This Is Us writers break down Randall and Kevin's painful conversation about race
The last time that Randall and Kevin Pearson had a nice little heart-to-heart — back in the season 4 finale of This Is Us — there was nothing nice, little, or heartfelt about it. (Recap: You suck at acting, Kevin, and Super Dad died ashamed of you! Oh, yeah, Randall? The day we adopted you was the worst day of my life!) Tuesday's episode of NBC's festival of feelings reunited the brothers for a conversation that has needed to happen for some time now — for too long — as their relationship barely improved, from fractured to… strained. And once again, when Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) found themselves face-to-face, the pain meter spiked. But so did the truth meter. Whereas last time the brothers lashed out to wound each other, this conversation cut even deeper as they simply got honest and "ugly" about their emotions and beliefs, laying bare a fraternal bond scarred by complex issues of race.
If Kevin was looking for a quick fix when he flew across the country to lock in his best man, he certainly didn't get it. Instead, "Brotherly Love" stripped away layers of this rivalry and shined a light on their fraught dynamic as well as the poignant angst that accompanied Randall throughout his childhood (and beyond) as a Black child adopted by a white family. Kevin issued a perfunctory apology for how he treated his brother — littered with the dreaded "I'm sorry if" structure — and struggled to see beyond how Randall should be anything but grateful for being adopted by the Pearsons. But Randall opened his eyes to the microagressions that occurred, to the idea that the day that he was adopted was also the day he lost his biological parents, and to the concept that only being allowed to show gratitude was in fact a prison.
Kevin finally let his guard down and the brutal honesty out. "You're not just my smart, successful brother," he said. "You're my Black, smart, successful brother, and I think maybe I did resent that. I thought you getting special treatment was mixed up with you being Black. And I wanted to take you down a notch."
The brothers ended the tense, intense episode in a place of healing — and Randall went to bed that night, slipping into the ghost kingdom that he wished for. Is he ready to be Kevin's best man? Well, for starters, they're both better men for this conversation. Let's finish off that sweet-sweet cereal milk, lock ourselves out of the house, and wait for a call from Bobby D as This Is Us story editor Jon Dorsey (who wrote the episode) and co-executive producer Kay Oyegun (who directed the episode), show you the "Love."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This conversation was raw, it was messy, it was awkward, and it was overdue. What were the toughest challenges in bringing it to life? I imagine one would be trying to calibrate Randall, so we see a man who's carried around those psychic wounds for so long and is both eager and scared to share that anger with a brother who he truly loves. And for Kevin, you have him say some things that make him appear racially insensitive and not-so-empathetic while still showing that his heart is in the right place.
JON DORSEY: I would agree with that. Definitely finding the right levels, making sure it didn't get too heated, but making sure that they were taking the heavy subject matter seriously. And then also, for me, it was making sure that there was a balance between Randall and Kevin, and [the conversation] not feeling too one-sided, like we were piling on Kevin completely. Randall certainly has his own flaws as a character as well. So all of that — the calibration, the balance were definitely tricky.
KAY OYEGUN: It's been a conversation that we've been having in the room, and we've been having for years now. So to really put that on its feet with them, Dorsey finding that balance and handling that balance and then being open to pushing in certain places or pulling back in certain places or adjusting — it's speaking to the flexibility of the writing. And then our actors — there's very little wrong that Sterling K. Brown and Justin Hartley can do. The chemistry between the two of them is just unreal.
I think the biggest thing is [these characters] are always honest with each other. That part of it really came through. And what's great about it is that this is not a first-season conversation. This is one that the actors, the characters, and the audience have been on this journey with them. It's not like the audience had not been privy to those things. Now, that it's actually staring them directly in the face and speaking to them is something that might be jarring, but it was something that our actors and our characters were both prepped for in a way that works really well. They're just both so talented. Read the dictionary and they'll find calibrations, like, "What?" But it was pretty incredible to watch them.
Kay, what the trickiest scene to bring to life as the director of the episode?
OYEGUN: It's always getting levels. In my toolkits of stuff that I see and like and love, it's always trying to find different variations of getting to a particular point. The conversation between Randall and Kevin in the kitchen was one where they're finally being honest with each other and opening up the vulnerabilities there. Randall had to be modulated really, really well. But for me, the most fascinating day was Kevin's open and honest reveal of having resentment towards Randall. And that was a conversation that I had with Justin over where that's coming from, and what he's trying to say, and how difficult that is, and whether or not Kevin has known that for a long time, whether or not Kevin has wanted to admit that. If this was the first time he's not only realized that, but also admitted that out loud. So it's finding all of those. I think Justin landed in such a beautiful place of honesty and emotional vulnerability, that is probably my favorite thing that has ever been put on film. Just because it's something that — my gosh, to get someone to say that out loud is a miracle! And apparently they would have to have been your sibling for 40 years in order for that to happen. [Laughs]
We saw the tears streaming from his eyes, but how therapeutic and game-changing is it for Randall — a guy who felt guilty about even having a ghost kingdom — to hear Kevin take that responsibility and say: "You're not just my smart, successful brother. You're my Black, smart, successful brother, and I think maybe I did resent that"?
