The show deftly proves that it is possible to have extremely difficult conversations, so long as everyone is willing to engage and push through their egos, pride and insecurities — so it’s definitely not easy!
It’s been brewing almost back to the pilot, but finally Kevin and Randall were able to come together and have a real man-to-man conversation about their relationship, their history together and race.
It was a conversation fraught with frustration and challenge for both men, as Kevin was bristling at the notion that Randall might be perceiving him as racist, while Randall genuinely had no idea if he was going to be able to get through to his brother and have him understand anything of what he was going through.
That uncertainty from both men throughout the entire conversation is a big part of what made it successful. There is no template for having nigh-impossible conversations, no easy roadmap to follow for success. They are messy and awkward, feelings get hurt, people get angry.
It’s as if the very ugliness at the heart of the conversation inevitably brings out some ugliness along the way. It is the rare few that can look all that ugliness in the face, look perhaps their own ugliness in the face, and continue pushing forward.
Through a pair of poignant flashback sequences involving the two brothers we saw just how deep-rooted the issues between them were, dating back to when they were four or five years old visiting “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as well as the genuine love that co-existed alongside it.
Were it not for that love, we’re not sure either of them would have been able to get through this conversation without a repeat of the Season 4 finale when both said truly regretful things. As a painful reminder, Randall told Kevin he was a terrible actor and Jack died ashamed of him, while Kevin told Randall the worst day of his life was when he was adopted.
As we do every week, we’re going to single out the show’s most powerful moments, scoring them by how many tissues we tore through just to watch them. Believe us, these are happy tears of anguish.
“He’s a Black Guy, You’re a Black Guy”
Randall expressed to Kevin that all he ever wanted to do, as impossible as it was, was to blend in with the family. But because of his Blackness, that was never an option. And it wasn’t just other people — like the “Mister Rogers” PA — who othered him, it was his own brother.
We saw it in their young adult flashback where Kevin hit him with countless “Fresh Prince” jokes and even over-emphasized rap in a cab ride. Was it intentional? Probably not in a malicious way, in most cases, but Randall was nevertheless hypersensitive to it because he could never not be aware of his own Blackness.
This moment, though, when Kevin handed him the “fake ID” of a 40-year-old Black man with such a blatantly racist stereotype as justification was like a slap in the face. Yes, the brothers were able to work through even this disastrous night, but it ended as all of their arguments seem to, with that tense stalemate that solves nothing and sees Randall pushing himself back down, minimizing himself for Kevin’s ego.
You could see it in Randall’s eyes from the moment Kevin uttered that word in his well-rehearsed, scripted and utterly meaningless non-apology. It was a classic Hollywood apology, saying almost nothing while sounding like it’s filled with contrition.
The truth is, Kevin didn’t fully understand at this point even what he might need to be sorry for, so that was patronizing and trying to placate a hurt he didn’t understand. But by approaching it this way, he was indicating he wasn’t really interested in understanding, or dismissing there was anything really there worthy of his care.
It was an insult to Randall, who has real things that matter in his mind that have been there most of his life. To Kevin’s credit, though, his growth means he was perceptive enough to see this apology wasn’t good enough, even if he didn’t understand why, and his natural tenacity was used for good purpose here, as he kept pushing.
Say what you will about all of Kevin’s blind spots, it says a lot about his love for his brother and how much he cares about getting this right that he did not let it go, he didn’t let Randall walk away from him.
He was coming up short in ways he didn’t understand and this time, he wasn’t going to just let Randall swallow Kevin’s shortcomings down and pretend everything was alright. He still had to battle his own pride and insecurity and indignation (at being called racist — which he wasn’t), but he hung in there.
“I’m Trying Not to Be”
This line shows Randall’s growth and strength. He had no idea what to expect from Kevin, but it had to have hurt so much that his brother flew across the country to lob that bullshit nothing at him. He didn’t ask about Randall’s experiences, he didn’t try to open a dialogue, he just tried to plaster a big “I’m sorry if” bandage on everything.
It’s a testament of Randall’s love for Kevin that he didn’t just blow up on him all over again. These were clearly two men ready to have this conversation, but they just had no idea how to really have it or even how to begin it.
But Randall knew that flying off the handle at Kevin for how poorly he’d handled his initial apology wouldn’t serve what they needed to do here at all. In that moment, he had to be the bigger person and step up to try and guide Kevin through this conversation a little bit. Okay, a lot bit.
He had to push through Kevin feeling accused of being racist, always that initial knee-jerk reaction when someone is challenged in this way. Kevin is not overtly racist, but he has certainly had plenty of questionable racial comments throughout his life, and he’s certainly made Randall’s life more difficult because of Randall’s race.
Does he see that?
