[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the This Is Us episode "A Hell of a Week: Part 1". Read at your own risk!]
When it rains for Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown) on This Is Us, it pours. Tuesday's episode of NBC's most-watched drama featured Randall dealing with the aftermath of a home invasion, while also trying to cope with his mother's mental illness and the stress of a new housing bill that has many of his constituents concerned about their businesses and rent prices. While present day Randall had the weight of the world on his shoulders, the episode also flashed back to college-age Randall, crumbling under the pressure of trying to take care of his family after Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) death, and a toddler Randall being told by Jack to cope with his own issues since the twins were such a handful.
All of it came together to help the audience understand why Randall has been so reluctant to talk to a therapist about his anxiety issues, or find a more healthy way of coping rather than running or calling Kevin (Justin Hartley) at 3 a.m. While Randall did finally confess to his brother that he is not okay, the episode kicks off a larger arc for Randall as he is finally forced to confront this issue head on and find better ways of coping. TV Guide spoke to Brown — who is also a voice in Netflix's KIPO, has a movie Rhythm Section coming out later this month, and is running his own production company Indian Meadows, while starring on the show — about his relation to Randall's struggle and what this most recent break means for the rest of Randall's arc.
What was your reaction when you first read the script for this episode?
Brown: First of all, I had to to begin by reading [Episode] 10, and then recognizing that there is a home invasion and I was like, "Oh. Oh snap! That's not gonna be good for Randall Pearson."
It is not a discovery because it's something that I knew, but [there is] sort of an illumination that Randall is an individual who has lived with a baseline level of fear for his whole life. Like even as a child, he was just naturally fearful of life, right? Then his father passed away, and that haunts his whole family, but for his sister, and for him, and his mom in particular, who were present, it was a devastating loss. And now the invasion of his sanctity, a violation of his space where he keeps his wife and his children safe — where can someone go if that last bastion of solace has now been violated and taken away from him? So I was really curious to see where they were going to take him and recognize that his default is to go for a run, because that's sort of his self-soothing mechanism. It doesn't require alleviating control of his circumstances. He's got control of it. He knows as far as he runs he can exhaust himself to where he just doesn't have the energy to be scared anymore. He can get himself an actual physical high, a runner's high if you will, that allows him like, "Okay, I feel good enough now to keep on moving forward with my life."
I recognize in this episode, by virtue of the fact that he sort of tumbles this mugger, this guy was taking this woman's purse. You have to ask yourself the question, did he that need to beat this dude? Did he have him already subdued? Was that enough, and he could have kept on going with his life, but he kind of threw himself into danger and then went beyond, I think, a point that he needed to, because he'd been living with this fear for such a long time. And he's like, "I'm gonna take all of that out on this man right now." So I think he's reaching a point where running may not be the totality of what it once was in terms of helping him, deal with his anxiety. That was a long-winded answer, and I guess I could have just said I liked the episode a lot.
Darnell (Omar Epps) makes the point in this episode that it's tough for black men in particular to go to therapy, but Randall wasn't raised in a black household. What accounts for Randall's hesitancy to talk to a professional about his anxiety?
Brown: Randall was definitely not raised in the black community, but he was raised by one of the most tight-lipped men TV history and he goes by the name of Jack Pearson. If ever there was a template of someone who dealt with problems on their own, by virtue of cutting out their brother and their lives and just not acknowledging past traumas, then Jack Pearson would be that person. So [Randall]'s template for self-reliance, for being a man, is somebody who dealt with problems on their own, for better or for worse. He recognizes that his dad was not a perfect human being and there's things that he could have done differently, but his dad is also the primary influence on what it's like for him to be a man. So, yeah, [Randall] wasn't raised by black folks, but Jack Pearson may have a little bit of that same sort of resistance to sharing his life with any and everybody that Randall is showing right now.
We do see the scene of Jack asking baby Randall in a moment of frustration to handle his own nightmares because Jack has his hands full with the twins. Is that moment influencing Randall in the present?
