This Is Us producers break down two difficult dinners about race and class
'This Is Us' producers Kay Oyegun, Elizabeth Berger, and Isaac Aptaker analyze the events of 'The Dinner and the Date.'
Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us pulled out a chair from the table and invited viewers to feast on two charged and challenging meals, as various Pearsons entangled themselves in issues of race and class. “The Dinner and the Date” centered on Jack’s dinner invitation to Randall’s teacher, Mr. Lawrence (Brandon Scott), and his wife, Trish (Skye P. Marshall), as well as the uncomfortable repast at Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) townhouse, where they hosted the family of Deja’s new boyfriend, Malik (Asante Blackk), to… well, discuss how to split up these potential lovebirds. Which brings us to the third story of the episode — an illicit first date between young father Malik and Deja (Lyric Ross), as he showed her his perfect Philadelphia, which included a Boathouse Row bonus that felt like home to her.
Yes, none of these overprotective parents were pleased to see this blossoming relationship, since it involved a few lies and a day of skipped school. While Randall entered this parental meeting trying to break up the couple and Beth took more of an open-toed/hearted approach, she soon clashed with condescending Kelly (Marsha Stephanie Blake). Soon, the majority of the adults in the room felt that this relationship was a bad idea for their respective child — Deja, the bright foster child who’d already been through a lot; Malik, the straight-A young father of an infant daughter. But when Darnell (Omar Epps) inferred that Randall was worried that Malik would drag Deja back into “the hood,” the quiet dad jumped to action, peeled off his shirt to reveal his tattoos from a past life that Randall had been eyeing, lectured them about superficially judging someone, and defended his son.
Things were also tense and awkward at the Pearsons several decades before, where Jack (Milo Ventimilgia) — already feeling threatened by Mr. Lawrence’s relationship with young Randall (Lonnie Chavis) — let his insecurities get the best of him. Only when the evening sputtered out did Jack lay himself bare to Mr. Lawrence and inelegantly clear the air. (More on that later.) The episode ended with Randall reciting the Langston Hughes poem that he memorized, “I, Too,” and inviting Jack to read more Hughes with him. “I would like that very much,” Jack said softly, kissing his son’s head, realizing that there was formidable parenting road ahead.
Let’s take a swig of red wine in the closet, organize our books by year of publication, bone up on our sauropods, and interview This Is Us producer Kay Oyegun (who wrote the episode) and co-showrunners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker about “The Dinner and the Date.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’ve seen some intense family meals on this show — including an awkward one a few weeks ago with the teen big Three and Miguel — but these two meals on Tuesday’s episode upped the cringe quotient and delved into some deep issues of race and class. Which of the two meals was harder to crack in the writers’ room?
KAY OYEGUN: Weirdly enough, the Randall-Beth-Kelly-Darnell meal was harder to crack. The nuances there have much more shade than a much more straightforward “This is my son, you are someone who is vying for his attention, and now I have to step into spaces that I’m not particularly familiar with.” The one was Randall and Beth was so much about our children and our protectiveness towards our children and trying to figure out how to see each other eye-to-eye. I think class nuance within the black community is something that is much more not easily understood from an outside point of view than a straight-up “This is a new person coming into this space, a black person coming into a white space.”
ELIZABETH BERGER: Exactly. With the Randall meal, modulating all four adults so that everyone had a point of view and you understood where they were all coming from and you could talk about the episode and say, “No, I really agreed with this person as opposed to that person,” that was something we really wanted to make sure it was balanced, and you could take everyone’s side in that argument.
Jack is insecure from the get-go around Mr. Lawrence, clearly recognizing his strong bond with Randall. What was the process like of calibrating Mr. Lawrence and his intentions — someone who had a genuine connection with Randall and connected with him as a lone black person in a white environment — while making him a good foil for Jack? And what about shaping the portrayal of this naive, insecure, and uglier side of Jack?
ISAAC APTAKER: On the Jack side of it, he’s the guy who wants to be everything to his children. He wants to be Super Dad and be able to check every single box in terms of their needs. And for Randall, there’s this very, very obvious box that he can’t check, which is having an older black man to look up to and to be his role model. And that is really, really throwing Jack for a loop. We started at the week prior in the golf episode and now we continue it here and it is bringing up an uglier side of him as he’s just really, really struggled to deal with “There is this huge aspect of my son and my son’s identity that I can’t speak to and I can’t be everything to, because of who I am.”
OYEGUN: Mr. Lawrence’s intentions are complicated in the sense that he’s observing this family dynamic. He also has a close relationship with Randall, but for him he’s not entirely even sure how to process this, how to navigate that. And through the course of the dinner, he realizes that there is competition between himself and Jack. At first he was really there to engage with Randall, similarly to the way he does in school, but all of a sudden he realizes, “Oh, the daggers are coming for me directly, so now I have to modulate I’m standing in this situation.” But we wanted it to be as honest and truthful. There is no space where Mr. Lawrence was trying to become Randall’s father in any kind of way. It was both he and Jack kind of navigating their own dynamic and their own space.
