By Dan Snierson
March 26, 2019 at 10:00 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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First, the bad news: Beth doesn’t want to hear any more of Randall’s perfect speeches. And now, for some more bad news: Randall is all out of them, anyway.

This is… not a healthy marriage right now.

Tuesday’s powerful episode of This Is Us, titled “R&B,” found one of TV’s most believable, most endearing, and most electric couples completely out of rhythm and mired in plenty of blues. Months of malaise have corroded the spirit of this marriage — he remained in the city council despite her wishes and asked her to table her dreams of teaching dance — and it came to a head with the Fight. But when Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) wearily told Randall (Sterling K. Brown) that they’ve been having the same argument for 20 years, this installment rolled up its sleeves and dug into relationship, flashing back to five pivotal moments that were a complicated, chaotic stew of romance, tension, warmth, and disconnection.

Witness the first date. (He overplanned it before she bailed on it, but both walked away with a strange flicker of hope.) The string of punted proposals. (She wasn’t ready until she was surrounded by her loved ones, those being nachos and ginger beer.) Their wedding day. (She wrote her vows at the last minute because she had been tied up in ceremony arrangements; his vows were academic and overthought until she barged into the room and they literally went back-to-back and spoke from the heart.) The nacho incident. (A 3 a.m. wake-up call from baby Tess led to a sweet moment of munchies… and then to a bitter-tipped metaphor from Beth about how she always wound up with the crumb-y end.) The hotel scam. (Beth lied about attending a business conference to get some R&R, but only wound up with more R&B.)

Which brings us back to the present: Beth told Randall that their default mode was one in which she had to be the one to bend, but now she was about to break. “I refuse to be blamed for the fact that you had your awakening 20 years too late,” he returned. “At any other point in our marriage, if you had decided that you wanted to go back to dance, I would have been nothing but supportive.” She snapped back: “Oh, so when would I have done that, huh? Between which of your anxiety attacks?” Wuh-oh. Last week it was Randall with the voicemail fail, now she was wishing she could erase what came out of her mouth in anger. She tried to apologize, he started to walk out, and when she asked where he was going, he said, “To Philly. I don’t want to be in this house with you right now. It’s good news for you, I guess. I’m all out of speeches.” And to Philly he went, to sleep on the cot in his office to which she tried to banish him last week. Would someone “call marriage” before it’s too late?

Let’s order a No. 2 nachos, try to remember when mini-golf was our jam, and write a blank check to TIU executive producer Isaac Aptaker in exchange for some answers in the wake of “R&B.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the mission of the episode, besides to give audiences a much-wanted deeper dive into the history of Randall and Beth’s relationship? Was it to show a marriage in all its messy complication, heartache, and glory?
ISAAC APTAKER:
Yeah, exactly. We’ve known we’ve wanted to do that for over a year now, since season 2, actually. We wanted to do an episode where they have what’s probably the worst fight of their marriage, and then we spend the rest of the episode really giving context and giving color to their relationship, and showing how there’s this dynamic that’s been pervasive throughout the history of Randall and Beth — and all the different ways that it has manifested itself over the years.

Let us move to the question that you heard me ask after several episodes, but it feels more appropriate than ever: How dangerous was this fight between the two of them? How dire is the situation?
It was bad. We’ve done a bunch of public screenings of the episode now, and hearing the audience react when Beth calls Randall out on his anxiety attacks — which I think is the most cutting line of that fight — it’s a huge reaction. People gasp, people go, “Oh, no! She didn’t go there!” It’s really big, and I think that it warrants it. That’s a really, really brutal thing to say to your husband. Yeah, people should be nervous. He’s not sleeping in the house that night.

Last week Beth told him to sleep in Philadelphia, but he came back to the house to power through the pain. He still has memories of that ugly fight between Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), but should he have stuck around even after she said that hurtful thing instead of leaving the house?
He was leaving the house because he needed some space, and he knew if he stayed there things could get worse. So I actually think in that moment, him saying, “You know what, I gotta get out of here, we’ve got to both take a beat and cool down,” was probably the right move. But it’s not the warm, cozy feeling you want to end an episode on, on a couple that we all love, for sure.

