“He’s a good man, Savannah! A good man!”
It’s the lecture Whitney Houston’s character Savannah received from her mother in Waiting To Exhale because she no longer wanted to put up with a (married) man’s B.S. anymore. And fine, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) on NBC’s This Is Us, isn’t awful in the same way that Savannah’s (married!) man was in Waiting To Exhale, but the refrain Black women like Savannah and Randall’s wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) receive from being sick and tired is the same:
Stretch your boundaries, bend til you break, compromise yourself just a little bit more, so you don’t lose him–He’s a good man!
Yes, they love each other deeply. And yes, Randall is well-intentioned. And he even rises well above the subterranean benchmark of what usually makes for a “good” man (at least he’s not cheating! At least he didn’t get nobody pregnant! At least he has a job! At least he’s raising his kids!). But “good” becomes a worthless descriptor when you’re not getting what you need.
In the latest Beth and Randall-centric episode, our Black #RelationshipGoals couple is going through it.
“We’ve been having the same argument for 20 years!” Beth tries to tell her husband in the episode. She doesn’t want her own dreams, her own personhood to get swallowed up into his, but Randall’s dreams and personhood tend to do a lot of swallowing. But he can’t see it. He can’t hear her.
Randall’s dream of being elected to the city council in Philly has come true, but it takes him three hours away from his family daily. Beth’s dream is to teach ballet, which she’s now doing, but at a time that is inconvenient for Randall. “The central issue seems to be equality, or lack thereof, in Beth’s opinion, in terms of being able to fully express herself,” Watson shared at a talkback after a screening of the episode.
“She kind of feels like she usually supports Randall 100% and now at a time she feels she wants to be her best self or live the fullest, again, she feels that’s being squelched in some way and she’s not getting the same support.”
But Randall thinks he is being supportive. He’s been dutifully coming home earlier than he’d like to, in order to take care of his kids while Beth is at her dance class; he raced in traffic to see her dance recital; He does dishes like a person who ate the food off the dishes should; But does Beth appreciate it?!
The problem is that Randall thinks he should be rewarded for this relatively brief period of time that he’s been bending a little bit so that Beth can pursue her dream. He’s performing like a person who respects his wife’s choices, but he actually deeply resents her for not giving up her dream to make his life easier.
It all comes out in the now-infamous voicemail he left her in last week’s episode.
“I hope you’re off having fun talking about how to teach bored housewives how to twirl better. Grow the hell up, Beth,” he said when he thinks she has stood him up at his Very Important Work Dinner to do some very important work for herself. She hadn’t stood him up, she was just late.
But now, they have to deal with the past 20 years of their relationship.
The episode flashes back to when they first met. An adorable teenage Randall (an always excellent Niles Fitch) is absolutely smitten and bumps into her on purpose to try and get her attention. With the help of his brother Kevin, he finally asks her out on a date–or, tells her they’re going out for dinner, rather. He’s so excited, he completely forgot to ask her any essential questions: What kind of food do you like to eat? Where would you like to go? What would you like to do?
Teen Randall has an idea for the perfect date and he executes it. He wears a suit. He buys flowers. Beth shows up to the date like a college freshman, in a hoodie and shorts. The racist ass ‘‘nice” restaurant that Teen Randall brought her to wants to make them pay for their food before they order. She gets upset and leaves. They have a fight instead of a date. She tries to tell him she doesn’t like that kind of place, the flowers were too much and the suit is doing the most. He tries to tell her he really likes her and wants to give her the world and do nice things for her. She leaves upset, and he leaves on cloud nine, telling his roommate later “I’m going to marry her.” It’s adorable, but also, sir, were you listening?! Spoiler alert: he wasn’t.
And that’s the problem; “Nice” and “good” are the death knells of self-awareness. You can’t very well hear “I don’t like this thing you’re doing for me,” if you’re too busy focusing on how nice the gesture is. It’s performative goodness over actually being good. It’s actually not that nice or good of a gesture if the other person doesn’t want it!
But again, Randall doesn’t see it. He can’t hear her. So, years later in their relationship, Randall has proposed marriage several times and Beth has said no. She’s afraid of getting swallowed up in his life and not having her own. She’s afraid he won’t listen to her. He proves it by not listening to her.
