This Is Us isn't sugarcoating the tough questions in Season 4, whether that's regarding Cassidy Sharp's (Jennifer Morrison) PTSD, the reality of teenage parenthood, or Randall Pearson's (Sterling K. Brown) adolescent struggles as a black adoptee in a white family.
In the last episode, "The Dinner and the Date," two difficult dinner conversations about race and class, taking place in two different decades, overlap. The episode teased out this season's surprisingly complex themes about interracial families and socioeconomic clashes. Helming the show's unique turn is writer Kay Oyegun, who continues to elevate its creative and thematic sophistication by bringing fraught conversations to the attention of the show's 12 million viewers. Namely, how can a white family help their adopted child of color figure out his identity?
In a series of flashbacks, we witness the night Jack (Milo Ventimilgia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) Pearson invite young Randall's favorite teacher—and the only black instructor at his elite private school—Mr. Lawrence (Brandon Scott) and his wife, Trish (Skye P. Marshall), over to dinner. Simultaneously, in the present, we see Randall (Sterling K. Brown) inviting the parents of his adopted daughter's would-be boyfriend over for dinner to plan their children's breakup. Deja (Lyric Ross), the daughter of a drug addict who's experienced homelessness and abusive foster care, has served as a stark contrast to the privileged upbringing Randall had and the one he's giving his children with his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson). Now her first love interest, Malik (Asante Blackk) is an earnest, kind, confident 14-year-old who understands Deja in a way no one in her upper middle class family has been able to—and he happens to have an infant daughter.
This Is Us 4x07 Promo "The Dinner And The Date" (HD) www.youtube.com
So the two conflicted dinners mix the cringe comedy of socially awkward conversations with the serious gravity—and deep, deep flaws—of Jack's comment to Mr. Lawrence: "I can't teach my son how to be black."
Mr. Lawrence's response is perfect and well-acted: a mortified snort. "Oh don't...don't do that," he chuffs, before going to his car to retrieve a book of black conscious poetry that he intended to give to Randall. Instead he gives it to Jack, who takes the collection of Langston Hughes poetry to young Randall's room, and the two bond over Randall's favorite poem, which he's already memorized.
Whether or not you're like me and hate to admit you've ever shed a tear over anything short of battery acid straight to the eye, young Randall's recitation of "I, Too" is the kind of formulaic pathos and prime time pageantry that great tear-jerkers are made of. That is to say: Yes, I f*cking wept, you cretins, and if you didn't, then you are a Black Mirror robot dog.
In its totality, this is Hughe's "I, Too" poem, and what follows is why I, Jack, and most of America caught a bug in the eye or something when young Randall recited it.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
The driving force of tension at Mr. Lawrence's dinner at the Pearson's is Jack's palpable feeling of being threatened by him. During last week's episode, "The Club," Jack struggled to articulate why he was intimidated by Randall's affinity for Mr. Lawrence. Driven partly by over-protection and probably part shame, he said that Randall is getting older and asking more complex questions "about his place in this world" and that there are things he "can't show [his] son." He even made the faux pas of telling Randall, "I don't see color, I see my son," which he quickly realized was, however well-intentioned, very off the mark, as Randall replied, "Then you don't see me, dad."
So with Mr. Lawrence and his wife sitting at his table with his children, Jack continuously makes passive aggressive remarks challenging Mr. Lawrence's right to introduce Randall to new parts of culture, like the local black arts festival that Randall asks to attend with his teacher. Jack interrupts to say that the Pearsons can all go "as a family" and leave Mr. Lawrence to go "with his friends." The tension builds until Rebecca meets Jack in the kitchen to inform him of the absolute obvious: Randall is his son; Randall will always prefer him to any other male role model in his life; but if Jack makes Randall choose him and sacrifice having other important figures who could help him learn who he is, then Randall will suffer for it.
This is Us 4x07 Sneak Peek Clip 2 "The Dinner And The Date" www.youtube.com
It's a clear cut, direct, and honest depiction of a good man and a good father (Jack is inarguably America's Favorite Dad)—being completely ignorant, and sort of a d*ck. Jack is threatened and worried that he is fundamentally lacking as a white father to a black son—not from any racial prejudice, but from insecurity in himself as a parent. He recognizes that race does matter to the world that will receive his children as adults—grievously so, in fact. He has a very human, self-protective instinct to deny and resist that reality, but he senses that doing so would be harmful to Randall in some vital way.
So really, his stumbled comment, "I can't teach Randall how to be black," is his best articulation of that anxiety and his acknowledgement of that terrible, sad fact. And he senses, in some itchy, nebulous way, that if Randall doesn't learn how to respond to the way the world will treat him, and if he doesn't learn the history of how people who looked liked him were treated, then Randall will be ill-equipped to face the world. Or, more accurately, Jack would be keeping him away from something that he needs in order to live a fully conscious life.
That's how we get to the scene in young Randall's bedroom, after he's just declared his favorite poem to be Langston Hughe's "I, Too" and recited it from memory in front of Jack, who promises that they're going to read the entire collection of poetry together.