APTAKER: The thing I love about Mr. Lawrence is not only is he a black man coming into Randall’s life, but he also preys on another of Jack’s insecurities, which is the intellectual, academic side of himself. He and Randall, who’s obviously just this huge, exploding brain at this age, are able to connect about literature and science and all these things that lovely construction-minded Jack doesn’t sort of understand or know how to wrap his mind around. So Mr. Lawrence really represents this double threat, and I think that adds this layer of complexity to what could be a straightforward dynamic.
In a season 1 episode with this era of the Big Three, Rebecca [Mandy Moore] confronts Jack about his drinking and says that she needs him to step up and be a 10. Assuming that the events of this episode take place after that day, is Jack possibly trying too hard to be all things to his son in the wake of that conversation, to be that 10?
BERGER: I think that he prides himself on having all the answers and being his kid’s hero. His kids are his No. 1 joy in life, and feeling like a good dad is the thing other than his love for Rebecca that keeps him going. As we started last week, this is a time in life where suddenly he’s finding himself out of his depth, and it’s really throwing him for a loop, and it’s really bringing out not the best color in him. We all wanted to not be afraid of showing that this vulnerability makes him really flawed and makes him act out. But yeah, I think he probably is feeling the pressure of what his wife laid on him to be the very best that he can be and feeling like he’s coming up short.
APTAKER: And I love that in this episode that she’s the one to call him out. She’s like, “Jack, don’t make this a competition. It’s unnecessary. And also, you would actually be being a worse father by doing that.”
OYEGUN: I think the final thing getting across in this episode was Jack is an amazing father, Randall was an amazing son, but the bridging of the gap between the two of them is having Jack do the work in a way that he’s probably not used to in that sense. The handing off of the book from Mr. Lawrence to Jack was basically saying, “You’ve already done the part of being his father. You love him immensely, but there’s a context for Randall’s life going forward and the experiences he’s going to have that you don’t know. Now while you can’t know it intrinsically, there are tools for you to access. So it’s a time for you to roll up your sleeves and get in there with him.” That’s what that final scene is really saying, and our way of saying that in a broader way: “The conversations are complicated, don’t shy away from them, but it’s important for everybody in those spaces to do the work.”
The great, awkward moment of this episode arises when Jack tells Mr. Lawrence, “I can’t teach my son how to be black.” Mr. Lawrence laughs, almost in frustration or for embarrassment for Jack, and he cuts him off and says, “Oh no, don’t do that.” Mr. Lawrence seems to realize that it was coming from a well-intentioned place, but how offensive is that to him — and what does that say about him that he still found a way to help Jack and give him the book?
OYEGUN: Truthfully, it was borne out of this notion that the burden of teaching people how to engage with people of color tends to fall on people of color. And that is something that people of color are beginning to speak out about. In that moment, understanding that this man, not just that he means well, but this is Randall’s father and Randall is a beautiful, wonderful son. So obviously Jack and Rebecca are doing something wonderful. That said, Mr. Lawrence’s job is not to raise Randall and usher into his future self. That’s truly Jack’s job. And I think in that moment the embarrassment felt on Jack’s side, on Mr. Lawrence’s side, was Mr. Lawrence creating boundaries not only for himself, but also boundaries for Jack and letting Jack know that this isn’t an area you have to be afraid of, but this is an area that you have to dive into, as with anything else. That moment was really speaking to that, and the beautiful, wonderful Langston Hughes. The first time I read “The Weary Blues,” I was 13, and so funny enough, the notion of having Randall saying to his father, “I am the darker brother,” was something that I was begging to do from day 1.
Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” poem, which deals with identity, inequality, racism and perseverance, works so well in that final scene, and it’s powerful watching Randall read it to Jack. How did you decide on that particular poem?
OYEGUN: If I told you the amount of black consciousness poems that I read on a daily basis, it would make your head spin. [Laughs] But truthfully, the idea of Randall Pearson that we’ve known and lived with for the last four years, speaking something to his father, there were many options. There were options in a sense of stories about fathers and sons, but I thought that having a bigger conversation with our country was something that would be impactful in that moment, perhaps. And just sort of the sense that using these two characters that we love and care about to have a bigger conversation about where he fits in to the American landscape was something that would be hopefully not in poor taste. So it was pretty easy to decide that “I, Too” would be the best.
Let’s talk about that other meal. You’ve explored issues of race with Randall and introduced the idea of his dealing with the “rich carpetbagger” label when he began his campaign. But this episode really leans into the class issue. When Beth explains to Randall that they are kind of bougie, he says he doesn’t want Darnell to think that. Is he in any denial when it comes to classism, especially as a politician who wants to feel that he has a deep connection to his less-fortunate constituents?