OYEGUN: I mean, you just saying it just gave me chills again. [Laughs] That's crazy. Like, oh my gosh! The power of admitting that is nuts!
DORSEY: Deep down, Randall probably knew the answer, but to actually hear it from Kevin is powerful stuff. I've got two brothers — they aren't white, I don't have any adopted siblings — but a lot of times we get into arguments that obviously don't cut as deep as this, but it's pushing, there's a competition, there's pride at stake. So you know they're in the wrong and you're trying to get them to admit it and they won't. But just to get them to admit what you already know is so triumphant, it's got to feel… not good, because you know that Kevin's on the other side reeling a little bit, but there has to be a pressure release from just hearing it out loud.
OYEGUN: And for both of them. That's the thing that's so wild about it, because when you can say the ugly, you're both free, you know what I mean? Kevin, you're now free from that completely. Everything that you feel and say and think and process, you can now actually engage in that in a truthful way. Randall, you are no longer being gaslit! The thing is now there. I would encourage people, no matter what kind of conversation you're having, if you can say the hardest thing' if you can actually get yourself to a pure place of love and humility and say the difficult things, say the ugly thing. Just put it out there, because that's the only way you can begin to chip away at healing.
Kevin not only says that he's sorry for the things that he missed, but also for the things that he still doesn't see. What kind of work will he put in on that?
DORSEY: We'll see! But I think it speaks a little bit to the fact that he'll never be able to fully know Randall's journey or identity. It's just impossible. And I think it's good. It's a positive that Kevin could acknowledge that. Continuing to listen and hear — those are all good things.
OYEGUN: What does the work look like? That's a question that everyone is asking themselves. That's a question that everyone is also required to find the answer for it. I think that for our show, and the purposes of creating a 42-minute episode, he may not be doing the work on camera to the extent that we would think. But you know what? I'll say this: After reading the finale, he does put in some work, honey! [They laugh] Fully seeing his brother as complete and Randall fully seeing Kevin as complete, they're able to love each other better. And I think for the purposes of our show, that is the work that we're going to continue to see them put in.
The fight between the brothers happened before the pandemic and Black Lives Matter became the two biggest stories of the year. Dan [Fogelman, the show's creator] has said that there was a responsibility to the truth to incorporate these critical conversations about race into the show — an issue that has been natural for the show to explore over the years. So how much of an impact did that have on your original plans on how they would resolve their fight? Did it just help to focus it a bit more?
DORSEY: I think it organically helped us explore all of their issues more. And like Kay has said before, their racial dynamic didn't come out of nowhere. We've portrayed it since season 1, where Kevin and Randall has have butted heads racially, even in childhood. So it felt like a natural destination for the two of them. And I think what was happening in the world, like you said, maybe put a finer point on their ultimate conversation.
We learned more about ghost kingdoms in this episode, and delved into Randall's imagination. Randall's conversation with Daniel Tiger on the set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was lovely, and that "I have imaginary parents" confession was heartbreaking. When Randall walks away, you can still see Daniel there, which leads me to believe that it happened, but when Jack looks back, it's more ambiguous. Was that conversation real, or was that in Randall's head? Did you want it to play both ways?
OYEGUN: It's a two-part thing. It was written in a script beautifully as something that was very real. It was written as "Mister Rogers takes Daniel Tiger out after he's done filming with the kids, he spots Randall, and he's like, 'Oh, okay,' and then he goes to the castle and has that conversation." And the thing that's so funny about translating something — I didn't want to break Randall's perspective. I didn't want to break where this 5-year-old was coming from and how he was perceiving it and going all of a sudden into Mister Rogers watching the kid. To me, I'm looking at it from a lens [of], "Oh, I don't want to be in this adult man's point of view!"
There's a world where the audience can take it two ways. One, they are at a taping of Mister Rogers, Mister Rogers is known for engaging with children in this beautiful, magical way. And so that conversation very much did happen. But then the other side of it is, we've been having conversations with all of our characters' psyches. So… Randall engaging with his mother [Laurel, played by Jennifer C. Holmes] in the water in New Orleans or having this conversation to tell his secret to Daniel Tiger, we're always, as people, engaging with parts of our psyche that are really strong. So it's up for interpretation in that way. It very well did happen in a real sense — and it also could have been this kid looking for an outlet that he could trust.
DORSEY: To be honest, I actually loved that better, and I love that you're able to interpret it both ways and it sits a little bit in a gray area. And I feel like that abstract kind of nature of it is very fitting for a relatively abstract episode as well.
I know how Dan Fogelman operates, and you often have some interesting guest casting. Did you go after Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers?
OYEGUN: Look, the thing that's so funny about the way we operate — and I always love it — we start out and then we end up exactly where we're supposed to be for the role. So maybe we did, maybe we didn't, but our actor [Walt Keller] killed it as Mister Rogers, and that's all we're going to talk about! [Laughs]
Is it possible that Kevin also harbors some subconscious resentment that Randall essentially replaced a dead sibling? We've seen Rebecca coping with that loss, but that hasn't been explored much with the kids. How much have you talked about that in the writers' room?
