Laurel's life story unfolds from beginning to end -- including what happened after she gave birth to Randall and disappeared from William's life.
It's probably been since we took a deep dive into William Hill's life that we stepped away from the Pearsons almost entirely to add depth and meaning to one of "This Is Us'" most impactful supporting characters.
This week, it was time to look at the other half of Randall's birth parents, offering Laurel the same complete life exploration that William earned. And it proved just as poignant and beautiful a tale, told with such gentle beauty by Vien Hong as Hai.
Right away, the story subverted our expectations, as Laurel's love story with Hai was absolutely nothing like we expected. It also does nothing to negate or deny her love story with William, which was just as real and true.
Circumstances just moved beyond everyone's control to keep them apart far longer than anyone would have ever imagined until it was forever.
This was a powerful and beautiful episode, with great casting once again stealing the hour. We already knew Jennifer C. Holmes as Laurel, but she showed off incredible depth and range in taking us through most of the middle years of Laurel's life.
LisaGay Hamilton was incredible as her stolid aunt, perhaps a pariah in the eyes of her brother (the powerful Chi McBride), Mae was everything the young Laurel needed both in her early years when she felt smothered by her family's wealth and influence, and when she was utterly lost later in life.
It's a testament to how richly this show has realized it's sprawling cast in that we spent this entire hour with just Randall and Beth -- save for a haunting final moment with Kevin -- and we didn't feel short-changed at all.
That's because they are strong enough to carry a show on their own; a statement we can make about every coupling on this show and not a statement we can so easily make about most ensemble casts this large.
As we do every week, we're going to single out the show's most powerful moments, scoring them by how many tissues we tore through just to watch them. Believe us, these are happy tears of anguish.
Even after she'd lost everything, Laurel held onto what she once had. Yes, she and William were in a terrible place in their lives, but they also showed a real drive and commitment to turn things around for Randall. But for one decision to use just one last time -- and his to help facilitate -- it all could have been so different.
Laurel's was a life of pain and loss, and it would seem one where she never quite felt worthy of any joy after losing her child. In fact, it seemed that she struggled to let go of the pain of her loss until she found herself facing her own mortality.
"Prison. Please. Sit."
Hai is a very sweet and patient man, and he painted a beautiful story of Laurel's early life as a Dubois, one of the wealthiest and most influential families in New Orleans. Hers was a life of privilege ... and expectation. And she never quite fit right in, thus her connection with her equally strange (and estranged) Aunt Mae.
Losing her brother in Vietnam appears to have broken her last tether to this family that didn't understand her and sought to control her. And so, when her father told her she would have to marry the man she didn't love, she wanted another path.
We were stunned to find out that Hai was actually the first love of her life, long before she'd met William. That only happened after she fled her father's reach and he found himself unable to help her because he had to stay to take care of his parents.
Beth was all about this part of the story, which was like something out of a movie, but Randall's obsessive personality wasn't willing to let Hai tell the story he wanted to tell. He pushed for confirmation that William hadn't lied, and then he had to know why Laurel didn't come for him, why she didn't look for him.
Even in the face of Randall's obvious frustration, Hai handled it beautifully, sympathetically and gently. Everyone lives a full life. You can make all the assumptions and take on all the hurt you want, but sometimes there are reasons and things happening you know nothing about.
It was absolutely heartbreaking to learn that after she survived her OD, Laurel was not only arrested, she was subsequently lured into pleading guilty thinking her first offense would lead to a light sentence. She got five years. And prison overcrowding took her from Pittsburgh to California.
When offered her one phone call, it became clear just how wrong it was all going as she revealed that William didn't have a phone. She couldn't reach him if she wanted. And estranged from her family, she had no one else to reach out to.
So she dialed the other number she knew by heart and with one whispered word, McBride broke our hearts for a whole different reason. No matter their differences, no matter how life had torn them apart, Laurel was his baby girl and he never stopped thinking of her.
She didn't say a word, so he either knew this was her or desperately hoped it was. There was so much pain in his delivery. With one word, she could have changed her fate as his money might have made a difference in her defense and the path of her life. Instead, she served her time. Once again, Laurel unable to see herself as worthy of anything positive.
She had, in her defense, just had a baby and lost it almost immediately, finding herself arrested within days of delivery. She was physically and emotionally in absolutely no place to advocate properly for herself, and no one else was around to do so.
