Just when I thought This Is Us had completely wrecked me, its beautiful emotional terror has found another hidden ventricle in my heart.
As soon as I saw the title of Episode 415, “Clouds,” I knew I was about to be treated to my favorite Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now” (fun fact: I actually have a special place in my heart for the remastered version and expected it at the conclusion of this episode because it’s such a melancholy song). Plus, I knew Rebecca (Mandy Moore) had previously mentioned she was a Mitchell fan.
The lyrics to the chorus have always left me in a very introspective daze: I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down and still somehow / It’s cloud’s illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.
Navigating the intricacies of its characters in the past, present and future, This Is Us always aims to allow its audience to see the characters from both sides. Just like those clouds. And though you may think you knew a certain character in Season 1, it’s not until their layers are peeled back all the way in Season 4 that you realize you didn’t know them at all.
So, when NBC invited me and a bunch of other black-ass press members to an intimate roundtable with Sterling K. Brown, I was excited to further explore Randall’s layers as we take the journey through his character arc. Like me, Randall copes with his anxiety by attempting to maintain control at all times— but also throwing in a joke or two to alleviate the severity of his looming breakdowns. Boy, can I relate.
In one scene, things come to a head for Randall, and it’s when Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) looks at Randall—who has decided he gave therapy the ol’ college try and certainly does not need it—and states, firmly, “Babe, I need this.”
Show creator Dan Fogelman and his team of producers and writers have crafted Randall so beautifully that it is at this moment that I am able to unpack Randall as the father, the husband and, most importantly, the person. So, I asked Brown (who is also a husband and a father), how does one balance all three when dealing with anxiety? Brown notes that for parents, they’re just “figuring it all out.”
“I have this conversation with my sister,” Brown mused. “My sister is twelve-and-a-half years older than me. And she says kids should see their parents as their heroes. I have a very different sort of philosophy with my own kids. While I hope that they look up to me, [and] I know that they love me...I also share the foibles pretty readily. Daddy is not perfect and daddy apologizes all the time, which, like, our president doesn’t apologize right now. It’s like, you gon’ make mistakes! It’s OK to say you’re sorry. And I feel like in doing that, they’re able to get to that place even quicker [to be] like, ‘Dad is a dude—he’s a really cool dude—but he’s still just a dude.”
Brown added, “I feel like you want to show them the good, the bad and the ugly. If you show them a whole person, then they hopefully will feel comfortable sharing their whole person with you.”
This show has always delighted me in its mastery of detail. Every word of dialogue, every action (whether big or small) and every frame carries a deeper meaning in that moment or down the line in the series’ trajectory. In this episode, I particularly appreciated that when Randall has his first therapy session with the therapist (portrayed by Emmy-winning Pamela Adlon) isn’t in frame. It’s not until Randall finally opens up to his therapist that we are able to see her as a person instead of a contentious thorn in Randall’s controlling side. I thought that was a great touch.
Until now, Randall had taken to running as a coping mechanism. Even though he raises his brow when Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) first presents the possible solution to him, he eventually gains control of this method and begins to feel like he has a grasp on his anxiety—until he doesn’t. Following a traumatizing home invasion, along with the stress of his mother’s illness, his demanding career and the triggering incident where he saved a woman from being robbed and assaulted, it’s clear Randall is spiraling.
“This is one of those things where I feel like Jack did the best that he knew how because Jack is not, like, a big open human being himself. My man kept a whole family member from his family!” Brown chuckled. “So Jack is like, ‘You gon’ get out here and run. It’s gon’ be alright.’”
While there’s an important conversation surrounding black men going to therapy, there’s an added significance of black boys going to therapy. Brown opened up to the attentive press roundtable about various family members “who are living with different mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar [disorder] to anxiety” as well as his son approaching him about therapy, directly noting that his son had “anger management issues.” So, Brown listened and they went, whether it was to talk about things together or alone. And from Brown’s perspective “it’s been kind of amazing.”
“What I love about it is that he feels heard,” Brown noted. “There’s an adult that’s taken the time to just pay attention to what he has to say. And by virtue of that, in and of itself, he just starts to relax into it. And I love that I get a chance to raise a son that has no sort of stigma attached to the idea of going to therapy.”
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.
Corrected: 2/26/2020, 12:04 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the actor portraying Randall’s therapist as Susan Santiago, when it is actually Pamela Adlon. We have updated the article with the correct actor.