DORSEY: We talk about it here and there. I know I think about that every now and then. Especially when I was doing research on ghost kingdoms. It's a real term, and we definitely explore it in a real way in this episode, but we did kind of simplify it, so it was more digestible for the audience. But in doing research, I think even Kevin would have his own kind of ghost kingdom where he would reflect on what his life would have been if Kyle survived. So I think you're right. It's probably not very conscious at this point in his life, but certainly there could be some subconscious resentment — and not necessarily directed at Randall of the brother that he could've had and lost. That's human nature, it feels like.
Kevin and Randall made some healthy and critical headway into their issues, but they were interrupted at the end of their breakthrough moment. What conversations are to come between these two? And are they ready now to stand comfortably next to each other at Kevin's wedding?
OYEGUN: I think [the This Is Us] writers and the audience can take a big ol' sigh of relief and a big ol' breath, knowing that not only our Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown but our Randall and Kevin have come a long way together and can forge a beginning of a new dynamic. So, as far as the support and the love — as best men, as brothers and all of those things — I think people can look forward to a lot of that.
This episode shows more of what Randall experienced in his late-teenage years [played by Niles Fitch] with Kevin [Logan Shroyer]. The audience has seen teenage Kevin as oblivious and a bit mean to Randall, but he's especially tone-deaf here, making racially charged jokes about The Fresh Prince and a fake ID. How did you approach those scenes with Logan and Niles?
OYEGUN: I'm so curious as to what the audience reaction is. Because there are people who will say, "Oh, he didn't do anything." There are people who will say, "Fresh Prince is awesome. Carlton is amazing." There are all kinds of reactions to things. And it's so funny — my brother, when he watched, he remembered these little sort of jokes that friends of his had made, and he was just sort of like, "I don't even think I recognize those as insensitive." And it's a very real thing. Part of why this is a conversation that is just really, really important and great is because that while we may sit on a phone and be like, "Oh gosh, that was so insensitive," I don't necessarily see it all the way that way.
It's one of those things where it's like, "Where's it coming from? Who is it directed at? How do you take it? Are you thinking about it that way? Is that other person perceiving it this way?" So I think it begs the conversation. With Logan and with Niles, once the script was out to them, we had a couple of Zoom calls where we just walked through scenes, and I got a sense of where they were at emotionally and mentally, and what they were ready for. They were so ready and excited to be the mature versions of their characters and branch out and explore this dynamic of a story where there's no mom and dad to be buffers there, there's no significant other to be a buffer. And it's something that Logan was game for and Niles was game for. It was really [about] Logan finding the honest place, because I don't think he ever delivered any of those lines with an intention to hurt. And I don't think even Randall understood that he was being hurt. It's those gray areas that people tend to exist in that we just wanted to kind of explore. Because it could have gone worse. He could have said some stuff.
Kevin is the Pearson who Randall has the biggest issues with, but he never really resolved that conversation with Kate. Are there more conversations to come with her? The Rebecca situation is a challenging one, with her early-onset Alzheimer's, but might there be some sort of full-on Pearson family meeting?
OYEGUN: I'll say that we're very, very fortunate to have a season 6 where plenty of conversations are going to take place. This particular season has arced out; the finale is arced out in a way that I think is very satisfying from where these conversations started. And what's lovely is that this family's makeup is not changing, so there are more conversations to be had. But I think probably in ways that might be really surprising for folks.
At the end of the episode, when Randall goes to bed, for the first time in his ghost kingdom, he is able to picture his actual birth parents instead of the librarian [Janora McDuffie] and weatherman [Brandon Victor Dixon] — with the Pearsons around, too. Did you want to audiences to interface with that as a sigh of relief and a healing moment?
DORSEY: I see it as a sigh of relief, a beautiful moment. It's this idea that things can be true. You can absolutely love and adore the Pearsons, which he does, and he can also love and adore and dream and wish for his biological parents. One doesn't cancel out the other. To me, it's a beautiful moment where he's solidified his bond with Kevin. Obviously he's going to continue to love and adore his Pearson family. And now he gets a piece to himself to love and adore his biological parents as well.
OYEGUN: Our minds are our safe space in a lot of ways, and the idea that his has been commandeered for all these years, it's something that now having the ability to feel free to do X, Y, Z thing is something that is just really gratifying — not only for him as a character, but for us. This was really special… We're always trying to find ways for our characters' psychology to inform where they are and what their next is going to look like. So being able to see William [Jermel Nakia] and Laurel in a healthy way and in a way that is sacred to him — he has something for himself now that he doesn't feel afraid of.
New crazy theory: Those trophies in future Kevin's house aren't acting trophies but awards for his accomplishments in the art world as a painter.
OYEGUN: He has an Oscar for painting! Why not?
The show is going off the air until May, but can you offer up a cryptic tease for the next episode?
OYEGUN: Drip, drip.
DORSEY: Swollen toes.
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.