“I’m Sorry There Are Things I Still Don’t See”
This was a huge turning point in the conversation, and a bold statement for Kevin to make. It was a step on his journey of self-awareness. And despite where they brothers were able to land by the end of the hour, it is a statement that still resonates.
That’s because it’s a statement that rings as genuine and honest. It will also be true forever. No matter how much they might talk about it, Kevin will never fully be able to see things the way Randall does, including things happening now and things that happened throughout their lives.
It’s not quite those “racial blind spots” Randall called him out for earlier in the conversation, as that was more insensitivity and willful stupidity, but it is something similar. But Kevin doesn’t have to be able to see those things, so long as he acknowledges that he doesn’t and can’t.
That means he’s aware that they are there, that there are perspectives outside of his own that are equally as valid and real. It’s already a step many people can’t quite achieve in themselves, egocentric beings as too many of us are.
“I Am Proud of You”
Emerging through the course of their conversation was the fact that Kevin was battling his own insecurities as the great Randall’s brother. Randall was always the great student, he had his life together, he got the girl, he found success.
Kevin lost his football career, lost the girl, found alcohol and was never really able to process or acknowledge his own achievements. Instead, he lived in the shadow of his adopted brother, letting it eat at him. And so he would lash out, taking it out on the very person he looked up to.
Thus, it was a huge moment when Randall not only assured him that Jack was proud of his accomplishments, and the man he has become, but that he was proud of him as well. Randall may never know how much that approval means to Kevin. Kevin may not fully grasp how much he needed to hear it, but it is definitely a piece in their healing.
Kevin taking back his sentiment that Randall being adopted was the worst thing that ever happened in his life needed to happen as well, but we’re not sure Randall ever fully bought it even when Kevin said it.
It did other him again, though, as such a thing wouldn’t even be an option with a biological sibling. But it was clearly a statement said in response to Randall making a low blow, so at that point both brothers were just trying to hurt one another.
“Maybe I Did Resent That”
Finally, they got to the crux of it, with Randall challenging Kevin to go ahead and say “the ugly thing.” Oftentimes, we don’t even allow ourselves to fully process the ugly thing, but our relationships would be a lot deeper and truer if we not only processed them, but said them so they could be out there and we could process them, put them to rest and work to move past them.
“You’re not just my smart, successful brother, Randall. You’re my Black, smart, successful brother. And I think maybe I did resent that,” Kevin finally said. “And maybe I thought you getting special treatment was mixed up with you being Black.”
“And I wanted to take you down a notch,” he continued. “And I overlooked things that I shouldn’t have. And I took shots at you that I shouldn’t have taken. And I was more jealous of you than I should’ve been.”
It was so artfully articulated, so purely honest that Randall let slip an unexpected tear. It was the validation that what he’d been feeling all these years was real. That what Kevin had been denying all these years was real. His Blackness did reside in that divide between them.
It was the ugly thing said aloud, but it was such a healing moment for it to be said out loud. And in that moment, Kevin’s “if” became “was” and even “is.” It doesn’t fix everything, but it contextualizes it with pure, brutal honesty for the first time, which is incredibly healing.
Kevin from a season or two ago would have never had the self-awareness or the humility to go there within himself and then articulate it. Randall from a season or two ago would not have had the wherewithal to hear it fully. They had to grow together and apart to earn this moment, but it should prove a pivotal moment for their relationship.
From here on out, there will be Kevin and Randall before this conversation and Kevin and Randall after. There’s still work yet to be done, but this was a first step on a fresh path that’s so much more genuine and healthy for both of them. And it’s about damned time!
“How About Some Tunes with Dinner?”
The closing scene showed how much that validation and honesty meant to Randall, allowing his Ghost Kingdom for the first time in his life to become what it should have been at least for as long as he’s known about William and Laurel.
It’s totally normal to have a land of make believe in your head, and common for adopted kids to have fantasies about what their lives might have been like had they stayed with their birth parents.
Randall’s head was so mixed up with guilt — he should be grateful always to the Pearsons — and love that he could never quite shake the version of his birth parents he created before he knew who they really were (the weatherman on TV and the local librarian). Nor could he shed his white family from the fantasy.
Suddenly, in the wake of his conversation with Kevin, Randall slipped into his Ghost Kingdom to find William and Laurel in the peak of health and happiness, offering him his truest fantasy of what might have been.
It was also bittersweet for viewers, as by this point we’ve learned that both William and Laurel were people who had so much potential to be just the type of parents Randall fantasized about in this sequence, had not a few unfortunate experiences taken them from that path.
Through therapy, he’s been able to shed some of the guilt he clearly has had his whole life about having “imaginary parents,” as he told Mister Rogers’ Daniel Tiger, and fully embrace that he can both love the family he has and still dream about what might have been.
“This Is Us” returns Tuesday, May 11 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.