Not that we should compare the level of hurt in each of their barbs, but let’s compare: Was his last week with the voicemail a little worse than hers?
I think you could have a long debate. You’d find that they’re pretty 50/50 split as to who thinks what Randall said was worse and who thinks what Beth said was worse. You could make the case for either. I mean, those are both just nasty, cruel, really spiteful things to say to your spouse.

What kind of reaction did Sterling and Susan have to this script? Were they seeing and defending the perspective of their characters — and/or has there been a consensus that Randall has crossed the line in the last few weeks?
It’s funny, they very much see it outside of their characters, and Sterling can see when Randall has gone too far. What’s so great and so fearless about him as an actor is he’s not too hung up on whether or not the audience is going to like Randall in every moment. He knows that what makes him such an interesting, dynamic character is that he’s human, and he makes mistakes. So Sterling is just so great going into those moments and doing those scenes where he knows that Twitter is not going to be like, “Oh, we love you, Randall,” but he just dives in. I think the same for Susan. What I love so much about that moment where she does call him out on the anxiety attack is the moment that she says it, you see this flicker of instant regret go across Beth’s face. The second it comes out of her mouth, she knows that she went too far. They both commit to those less-admirable moments in their characters so brilliantly.

Can you break down the percentage of Team Randall vs. Team Beth in the writers’ room right now?
I think we’re pretty 50/50. I think there might be a slight edge to Team Beth. But when we screened tonight’s episode for our writers and Beth makes that cutting remark about his anxiety attack, the whole room kinda turned on Beth just a little bit in that moment. So I’d say we’re pretty even. In stuff like this, we try to always lean into the gray area, and make sure we’re doing things where you can really see where both characters are coming from. Whenever we have people divided on who is right and who is wrong, we know we’re doing our jobs.

In the supermarket when Beth is busted by Randall for her hotel lie, she feels bad, he handles it well, and she offers to return, and he actually takes her up on this, and she goes right back into caregiver mode, illustrating that this dynamic is perpetrated by both parties. But shouldn’t he have insisted that she take her night given her state of mind? Their marriage seemed to be wounded by an accumulation of tiny moments like this. It was a small and almost-feel-good moment that was actually devastating.
Completely agree. That’s a story line that we’ve actually had floating out there for a really long time. We’ve known we wanted to tell the story of what it was like for Beth when this house was just swarmed with fathers and brothers and all of Randall’s extended family. We had one of our writers pitch this: “What if she said she had a work trip and then he caught her immediately?”

But like you said, what makes it so quietly devastating, and just so complicated in terms of how they both play into the dynamics of the marriage, is that without even meaning to, Randall convinces Beth to give up on some time that she really needs for herself. But at the same time she’s really complacent in it. If she wanted to go to that hotel that night and be alone, he wouldn’t begrudge her. So it really is an instance of it takes two to tango, and we see how they both feed into this dynamic.

The Pearsons tend to be an intense bunch of people, from the Sunday dinners to the date-crashing Rebecca to Kevin (Justin Hartley) and William (Ron Cephas Jones) moving in. Is Beth justified in feeling overwhelmed? Are the Pearsons just too much for anyone?
[Laughs.] Part of what makes them interesting characters and a great TV family is that they are a lot, and everyone is a little bit wrapped up in their own personal drama. That’s what makes them fun to watch. But that definitely probably makes them less than easy to be married to. We’ve tried to hit on that throughout the series. We did that episode with the other Big Three where Miguel [Jon Huertas], Toby [Chris Sullivan], and Beth go to that bar and pull up and complain about what it is like to be with these wonderful but very complicated, overbearing people. So this is definitely another case of that; everything that makes them so wonderful and amazing and loving also can at times make them just a lot.

