “strong Black woman” because she wants to be; the double oppression of being a Black woman meant insurmountable worries. It was Beth’s father that gave her the “air” she needed to feel safe, to slow down a little, and relax. With him gone, she provided for her family the best way she could, without crumbling herself. Still, she says the words so many children dream their parents would say: “I’m sorry.” It’s the start to the healing that Beth needs.
Back at home, Beth looks her husband in the eye and tells him about dancing and wanting to be a dance instructor. He’s just won his election for city council, so these two former corporate employees with three children and a huge house in Jersey, are probably going to have to figure out how they’re going to pay the bills as they’re living their dreams; but that’s for another episode. Randall immediately supports his wife and drives her to a dance studio, offering to be her hypeman. But Beth goes into the studio alone to reclaim her dream.
Bookended by Aretha Franklin’s apt “I Say a Little Prayer for You,” the episode ends with Beth (and the real Kelechi Watson) dancing. At long last, Beth’s prayers–for a sense of purpose, a reconnection with her father, a healing tool for her grief–have been answered.