There was a lot that could have gone wrong with the Season 5 premiere of This Is Us. This season is set in fall 2020 and its characters are going through the gauntlet of this year alongside its viewers. No one expects a drama TV show to have all the answers to life at the best of times, let alone the literal worst of times, but This Is Us offered viewers something better than answers in its premiere. It offered truth and relatability for its best character, Randall Pearson.
This Is Us incorporated coronavirus into their plot mere seconds into the premiere and touched upon familiar covid-era moments to set up the Pearson family’s new normal. Beth and Randall learned Tom Hanks “got it” early on, Randall mentioned that getting personal protective equipment to his constituents was a challenge, and Kevin announced Madison’s pregnancy to Kate from a safe distance. Once those early beats established that This Is Us takes place in the Bad Place (reality), the episode had more space to examine Randall’s stunning personal growth.
The Season 5 premiere showed what happens when Randall reaches the natural conclusion of his experience: the fuck-’em plateau.
While this show has never shied away from portraying the difficulties Randall experienced growing up as a Black adoptee in a white family, the Season 5 premiere showed what happens when that Black adoptee reaches the natural conclusion of his experience: the fuck-’em plateau. The fuck-’em plateau is an emotional state reached when a Black person lives every day in their body while constantly dealing with microaggressions, institutional barriers, fear of bodily harm, pain when that harm arrives, loss when another one of us is wrenched from our community, and the added pressure of having to function in a white-dominated society despite these feelings, and realizes that one more second spent focusing on other people’s perceptions is one second he doesn’t have to waste.
The fuck-’em plateau is the space where Randall’s priorities shifted from “appearing okay because minding white people’s emotions is his thing” to “taking care of himself at the cost of other people’s feelings, because fuck ’em.” Elements of his transformation came early in the episode, when he reacted neutrally to seeing Kate, Toby, and baby Jack joining the thousands of people who protested police violence after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Sterling K. Brown’s expressive face spoke volumes while he watched his white sister join the bandwagon of allies who appear to only recently have noticed that Black people exist at the mercy of racist cops. Her good intentions were meaningless to him when weighed against the decades he spent growing up Black alongside her, and he finally, finally confronted her about it in the episode’s strongest scene.
When Randall and Kate meet face to face at the cabin, she attempts to ask him about how he’s feeling about “everything that’s been going on.” Randall, already angry that his family’s negligence led to Rebecca having a dangerous memory-loss episode, doesn’t want to have the conversation. He recognizes that Kate loves him and is acting in good faith, but calls her out immediately when he realizes that discussing his emotions with her will only end with him assuaging her white guilt:
“Normally I would hug you and I would tell you that you did all the right things. I would try to make it all ok for you…but if I made things better for you then where does that leave me? I’m sorry but I can’t do that. That has been my pattern all my life, and honestly Kate, it is exhausting.”
Randall leaves Kate with that word, exhausting, and drives away to spend his birthday with his family. Randall is a fixer, a person whose need to make other people comfortable whipped his childhood anxiety into a debilitating adult condition, and while his instinct to accommodate is personal, it is also the default expectation white people have of the Black people around them. That accommodation is part of the emotional calculus of living while Black — the code switching, the shrugged-off comments, the tamping down of emotions lest others perceive us as angry or crazy, and constantly performing the role of someone who deserves to not get shot for an audience of cops and racists. It is a giving, fixing job that benefits everyone except Black people, and Randall handing in his notice is monumental for him.
Sad things happen, and happen, and happen until sadness is just a part of our lives, running in the background like a forgotten laptop program using up a chunk of our CPU.
Later in the episode, Beth expresses concern that Randall is on the verge of another anxiety attack. He is calm when he assures her that this time, his bad feelings aren’t something his brain cooked up to scare him. “I’m not falling apart, I’m not having a breakdown, I’m just really really sad,” he says. Beth understands. Randall’s sadness isn’t outsized, but it is overwhelming. It’s the sadness that comes with the incomprehensible volume of terrible things that Black people deal with.
We watch algorithms autoplay viral videos of people who look like us getting murdered. We listen to our white friends laugh about their racist relatives, knowing they still have love for people who’d prefer we didn’t exist. We witness public figures collect enough power to hurt our communities and hang our hopes on there being fewer racists than there are people who think Jeff Bezos should pay more taxes. Sad things happen, and happen, and happen until sadness is just a part of our lives, running in the background like a forgotten laptop program using up a chunk of our CPU.
This Is Us hasn’t always handled Randall well, even if Brown has always played him excellently. Acknowledging that Randall is fed up, exhausted, and sad seems like a simple step, but it’s everything for his character. A Randall who knows what his feelings are and won’t be responsible for his family’s emotional equilibrium is a Randall who can focus on things that affect his life — and with the premiere’s last-minute twist than his biological mother may still be alive, he’ll need every square inch of that fuck-’em plateau to work through yet another life-changing discovery.