Apologies are in order from both parties, but some fans are going to be nervous that Beth will end up bending again and reverting to that dynamic. What assurances can you give them — if this marriage is salvageable, which obviously it seems to be — a fundamental part of their dynamic would need to change so they don’t keep having this same fight for the next 20 years?
I don’t want to give any assurances, but you’re certainly right in that’s what we can all hope for. In this episode, we really wanted to show that this pattern has always existed in their marriage, and that it speaks to the explicit fear that Beth states about why she has this slight hesitation about accepting Randall’s proposal in that mini-golf scene. It feels like in order for them to fix this, and in order for them to really work long, long-term, they do need to adjust. I don’t want to give anything away or give any assurances that are going to ruin our finale, but I agree that that is the hope here, that they can find a new status quo. They have to find more of a balance.

Last week, Sophie [Alexandra Breckenridge] told Kevin, “You always get what you want.” And that’s what Beth says here to Randall, “It’s always your way, you get what you want.” Randall works harder for his way than Kevin, certainly. On which of those two Pearson men does that accusation land more accurately, if not both?
It’s Randall. Kevin is very used to being able to rely on his charm and his fame and his good looks to smooth over any situation and get out of repercussions when he screws up. But when you look at Randall, he just takes big swing after big swing after big swing, and he always finds a way to make it work for him and his family. And now Beth is finally drawing the line in the sand in saying, “This doesn’t work for me. What are we going to do?” So I think that both brothers are certainly very much used to having their way, but if you look at who’s making bigger choices and always finding a way to make it work, I think it’s Randall.

Earlier this season, Deja [Lyric Ross] tells Randall that he has thrived thanks to his “abandoned at a fire station” origins and that she didn’t want to be a “story” like him. It’s interesting that on his first date with Beth, he shares this part of his life, and she’s like, “Whoa, that’s a bit of an overshare.” Was that a wink back at that — and how that story has permeated Randall’s life?
We’ve seen him tell that story so many times, and the first person to call him on it and really hold her own against him in that way is Beth. Part of what makes him come home from that date and go, “Wow, that’s the girl I’m going to marry,” is he’s met his match. That speaks to everything that’s amazing and problematic about their marriage. She really is his match. She’s just as tough, she’s just as smart, she’s had just as much of her own complicated past with her dad’s death and her mother taking dance away from her, and she can so hold her own against him. But when you have two huge, larger-than-life people who want everything out of life, and they’re married to each other, eventually, as Beth said, someone has to make compromises — and it’s always been her. And she’s tired of it.

Level with us: Will the cast of Living Single reunite to save this marriage?
That was pure Kay Oyegun [who wrote the episode]. She is a big Living Single fan, and when Sterling got that script, he actually went back and watched the episodes that they’re referencing so he knew what the hell he was talking about, and I’m sure Susan did, too. So talk about an actor prepares — I think they went on Hulu and dug up those old ones. If someone came to Kaye and asked her to reboot Living Single, she’d have to find a way to do it on her nights and weekends because we can’t bear to lose her, but I think she would be more than thrilled.

How much resolution between Randall and Beth arrives in the finale — one way or another?
We will give answers one way or another, so we will see how this fight resolves. We’re not going to drag this through the break. Yeah, we will answer it.

How much illumination about their status is there in the flash-forward? As you know, people are very nervous about where they stand and whether they’re even still a couple?
There are big answers to that, so much in the future. Do not go fix yourself a snack during the last five minutes of the episode.

How would you sum up the emotional ride of the finale?
There’s a lot of really satisfying closure on some of our bigger stories this year. If they’re stressed out about what’s going to happen with Beth and Randall, they’ll get answers there one way or the other. They’ll get answers on what’s happening with baby Jack. So whether or not they’re happy with how things turn out, there won’t be this anticipation of, “Oh, God, how’s this going to end?” Then at the same time, as we always try to do, we’re going to bring up some new questions, some new mysteries, some new things for people to wonder about over the summer.

And what’s the one word that comes to mind when you think about this finale?
Massive.

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