There you (and Randall) have it. The other half of his history. Her story.
Tuesday's episode of This Is Us bathed viewers in flashback emotion as orphaned-at-a-fire-station- Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) journeyed to New Orleans to learn what really happened to Laurel (Jennifer C. Homes), his biological mother who did not die after giving birth to him, but rather lived a rich, painful, and extraordinary life.
In "Birth Mother," Vietnamese refugee and Laurel's two-time love Hai (Vien Hong) unspooled a potent and bittersweet tale — this was not The Notebook, he cautioned — of a woman told by her upper-crust father (Chi McBride) to marry a freshly promoted VP at his bank, when she was actually secretly in love with a fisherman. With a proposal looming, she fled town (alas, Hai could not leave his parents) and wound up on a bus to Pittsburgh, where, as you recall, she fell for William (Jermel Nakia), gave birth to Randall, and overdosed. She became a casualty of a racist system — arrested for drug possession and sent to prison for years. When she was released, Laurel felt that she had forfeited the right to be Randall's mother, so she returned in tatters to New Orleans, where she found salvation in Aunt Mae (LisaGay Hamilton) and God, and renewed ties with Hai toward the end of her life as she battled inoperable breast cancer.
The trip began with Randall being handed the keys to Laurel's farmhouse, and ended with him unlocking forgiveness as he followed in her footsteps into the water to release his pain and commune with her spirit. Randall may still be a work in progress, but with that mother lode of information about Laurel's life, he is now complete.
Let's pour a shot of absinthe, cue up some Mahalia Jackson, turn off The Notebook, mind our peppers, and ask This Is Us co-executive producer Kay Oyegun — who co-wrote and directed the potent "Birth Mother" — to break down Randall's revelations in the Big Easy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: On the heels of Kate healing herself, confronting her past and finding new strength, now it's Randall turn, although it's more of an embrace than a confronting of his history. How critical was it to finally fill in the other side of Randall's biological past in his journey of self-actualization?
KAY OYEGUN: I think of the utmost. I think he was half of a person as far as his past went, and for the audience especially, there's such a love for William, that for a majority of people, the idea of a mother figure was either not even a thought or just a placeholder or just someone who was written off. And for Randall, without realizing it, that may have been the case as well. So I think this was a jolt in a way that was necessary.
When did the idea of viewers — and Randall — getting to learn about Laurel in much greater depth become a big topic in the writers' room? And how would you describe the process of turning her into a 3-D person whom viewers could connect to, and not just be a tragic legend?
We've talked about Laurel since season 2, as we were filling in the blanks. But we're always very long game and we're so unbelievably fortunate to be able to think long game. So, this season, as we were approaching it, we knew that Randall coming to a place of completion to an extent was something that we wanted to explore because of the plans we have for him in season 6. We always talk about it as a puzzle piece, where you have this child who was brought into this family with a blank slate. Over the course of his life, he's been doing his darndest — poor thing — to fill in all of those blank spots while smiling and nodding in front of everyone around him, yet still having that real blank slate with him. But now as he's gotten older, he's filling in those blank slates, and the picture was half-complete. And I think this experience allows that picture to be wholly complete. Then the big question is: What now? Now that you have an understanding of who you are or where you're from, which is something a lot of adoptees don't have, what do you do with that information? How do you move forward when so much of your life with searching? What's next?
That's something that we talked about a lot, knowing where we're going further along in this season and next. And then as far as turning this wonderful woman into a 3-D character, I mean, that's just a joy. But there's no person who isn't fully realized, and it's such a fun writing task and privilege to be able to dive in and think about someone's loves and pains and desires and joys and fears and all of those things — and find the richness. And personally, those are my favorite kinds of stories to tell.
Laurel spends five years in prison for a drug possession, which not only keeps her from finding Randall, it speaks to systemic racism and our two criminal justice systems, depending on the color of your skin. How did you arrive at that story for Laurel? And what might that part of her life activate in Randall?
It just was, you know what I mean? We're speaking of the 1980s, we're speaking of the criminalization of Black people, we're speaking of the incarceration system, we're speaking of all of these things that are very true and real that started pre-Jim Crow and up to today. So none of those things were far-fetched. You have a person who had a drug overdose. It wasn't necessarily even like a, "How do we figure this out?" It was like, "This is what comes next." So that wasn't particularly a stretch. But as far as what it does for Randall — activating him going forward — I'm very excited for people to see what he does with his information. It's definitely something that is going to have a lingering effect.
