‘This Is Us’ breaks down racial barriers in impactful episode

'Here we go.’
Published April 14, 2021 10:23 a.m. EST
NBC NBC

For five seasons This Is Us (Tuesdays, 9pET on CTV) has skirted around so many issues when it comes to Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown). But in “Brotherly Love” the brothers finally got their moment to put it all on the table, air their feelings, and hopefully begin to heal.

Ghost Kingdoms

The episode opened with a classic This Is Us scene involving seemingly random characters—a man and a woman who were discussing the weather and the Dewey Decimal System.

But as fans quickly learned, these were no random characters at all. They were the librarian and the local weatherman that Randall grew up with and often fantasized about being his real birth parents. As Randall explained to Kevin later on, they were the only two Black people that he had really been exposed to as a young kid, and the imagery stuck with him for years.

“Ghost Kingdoms” as they’re called, are common with adoptive and foster kids. What isn’t common is for the children in question to fantasize about their birth parents while also picturing their adoptive family (as Randall did). The result was a lifetime of hard feelings as Randall was expected to feel grateful for being adopted, but not allowed to feel the loss of not knowing who his real parents were.

Add in the fact that he was a Black boy raised in a white family, and things got extra complicated—for both him and Kevin. Thanks to the power of flashbacks (and a nod to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), viewers saw just how far back their complex relationship went. 

When Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) took the five-year-old brothers to a taping of the series, the guy with the tickets mistook Randall for another woman’s son. As Jack revealed, that happened all the time, and to make up for it, he tried to make Randall feel extra special. Well, a five-year-old Kevin didn’t understand that, and he grew up believing that Randall’s skin colour gave him special treatment.

As for Randall? Well, the fact that he was made to feel his “otherness” at such a young age was just heartbreaking, and set the scene for all of the awkward family moments he endured throughout his whole life. It was never talked about either, as everyone in the family brushed it off, which makes for all kinds of deep-rooted issues.

Then the show dove even deeper into that dynamic with a flashback to when both brothers were college-aged, and they were trying to make their own way in the world.

In Kevin’s eyes, he was flailing while Randall seemed to have everything together. Meanwhile, Randall was unable to make Kevin see his own prejudices or the way he was treating him. It was just a small example of a lifetime of microaggressions that couldn’t possibly all be addressed in one short hour of TV, but that doesn’t mean the crew behind this episode didn’t do a stellar job of delivering. 

Brother to brother

Could the episode have been more honest? Maybe. Some people on Twitter seemed to think so, and there was a lot left unsaid between the brothers. But again given the time constrictions and the fact that there’s a lifetime to unpack here, it was definitely a start.

The conversation between Kevin and Randall in the present day as they tried to get on the same page and understand where they were each coming from was impactful stuff. And it definitely opened the door to future conversations between these two as they continue to heal.

But the scenes also went deeper than a surface apology or Randall just accepting Kevin’s initial monologue. Randall was rightfully upset over his brother’s racial blindness and he demanded that Kevin take real responsibility for his actions, which is something fans have seen Kevin work on in all aspects of his life lately. As Randall said, the rest of the world can’t say “the thing,” but he and Kevin need to say it because they are brothers.

“You’re not just my smart, successful brother, Randall. You’re my Black, smart, successful brother,” Kevin finally said, making an actual apology toward the end of the episode. “And I think maybe I did resent that. And maybe I thought you getting special treatment was mixed up with you being Black. And I wanted to take you down a notch. And I overlooked things that I shouldn’t have. I took shots that I shouldn’t have taken. And I was more jealous of you than I should have been.”

Was it enough for a tearful Randall to hear those words? Only time will tell. But they were enough to begin the healing process, which was clear when Randall went to bed that night and, for the first time ever, dreamed about his actual parents—Laurel and William—raising his five-year-old self. 

Plus, considering everything these brothers have been through in five seasons so far, they deserve some happiness already. Because at the end of the day, they are and always will be brothers, no matter what. Now if only fans could continue with them on that journey next week. Sadly, it will be nearly a month before new episodes are here, as the show returns with its final three installments of the season beginning May 11.

Watch This Is Us Tuesdays at 9 pET on CTV and catch up here. 

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