Spoilers ahead for Episode 6 of This Is Us Season 5, called “Birth Mother.”
This Is Us has provided viewers with plot twists and surprise endings in nearly every episode of its five-season run so far. But one mystery that was introduced in the Season 5 premiere, centering around Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson, had Brown concerned the show was jumping the shark before things played out in Episode 6, “Birth Mother.”
The Season 5 premiere “Forty: Parts One and Two,” shows Randall's birth mother Laurel (Jennifer C. Holmes) being pronounced dead after an overdose, while Randall’s birth father William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones) fled with his newborn son. In the episode’s final moment, however, Laurel gasps back to life, unbeknownst to William. Bringing characters back to life after they’ve already been established as dead has become an increasingly popular trope for TV dramas, albeit a risky one, and Sterling K. Brown said this particular plot twist was concerning to him at first. Here's how he put it to TVLine:
When Dan [Fogelman, series creator] first pitched that his mom is still alive, my first thought is, ‘Alright: Are we jumping the shark? Are we still maintaining the integrity of this whole thing?’ He was like, ‘She’s not alive, but what happened was we thought that she OD’d, but she didn’t.’ I was like, ‘OK. So then how come she hasn’t come to see me? If she’s been alive and she had this child, then why did she not make her presence known in my life?’ and then they answered that question. There was a series of things that I was like, ‘Alright, does this make sense? Does this track?’ And it all checked out. I should never doubt Dan.
The questions Sterling K. Brown asked were echoed by his character in “Birth Mother,” as Randall impatiently tried to make sense of the new information being shared by a former flame of Laurel’s, Hai Lang (Vien Hong): Laurel is in fact dead, but she died from cancer in 2015. The episode culminated in an emotional scene between Randall and Laurel (played at different ages by Holmes and Angela Gibbs), in which Randall heartbreakingly lamented the fact that Laurel had been alive all those years, and that he only realized she was worth looking for after she was already gone.
The scene was a departure from the This Is Us' regular format. Though the drama often features jumps across multiple timelines, it rarely features characters from differing timelines interacting. (The other exception, coincidentally, also features Sterling K. Brown and a deceased parent, as an adult Randall — who accidentally drank hallucinogenic mushrooms — has an emotional conversation with his father Jack Pearson, played by Milo Ventimiglia, in Season 1’s “The Trip.”) Brown examined what the moment in the lake meant for his character, who has experienced anxiety and struggled with his past his whole life, and said:
There was an interesting thing for me, and I don’t think this is acutely stated in the episode. But that moment of release for Randall, and the idea that he had this encounter with his mom in the lake — we’re not an overtly religious show, but it has spiritual overtones. And Randall primarily is a man of science, right? And not so much a man of faith. But this instance, because he lives with anxiety and whatnot, and I do believe to a certain extent beyond just the chemical level, it’s hard for anxiety and faith to exist in the same space. So for him to have this recognition that this woman actually loved me, that I was the product of two people who loved me but circumstances conspired in such a way that they weren’t able to share their love with me in a direct manner? I’m OK with that.
What this experience, and the acquisition of Laurel’s house in New Orleans, will mean for Randall and the rest of the Pearsons remains to be seen, but viewers can bet the twists and turns won’t end anytime soon. The same probably goes for the debates about if and when This Is Us will jump the shark, or if it already did.
After an unexpected delay, This Is Us returns at 9 p.m. ET February 2 with a new episode that will see Kevin embark on a stressful road trip in the present, while young Kevin and Jack attend a football training camp.