By Dan Snierson
February 15, 2019 at 02:43 PM EST
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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It’s the last day of filming before Christmas break, and the halls of This Is Us are decked with family tension. Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) and cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd) sit precariously at a table with Beth’s commanding mother, Carol (Phylicia Rashad), whom they’re trying to coax into retirement. Added stress: Beth hasn’t told Carol she’s unemployed. “What do you know about having a job?” Carol scoffs to documentarian Zoe as Beth squirms. “I’m talking about picking a real path and sticking to it. Like Bethany. Bethany went to college. Bethany got her master’s. Bethany wakes up every morning filled with purpose because…” “Bethany got laid off months ago!” blurts out Beth.

It’s painfully quiet as Carol stares at her daughter. Right before the cameras stop, Watson breaks the silence — and cracks up everyone on set — by ad-libbing, “You wanna say grace?” 

After three seasons of wondering about the story behind Beth, This Is Us viewers are about to get their prayers answered. On Feb. 19 at 9 p.m., NBC’s era-hopping family drama will unveil an episode titled “Our Little Island Girl,” which explores Randall’s (Sterling K. Brown) sharp, protective, grounding wife, who is still smarting from being laid off as an urban planner. Enough slow-peeling, it’s time to toss this onion into the soup. “The whole thing gets cooked now,” Watson says after filming that tête-à-tête-à-tête while offering up more metaphors. “We’re going deep. We’re digging in the crates. In other seasons, she’s been helping others and trying to be there for her husband as he figures himself out, but this time she’s not feeling easy about where she is in life, so she really wants to find her true path.”

It’s a showcase for the fierce fan favorite that the TIU writers have been eyeing since last season. “Susan can do everything. She’s so funny, and she crushes anything we give her dramatically,” testifies executive producer Elizabeth Berger. “There’s something so aspirational about Randall and Beth as a couple, and we know so much about Randall that people were like, ‘More on her! More on her!’ This is one where both writers and fans were desperate to delve into her more thoroughly.”

“Our Little Island Girl” not only excavates Beth’s fraught past, it illuminates her creative side and builds a bridge to the future, which was teased in the November fall finale’s flash-forward that featured a fiftysomething Beth lording over a dance studio. Limber up, because this journey will explore her love of ballet. “She was willing to try hard and sacrifice to be a dancer; it meant everything to her,” says Watson. And that journey wasn’t easy — or even fully realized. Teases Waston: “There’s hope — and then there’s regret.”

There’s also star wattage in the guest cast for this special episode (which was written and directed by women: Eboni Freeman and Anne Fletcher, respectively. ER vet Goran Višnjić will pop up as Beth’s teacherAlias alum Carl Lumbly (whose parents, like Watson’s, are Jamaican) plays Beth’s Jamaican father, who died when she was young, as Beth revealed in season 1.  (“I definitely wanted authenticity in that character,” she notes, “and that was something that I felt strongly about championing.”) And then there’s the aforementioned The Cosby Show star/Tony winner. “I responded by screaming a little bit,” Watson says of Rashad’s casting. “It’s just perfect…I remember thinking, ‘You better act like your life depends on it.’”

Watson knows that life-or-death stakes have also been attached by viewers to the marital distress Beth and Randall have weathered this season. “I’ve learned how important it is for fans to see this loving relationship [of] a black couple on television, a marriage that works, and people who support each other,” she says. “Many of us have grown up without a lot of those images, so having the opportunity to represent that means a lot. And people want to see that kept intact.” And more challenges await America’s Couple: “It takes work — and we’re going to show the work that it takes.”

The Howard University and NYU graduate — who stars with Tom Hanks in the upcoming Fred Rogers biopic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — is known for putting in the work in real life, too: She refused to use a stunt double for Beth’s dancing. “The way Susan threw herself into dance was just so extraordinary,” notes Berger. “It was so impressive to all of us. We were lucky enough to get Anne Fletcher to direct this episode, who has extensive experience as a choreographer. We asked Susan along the way, ‘Do you want a double? Do you want anyone doing this for you?’ And she was like, ‘Hell, no!’ That is Susan. She is someone who is going to want to tackle it all herself and give 100 million percent to it.”

“It didn’t have to be the Bolshoi, it just needed to be this woman telling her heart through dance,” reasons the actress, who’d previously studied ballet, tap, jazz, African, Brazilian, Caribbean, you name it. “I didn’t care if the kicks were perfect; I didn’t care if the leaps were perfect. I wanted the energy to be hers in every part of the dance.”

It’s just the latest turn for a character in whom Watson feels both pride and responsibility. “It meant a lot to represent all these women that are working and striving,” she says. “What they do day to day isn’t necessarily labeled as ‘extraordinary,’ but it is an extraordinary thing to raise a family, to be a supportive wife. Those are things that we should really, as Jamaicans would say, ‘big up’ women for. Praise women for the everyday of it.” And this is the day that Beth — and Watson — gets her due.

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