Brown: Absolutely, and then with Jack's death, there's a question of who's going to be the man of the house? There's a great deal of tension between Kevin and Randall over who's supposed to occupy that position until, ultimately, Kevin becomes an actor moves to New York, marries Sophie. The rest is history, but Randall chooses not to go to Howard. He chooses to stay home to go to Carnegie Mellon, to be close to his mother, to be able to provide some sense of stability for his family. We see that seed being planted in a five-year old boy, and then being sort of ultimately nurtured through his father's passing away.
There's been a tremendous amount of self-imposed pressure on himself to keep things together for the Pearsons. Christmas is it Randall's house. Thanksgiving is it Randall's house — he is the place where people gather, where they come together, where they reconnect. And he prides himself on being that for his family, but there is there's a cost to it as well. He doesn't allow himself to always just roll with the punches. When things are less than ideal, he takes it very, very personally, and he has a difficult time rebounding.
Beth says in the episode that she and Randall need to have a real talk about his anxiety. Due to circumstances, they never actually get to it, but is that something we can expect to see in the future?
Brown: Beth is his wife. There is never going to be a time where he willfully pulls himself away from her. I'm sure there will be a conversation that is had, but I don't see it coming anytime in the immediate future.
Is Randall thinking at all about how his coping mechanisms, or lack thereof, are potentially being handed down to Tess, who has also admitted she's struggling with anxiety?
Brown: When you recognize that your mental health has an effect on everyone else in your household, and it's not just a "personal problem," but it's something that affects everyone who is within your sphere, I think that may ultimately be the thing that allows him to explore other options instead of just sort of self-soothing through running or other mechanisms. So I think there is a dawning that is coming, where he realizes that what he's been doing isn't enough and that he may need to explore something else.
You have previously said that you feel very close to Randall. Is there a particular part of this storyline that feels relatable to you?
Brown: There's a period of time of my life when I thought that perfection was something that could actually be achieved. I think I'm like most people that went to my undergrad — overachievers at Stanford University. We're used to pushing ourselves beyond, and that is where satisfaction lies — in pushing yourself beyond and recognizing that people may have lower expectations of yourself than you do for yourself. The joy comes in constantly destroying other people's expectations. Then there was a point in time that I reached, I would say, fairly early on, where the pursuit of perfection became something that was debilitating because you always find yourself falling short of the mark. There was never any satisfaction in any of the pursuits of life because the satisfaction came in the achievement, rather than the actual journey. So now, at age 43, almost 44, there is a recognition that the majority of life is the journey, right? That there's one ultimate sort of destination for everyone and, in which we pass on into whatever the sweet Hereafter is, but that if you waste time thinking that there's some sort of end point, and negate the fact that the journey is the majority of what life actually is, then you're doing yourself an incredible disservice.
So in terms of how I feel about Randall I sincerely hope — and I recognize there are times in which he does do better for himself, where he relieves himself of the pressure of being perfect and then something happens. Whether it is the illness or his mother's mental health, whether it's the invasion of his home that sends him reeling back. Then he's like, "Am I enough? If I can't protect my wife and my children, am I enough? If I can't take care of my mother, the way that I've done since my father passed away, who am I, if I can no longer be that for her? Who am I, if I can no longer be a safe haven for my wife and children?" Then it's almost like you have to start all over again. There's ways in which I relate to that.
Obviously, this will be an ongoing journey for Randall. Will we be seeing more of him over the course of the "Hell of a Week" trilogy with Kevin and Kate, or is it something that we'll pick up with later in the season?
Brown: There will be more after the trilogy wraps up. Then the three of them will come together and sort of talk about what's going on in their lives. I think it's really the first time we get a chance to see the three of them together in the same space the season. They had Thanksgiving, but they didn't really have much to say to one another during Thanksgiving, so it'll be a really beautiful episode of the Big Three coming together and just sort of sharing, where they are in the world with each other and helping each other.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on NBC.