When she complains about him telling his mother all of their business, he doesn’t listen, he pouts and promises to never propose to her again! He storms off to wait for her in the car. The mildest of criticism is too much for his fragile ego. After a pep talk from Randall’s mom, Beth takes control. She leads Randall to a restaurant that he seems to have never been to. Surprise! It’s Beth’s favorite. He seems unaware of that.
Beth proceeds to order her favorite meal, nachos and ginger beer. “This is my favorite meal,” she has to tell him. “This is how I want it!” She has to tell him. “Ask me!” She says, pointing to her ring finger. But first, she makes him promise that they will have their own lives, they will be a team, full people. He promises. He proposes. They have a beautiful wedding. They have beautiful kids. And Beth’s life is eventually swallowed whole.
When Randall wants to quit his job, he quits his job without even talking to her about it. When Randall wants to run for city council, he just does it, even when she protests. When Randall wants to bring his dying father whom none of them know into their home with their kids, Beth goes along with it. When Randall’s brother Kevin is spiraling and needs a place to crash that feels like home, she says nothing when Randall lets him join the ever growing party at the Pearson house. When Randall wants to adopt a kid, Beth agrees. She has bent and bent and bent for him and now she’s done.
“From her perspective, it’s always sort of with the understanding that I’ve had to compromise something to do this. And now she’s at a stage where she does not want to compromise this anymore. And yeah, they’ve gotten in these roles and now what happens when people decide, ‘I don’t want to be in that role anymore’? Now the whole relationship has to adjust,” Watson said.
Beth should have stood up for herself much sooner, for sure. But in the incredible episode of Beth’s backstory, we see how her mother (Phylicia Rashad) socialized her to give up her dream of dancing for the good of the family. Beth has internalized this idea; her mother did it, now she’s doing it. It’s just what women do. Beth might not have even been conscious of it happening, and it’s hard to blame Randall for not being conscious of it if she wasn’t either.
But still, she’s been quietly unhappy and frustrated the whole three seasons of the show (which Shadow And Act just noticed when we were making this dope mash-up of This Is Us and Family Matters and had to scavenge to find clips of Beth looking happy!) And now she’s done bending. And that’s where gaslighting (attempts to make you doubt your reality) can come into play for women–not just from your partner, but from society at large.
Earlier in the season, Beth put Randall on the couch for breaking his promise to her that if she wasn’t on board with him running for city council that he would stop immediately.
“‘Oh really? He can’t do one thing, you’ve got to put him on the couch? That’s a good man! That’s a good man!'” Watson shared the responses that flooded her social media mentions after that episode. “’Aint no hope for us, if Randall’s on the couch!'” They told Watson. But Beth’s reality is resonating because it’s so common. In our heteronormative world, if a man loves a woman, what’s there to complain about, really? Isn’t that really all a woman in a relationship with a man needs? His version of love?
When the answer is “no,” when women dare to have needs and ideas of love beyond what they’re being offered, the world can move into a scarcity mentality: be grateful for what you can get!
“It’s this sort of privilege, this heterosexual, cisgender unwitting privilege of ‘I don’t have to take a break in the same way [that my wife does],’” Brown said in the talkback.“There’s a fluidity for me [as a man] to do that…But what happens is, you kind of have to own the [male] privilege and recognize, sometimes, you know, you have to just play the tambourine, Randall,” he said. But Randall’s not ready to take a backseat and Beth wants more than what she’s getting. She’s trying to express that, but Randall is too focused on his own goodness to hear her.
“In what universe have I been steamrolling you for the past twenty years?” Randall says. He also brings up how her “whole M.O.” is that she runs the household. How can he steamroll her if she’s running the household, he says. When Beth finally tells him how it’s possible, it’s too low of a blow for him to really hear what she’s saying. “Between which of your anxiety attacks [would I have been able to live my dreams]?”
It has the desired effect. It hurts. It was unkind of her to phrase it like that. But the reality is, if he’s struggling with his mental health, she does not have room to focus on herself at that moment. She has to take care of the family. She has to pick up the slack he’s putting down–as a partner should. She signed up for that. But now that he’s in a more stable place, she wants her turn to shine.
Typical Randall; he doesn’t hear her. He stomps off to go sleep in his office, leaving Beth to ponder what life without him might really be like. She looks at her empty bed with [rightful] guilt and also terror and sadness. Her thoughts are nearly audible. Maybe I can bend a little more…he’s a good man, afterall.