By David Canfield
February 19, 2019 at 10:00 PM EST
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
S3 E13
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“Our Little Island Girl” doesn’t feel like an episode of This Is Us — which, if anything, speaks to how consistently surprising and fresh this show can be, even in a relatively uneven season such as this. Focusing exclusively on Beth lends This Is Us a critical new point-of-view, and with that, a reminder of its elastic storytelling potential.

The episode feels in step with the likes of season 1’s “Memphis” and season 2’s “Number” trilogy, installments which allow the show to focus on one character and let their stories breathe more than usual. But this one’s got a particularly unique vibe: a different score, a whole new bench of characters. Building off of last week’s tease, “Our Little Island Girl” finds Beth driving down to her mother Carol’s place with Zoe; she and her cousin plan to convince Carol (played by Phylicia Rashad) to retire after she’s yet again hurt her hip. The episode begins by showing how Carol hurt herself — filling that short cold-open, introducing Carol as a strict high-school principal, with plenty of intrigue — a hint of what Beth and Zoe may be in for.

Beth and Zoe seem to know their mission won’t be easy to execute; on the car ride over, the latter cracks, “Telling that woman she needs to retire is definitely a two-woman job.” But there’s an undercurrent to this trip: Beth hasn’t told her mother she’s been laid off, and judging by Zoe’s reaction, that’s a very big deal. They arrive at Carol’s house and find her immediately resistant to any “take-it-easy nonsense,” as she puts it. They enter the house and Zoe says, “She’s still scary as hell.”

This being This Is Us, a single timeline won’t suffice. But the show works between past and present especially gracefully here, a thorough investigation into who Beth is and where she comes from. Flashbacks begin with Zoe’s new arrival to the household, and with Beth — known to all back then as Bethany — exploring her passion for dance. She’d secretly auditioned for a prestigious ballet academy and, early in this first glimpse at “Bethany,” is informed she’s been accepted. Her loving, more relaxed father, Abe, is thrilled by the news, reminding the family (as he will perhaps one too many times in the episode) that Bethany “danced before she walked.” Her mother is a bit unsettled by the news, but reluctantly agrees to let her join the academy — on one condition: “You will have to give it everything. You will have to be the best.”

This sets up the central conflict of “Our Little Island Girl”: Beth’s complicated relationship with her mother, and the impact a lifetime of such high — or rigid — expectations has had on her. Persuasively, the episode posits that Beth is at a critical moment in her life, left to look toward the past to forge ahead. An early, luminous moment captures Beth staring at pictures of herself as a kid on the wall, often in various ballet poses. She’s looking so closely it’s clear something in that child version of herself is speaking to her core.

In both timelines, things begin to unravel. Young Bethany excitedly works through the program, but finds her body not developing in step with ballet’s particular demands; she’s still committed and passionate about the work, but is not “the best,” as her mother requested she be. We watch her develop into a teenager, and linger on the night she comes home to her family and learns that her father has lung cancer. Bethany’s impulse is to quit — she says it’s too expensive and blames herself for the extra hours her father had to work to pay for the academy — but her mother won’t hear it. She’s resistant, in general, to showing any emotion over her husband’s pending death. She tells her daughter, merely, “You will stick to the path you chose and you will be the best.”

As an adult, meanwhile, tension builds between Zoe and Carol. Beth takes the heat off her cousin by revealing she was laid off months ago. Carol doesn’t react well, saying she’s been lied to; but even on this, she quickly puts it behind her, laying out how, first-thing tomorrow, she’ll work with Beth on identifying every potential firm she could work at. No point in delaying action goes Carol’s reasoning. Beth needs to keep pushing. (Recap continues on Page 2)

Infused in this achingly relatable story is a commentary on race and gender which This Is Us handles more subtly — and sharply — than it typically does. Beth being asked to be exceptional by her mother implies she must rise above the barriers she faces as a black woman. As a teen, Bethany senses doom when she arrives one day and sees a black woman who’s new to the class — previously, she’d been the only one. Immediately she senses the competition, a fight being lost: “We got a new girl in class today,” she tells her father. “Better than good. I work hard, but it just comes easier to her — I could tell.” Her father responds by reminding her of who she is — a dancer. “Never forget, baby girl,” he tells her.

These words haunt Beth in the present, in the episode’s most beautiful juxtaposition of the two timelines. Beth and Zoe get high — finding drugs the latter had hid behind a photograph decades ago — and reminisce a bit over their childhoods, and their different relationships to Carol. But while Zoe goes to bed, Beth is haunted by the sight of the chair in which her father once sat and told her to remember who she was. Beth imagines telling him what’s happened to her like she’s a teenager again. “I’m going to forget that part of me, Dad,” she says. “I want you to know that I’ll be happy. I’ll find great love with a man who reminds me so much of you, it’s scary. I can’t be me without you. How could I be?”

It’s a stunningly acted moment by Susan Kelechi Watson, who in “Our Little Island Girl” gets the showcase she’s long deserved. Even in episodes where she’s more central, Beth always exists on the show’s margins, and here, as the main focus, she comes to life as we haven’t seen her before. Even better is her next scene, when she finds her mother up at three in the morning, already looking up firms to research. Suddenly the pain of the aftermath of her father’s death sneaks up on her — when she told her mother she didn’t get the dance solo she’d been angling for, when her mother handed her a fat college guidebook and told her she needed to give up dance because sticking to it was setting her up to “fail.” “I remember feeling so free when I was a little girl,” Beth says. “Do you remember that? I was always doodling and dancing. You didn’t have to take it from me.”

Beth describes her mother’s philosophy as “no room for weakness,” taking shots at her for chasing her siblings away and for existing with no “air” around her — “no air to breathe, no air to be sad, no air to fail.” She says, with striking sadness, “I want to be the little girl who dances again,” to which her mother gets up and leaves without a word. Rashad makes the most of her guest appearance in this scene especially, internalizing what Carol knows to be true, but refusing to face it.

We get a taste of what happened to Bethany after dance — even the little easter-egg of her bumping into Randall at the Carnegie Mellon freshman mixer, as well as her pained decision to change her name to “Beth” — but the episode’s energy rightly shifts to the present. It’s the next morning, and Carol finally unburdens herself, in a monologue gorgeously delivered by Rashad. The gist of it: She felt lost without her father’s relatively carefree presence, and has always had “worries” instilled in her from her mother, who pushed her to succeed where her father didn’t. She says she’s sorry. Beth accepts it, warmly, telling her that she’s “strong” because of the way she pushed her and that it’s because of her that she met Randall. Still, regret permeates this episode, and it speaks to its power that you feel it even as these two reconcile.

Beth comes home to tell Randall she knows what she wants to do next — and, based on this season’s flashforwards, one can guess where this is headed. In a brilliant piece of visual storytelling, Beth heads to a studio where she dances, alone, the freedom and power coming back to her as she reacquaints herself with the art. It’s an exquisite way to cap this story, mirroring the sequence against how she felt at the very beginning in the academy, the joy and the passion. Finally, she finishes, out of breath, smiling widely — a triumphant moment. The episode’s arc feels complete here, finished without words. So it’s a tad disappointing that This Is Us feels the need to spell things out in a quick final scene — especially since the episode is so uniquely great otherwise. The woman who runs the studio approaches Beth, assuming she’s a protective student. Beth, still out of breath, corrects her: “I have something else in mind. I want to teach.”

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NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
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