It was early in Season 3 of This Is Us when a flashback showed William (Ron Cephas Jones) telling Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) that she and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) were like a jazz band, where Randall played trumpet and Beth was the bass. Untrained jazz listeners might not hear the bass, but the experts know how important the big instrument is to grounding a jazz number. Still, at some point Beth would need to be the trumpet and William warned her not to be afraid of asking Randall for the spotlight when the time came.
Fans have been waiting for Beth to hold the trumpet for months now (and most were clamoring for it before William's speech), but it didn't happen until Tuesday's Beth-centric episode, "Our Little Island Girl." The hour took Beth and Zoe (Melanie Liburd) to D.C. to visit Beth's mom, played by the legendary Phylicia Rashad, after she injured her hip. Beth's interactions with her tough, disciplinarian mother were juxtaposed with flashbacks of her childhood as an aspiring ballet dancer, including the heartbreaking death of her father who worked double shifts to pay for Beth's expensive ballet academy tuition.
It was a special episode of This Is Us because "Our Little Island Girl" didn't come with a big reveal. It was a straight-up character study and it flourished because it didn't have the weight of another Pearson family mystery to bring it down. The audience wasn't manipulated into feeling any certain way because of a timeline twist or distracted by another "her" puzzle piece that won't actually mean anything until the season finale.
It was a special episode of television in general because it centered on the dynamics between black women, who weren't talking about men or oppression, but exploring their truths with each other. No one needs to tell you that Rashad knows how to command a scene, but her toe-to-toe throwdown with Beth about finding a new job and subsequent admittance that she took dance away from her daughter too soon were the first true tear-inducing moments of this entire season.
A huge shoutout goes to Rachel Hilson, the tour de force playing teen Beth in the flashbacks. She traversed so much emotional terrain in the span of 42 minutes; from watching Beth's father die, to losing her dream as a dancer and having the first encounter with the eventual love of her life. The non-stop poignant moments of this episode were crafted by Eboni Freeman, who joined the This Is Us writers' room this season and penned this spectacular episode. It is shockingly her first produced television credit, but her ability to bring the emotional impact back to this show with simple conversation is breathtaking.
Beth has been a fan-favorite character since Episode 2 of this series, and the demand for this episode has been loud for equally as long. And it was beautiful to see her origin story, the little island girl who could dance before she walked. It also finally gave an explanation for Beth's floundering after losing her job at the beginning of the season. We've spent weeks waiting for Beth to have the time to examine why losing her job has been such an obstacle for her, but instead watched her continue to play the bass while Randall did a trumpet solo with his city council campaign.
The cast of This Is Us is a large one, which means it's hard to give each character the time they deserve for development and growth, but the fact it took two and a half seasons to give Beth this time is astonishing. However, patience is a virtue, and in this case it paid off in giving Watson the space she needed to cement the fact that she is a heavyweight on this show. Most importantly, "Our Little Island Girl" proved that This Is Us doesn't have to trick us into caring about this family or set up tragedies and mysteries to make us invested. The show is capable of just showing us stripes of real life and when it's done well and eloquently, the emotion comes naturally.
"Our Little Island Girl" is the best This Is Us has been all season and proves the show still knows how to be great. Please keep it up.
This Is Us continues Tuesdays at 9/8c on NBC.