OYEGUN: Black people love talking about race. Black people do not like talking about money. And that’s something that has been true for a very long time. And I think the idea of acknowledging his bougie-ness in a space like that isn’t something he’s in denial of, but nobody wants to bring that up. It’s really tapping into the behind the curtains of what some of these conversations look like. So yeah, it’s literally everything that you said, but it’s also kind of that wink and nod to the conversations that are had behind closed doors.
Things come to a head between the parents when Randall says that he and Beth are concerned that Malik will take Deja back into a tough situation, and Darnell says, “Our son is going to drag her right back where… the hood?” In showing them his tattoos, he says, “You can choose to see me and only see my mistakes, or you can choose to something different… and you’re not going to write off our son.” Both sets of parents are as proud of their child as they are ignorant or unaccepting about the other’s child. Is there a level of hypocrisy on both sides — and are Deja and Malik more enlightened than they are?
APTAKER: For sure. Part of what is so interesting about the storytelling here and the way we chose to structure it is, we had our first episode [of season 4] to fall in love with Malik and his family — and Randall and Beth haven’t seen any of that. They don’t know who this kid is. So we, as an audience, in a way are way ahead of our main characters in the sense that we know he’s a really good person. We know he’s a really good teenage father. So in a weird way, we’re like, “Whoa, Randall and Beth, you’re wrong! I’ve met this kid. I know this kid even though you don’t.” And that that allows us to disagree with our main characters for a big chunk of this episode, which is pretty rare on a show like this. At least for me watching it, I’m much more on Team Malik and his family because I know that they’re good people, and Randall and Beth don’t know that yet.
BERGER: But similarly, it’s very interesting to think of it from Kelly and Darnell’s perspective. We know Deja. We know her inside and out. They know a few facts about her and they’re drawing conclusions off of those facts that completely don’t do service to this woman as a whole. So us having more information in the scene than all of our characters have provides for a very interesting viewing experience, hopefully.
The building passive-aggressiveness between Kelly and Beth was amusing to see. Will there be more to come with them? And what is the state of affairs between the four of these parents moving forward?
OYEGUN: There is definitely going to be an exploration of the dynamic. As we saw at the end, they’re opening their doors essentially to allow Deja and Malik to see each other so, yes, there will be crosses with Malik’s parents.
The episode contains a great first date for Malik and Deja that is not the standard Liberty Bell tour of Philadelphia. Kay, was that curated from your own experiences in Philadelphia?
OYEGUN: It was my own experience to an extent — in the sense that I too wish my first kiss was by the Boathouse Row. I also wished that somebody just sort of swept me off my feet and took me on a sojourn of Philadelphia. [Laughs] But no, those are places that I used to hang and call home in a a sense. But yeah, the going back home is always a pleasure. I still have family there. My aunt came on set, which was fun. It was a great trip to Philly and there’s always a part of you that wishes you could do more, but I think we picked a really fun highlight reel of the city.
APTAKER: And we were really hoping to get some free Rita’s Italian Ice because we’re all big fans of it.
Deja has an understandable trust issue with Malik based on the men that came in and out of her mother’s life. Are the coming obstacles in this fast-forming relationship more internal or external? Will trust issues continue to creep up there, or will these two will find their next challenges in navigating the rules laid down by Randall and Beth?
OYEGUN: Wildly, neither. You will be wonderfully surprised by where their dynamic goes. And what people got a chance to see early on from Malik, from Deja, these are two very introspective children, young adults, and they are in a space where they’re asking each other questions that are a little bit more complicated than what you would expect. So while people are wondering about tweets and texts and all this other stuff, these two have seen a level of the world where they’re tapping into something that feels a bit more spiritual, in a weird way. A bit more complicated.
APTAKER: In our next episode, we have a Deja and Malik story. The sophistication of their fight next week — there’s so much to it. Just like Kay said, because he has a child, she’s lived through countless foster homes and in a way has been more of a parent to her mother than her mother was to her — because they both have such experience, despite their young age, they’re not doing the simple “Why did you like her Instagram?”
Finally: Dejik and Maleja. Where did the writers’ room fall on these ship names? Was it an even split?
APTAKER: Oh, man. I would say Dejik, because Maleja is too confusing.
BERGER: Maleja is pretty funny, though.
OYEGUN: Maleja is hilarious! It was funny because Isaac was Dejik. On my first draft [of the script], Isaac wrote at the bottom of the email to me, “I’m totally shipping Dejik.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s going in.” And then on set, Sterling just kept on saying Maleja and he just ad-libbed that and put that in, so it stayed. It’s fun.
APTAKER: I think ladies goes first in ship names, if possible.
You mentioned that in next week’s episode, Deja and Malik will have challenges in this new relationship. What else can you tease?
OYEGUN: The emotional reveal for Deja in the episode of her past is something that’s going to play a lot next week and the following week.
APTAKER: It’s definitely served them dealing with both the obstacles of navigating this relationship with the limitations that their parents have put on them — and also getting to a really interesting, emotional place.
This Is Us
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