Laurel's story teaches viewers and Randall the importance of letting go of pain and anger and embracing forgiveness. How successful do you think she was in accomplishing that for herself? She ultimately did not reach out to him later in life. Will any small part of Randall still wonder why she didn't try to find him later on — or was Hai's explanation that she felt she'd relinquished the right to be his mother enough for him as he began letting go of pain and moving forward?
Was she successful? I don't know if any human being is truly ever successful at letting go. [Laughs] For her, what's so lovely about it that she was a constant work in progress, which is always the most human version of it. I think it was a constant battle of feeling worthy, and that's something that a lot of people struggle with. That's something that's wildly relatable. One of the things I loved about crafting Aunt Mae was the fact that she was always reminding her, "God sees you as worthy. And that's what matters." So that was something that she struggled with forever. And that worthiness translated into her feelings of being a mother. So for her, as potentially misguided and as unbelievably sad as that is, it's just that idea that "Wherever he is, I know that God has him. But as far as me, I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to step in there." It's a bit too scary. So I don't know if it was ever successful, but I hope she finally forgave herself.
For Randall, it was a combination of "She is dead, so what more could you possibly want from the experience of this woman? Can you live the rest of your life torturing yourself with questions that have versions of answers?" That final conversation that he allows himself to have in the water is his way of letting go and finding forgiveness and hopefully doing something different from what she was able to do — and actually move on in a way that feels healthy.
Where did the idea for the water scene originate? Sterling says that he thinks that some viewers will interpret it as only something that happened in his mind, but he viewed it as Randall having a spiritual and supernatural experience.
It's a combination of things. Early on in the conversation when New Orleans was part of it and brought up, there was a lot of talk about the mysticism around New Orleans. But I'm a child of God, so I don't do the mysticism; I speak the holy ghost. So finding a way to bridge spirituality with human desire was something that was really important. I know that Dan was very drawn to the water and asking myself and Eboni [Freeman, who co-wrote the episode] to find a way for the water to mean something to him.
For myself, baptism is part of that experience. So having that track through where you're able to be your most vulnerable, you're able to let go and wash off and cleanse in this sense was something that was really [important]. The goal is for audiences to read it a multitude of ways. He's having a spiritual encounter that allows him to let go — seeds have been planted in his mind at this point through the course of this episode that he's actually able to actualize and engage with. That experience is something that he's probably always wanted to have, and never really had the pieces to put together to have it, so now he gets to. I'm glad that Sterling had that point of view and I hope audiences have all kinds of different [interpretations]. There are people who have lost parents who say they still dream about them. All of these things are very much part of the human experience, so I hope people take it all kinds of ways.
Sterling turns in another sterling performance, which culminates in his giving himself over to everything and freeing himself by wading into the lake, which felt almost like a self-baptism. As a writer, you've seen what Sterling can do with your words. And as a first-time director, what impressed you when you saw him from a different angle?
Oh my gosh — literally, there is nothing Sterling Kelby Brown cannot do. Nothing. Nothing! As a writer, you're like a kid in a beautiful candy store. And from a director's point of view, gosh, he gives you everything, and then some, and then options. And then some. He takes any kind of note and interprets it in a way that is just so honest and so nuanced, and it's just sort of like, "Oh my goodness, what is this?" It's bananas. I was so just stunned by his bravery and by how moved I was in each and every single take. I think he's one of the greats. I adore him. As long as he'll let me, I'll write for him for the rest of my life!
You have ties to New Orleans, having worked on Queen Sugar, which films there. It would've been nice for you to been able to shoot this episode in New Orleans, but the pandemic prevented that. How did this impact your initial plans for the story?
I will say this very comfortably: This Is Us has the best locations team, the best set decorating team, [locations manager] Duffy Taylor and [production designer] Gary Frutkoff are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I cannot tell you the difference between Laurel's house that we shot in and what we would have found in New Orleans. I cannot tell you the difference between the water that we shot at and what we would have found in New Orleans. They were able to bring in an essence of New Orleans into Los Angeles that I was just so blown away by it.
But would it have been great to go to New Orleans? Absolutely! My goodness, I loved it there. But I understood the realities. When I walked into that house that we shot Laurel's family stuff in, I was like, "Where did we find this?" It's in Pasadena, and it's owned by this couple, and I'm just stunned that this exists.
We never see Laurel cross paths with or confront her family upon returning to the New Orleans. In your minds, did she?
Not at all. The idea of this kind of regal family that exists in so many different cultures — every culture has a version of this family that's very much set in their ways; they're sometimes upper-middle class. Whether it's by cultural norms or religious norms, they very much operate in that way. They have an incredible ability to ignore, or at least shun. That's something that Laurel was aware of. And that's something that her parents said, "Okay, we lost both our children. We will continue to hold our head up high and keep on moving and continue to thrive and continue to succeed." Very much in my imagination — and I think in Eboni's as well — they kind of buried both of their children and were able to forge ahead in a way that, of course, leaves them a little bit fractured and broken inside, but that they will never ever speak of. There's a part of Laurel that has that in her. And for her, truthfully, the fear that that reunion would require, that was something that she wasn't really ready to face. In a lot of ways that wildness that her mom spoke about — and her father tried to quell — kind of got the best of her, in her view. Once she returned home, she was very much resigned to that. So I don't imagine that they ever reconnected.
Randall seems at peace with the knowledge about Laurel that he gained. In what ways will he be better equipped to handle life, and maybe even reprioritize down the road?
Family repositions itself for him after this episode. Dan definitely wanted that to be an outcome. For Randall, all of his life, his inability to share, as far as who he is on the inside, is something that he struggled with. And I think he's had to, as an adult, learn how to do that in a better way, whether it's finally communicating with his family what his true dark, unpleasant or deeply personal feelings are — or whether it's finally talking to a therapist and fully opening up in that way.
A lot of adoptees who we've spoken to are so good at compartmentalizing. The fullness of who they are is something that they're not entirely sure about. They're also terrified that if anyone knew the fullness of who they were, would they be abandoned again? So that's a psychology that we're always mining and being mindful of. And that's something that Randall is going through and learning to shed from himself. There's a shift there that leans towards family and the fullness of what that actually means for him going forward. And a slow progression of embracing who he is. I love the notion that this farmhouse in New Orleans becomes a version of the cabin going forward — it's something that he never thought he would inherit. There's still so much to learn and so much to explore for him, but now that the abandonment component that adoptees wrestle with has been put to bed, it's the next stage of what acceptance looks like for him.
I'm smiling because my next questions were: Will we see Laurel again this season, and will that house serve as the new Pearson cabin?
I'll say this: Will we see Laurel coming up [later] this season? I have no idea. I do, but I can't say. But if we see her, we'll be seeing her in a very interesting context. Will the farmhouse become an element? It will, as far as logistically how we can access it. [Laughs] That's the desire, to see a version of that farmhouse become a place of respite of sorts. And it does not take away from the family cabin. I think it's just an extension of that.
There's so much packed into this episode. Was there one particular scene that especially hurt to have to leave on the cutting-room floor?
Complete transparency: this was a 73-minute cut that was brought down to 42 minutes. So there was quite a bit left on the cutting room floor, and I loved all of them. There were so many that I was just like, "Ahh, it would've been nice if the audience got to see this." There was a lot more Hai-Laurel romance. There was a lot more Laurel in her family struggle — we would've really lived in that space with her as an adult. There was a lot more with Laurel's biological mother that I loved; Kellita Smith [who played Elizabeth] was amazing. And you have to just send out apologies whenever you have to trim things down. But I think what ends up on screen is the perfect synthesis of what we were going for.
In the final minute of the episode, we see another moment between these star-crossed brothers, this time with Randall reaching out to Kevin, who shuts it down in the moment because he's in crisis. They had an uncomfortable conversations prior to this episode, but what can you hint about what repair might look like, when they finally can get on the same page?
Earned. That's a big thing. And I know that our beautiful, wonderful, kind fans are just stressed out beyond belief about like, "When are these brothers going to connect?" But when it does happen — and it's going to happen — it's going to be something that both men have had a journey that they're both able to bring to that reunion in a different way. It's more than just like, "My bad! Brothers say crazy things, am I right?," and then, like, a high-five. [Laughs] It's so much more than that. We wanted to make sure that both Kevin and Randall were having these experiences, so when they reunite, there is a depth of life that they can bring to the table that neither of them is aware of.
Kevin feels guilty for having left Madison to film a movie in Vancouver. What awaits him at the hospital — besides the birth of his twins, which seem to be arriving prematurely?
What awaits him? Quite a bit. For Kevin, it's always so exciting because it's this journey of a boy-becoming-a- man story for him in a way that's really cool. What awaits Kevin is a level of maturity that he's going to have to take on — and I'm not even just talking about having children. I'm actually really looking forward to that.
What's one phrase you would use to describe what lies in the next episode?
To read what Sterling K. Brown revealed about "Birth Mother," head over here.