We're going to step away from Laurel's story for one second to talk about that closing scene, when Randall decided to reach out to Kevin to clear the air and try not to hang onto all those negative moments that appeared to haunt Laurel's life.
Just like McBride, Justin Hartley delivered very few lines in a side profile shot while driving and he poured so much pain and hurt into them, it was absolutely haunting.
We've seen this device before on this show (are we getting another Big 3 trilogy with Kevin's tale next?), but this season is really the season that Hartley has begun to shine with new character depth and nuance.
Madison is in labor back in LA and Kevin is in Vancouver driving to get there. We've no idea how much time has passed -- a quarantine before Randall and Beth met Hai gives us two weeks we know -- but it seems possible that this is an extremely early labor.
This could be the pivotal moment that changes the path of Kevin's life for good. We're not at all worried about the promo's car accident scenes, because this show is non-linear and we've already seen future Kevin. Nice try, "This is Us!"
Back to Laurel, there are still some gaps in the story. Once she'd made it back to New Orleans, reconnecting with the one woman who'd shown her kindness, we saw her begin her self-punishment for how she'd allowed Randall to be taken from her.
What we don't know, still, is if she made any efforts to either find William -- remember that he stayed in that same apartment -- or her son. Did she punish herself for the rest of her life?
It certainly seems that way based on the beautifully sad scenes we got of her and Hai rediscovering one another where they first exchanged words, at the market both he and Mae work.
Hai explained to Randall and Beth that by the time Laurel slid back into his world, he'd already married and had children on the way. And so, their connection remained waves and smiles across the street for years and years!
There's such a tragedy in that. While we can hope and assume that Hai was fully in love with his wife and obviously loved his children, there was no indication that Laurel had any such fulfillment. We didn't even see how she lost Mae.
And despite Mae suggesting when she first returned that they reach out to the family, Laurel refused. And so far as we could tell, she never reconnected with her parents before their death, either. Or perhaps these details have been left unresolved for future exploration.
Regardless, Laurel was beating herself down for making that one decision that cost her everything. And it seems like she continued to do so right up until very close to her end, which gives her very many tragic years.
In his final night in New Orleans, after hearing his mother's story, Randall stripped down and entered into the lake that had been such a pivotal player in her mother's life. As a child, Mae had shared with her that she used its waters to let out her pain by wading into it and letting out a primal scream.
Frustrated by the constraints of life as a Dubois, young Laurel let out that scream. Lost after her time in prison and the loss of her child, she again took to the waters. And overwhelmed by gaining and losing his mother's story in one night, Randall, too, took to the water.
But then, in a very surreal experience, he shared the water with two visions of his mother, the young adult Laurel who bore him and the older woman she became when Hai and she finally got their chance.
Both experiences were a little surreal, but entirely cathartic. And there was something so perfect about his mother (obviously a manifestation of his own voice) telling him that he knows exactly how to let all that pain go. He's already in the right place.
The story of Hai and Laurel was one that came full circle over a lifetime. They first met when he thought she was drowning after her first scream in Mae's lake. He tried to save her, dubbing her "the girl who was not drowning" until he knew her name.
Barely speaking any English, those four words are how he asked her out on what would become their first date. And then it became a forbidden love, as her father had her lined up to marry a good prospect and burgeoning executive at his bank.
That impending union is what drove Laurel away from her family, and it was Hai's inability to run away with her that saw her land in Pittsburg (that's as much bus fare as she had).
Then, we learned that after all those years at the market settling for waves, when she didn't show up one day, Hai went to her house by the lake and learned that she had breast cancer. Once again, those four words rekindled their long lost romance, though this time it appeared a much deeper connection.
All they got was two years, but they meant the world to Hai. And after all those years of pain and suffering -- self-inflicted and otherwise -- Laurel knew two years of happiness as well, even if they were the last years of her life.
And that's how we close the chapter on the lost history of Randall Pearson. Save for a few gaps here and there, he and we now know everything there is to know about the two people who bore him.
And just like we said the story of Randall and Beth is rich enough to fill an entire television story, Beth wasn't wrong in saying that Hai's story could do the same thing. Laurel and William and even Hai have been painted just as beautifully and fully as so many characters on this show.
In just these last two episodes, we've learned more about Laurel -- not just what physically happened to her, but who she is and was at all these different phases of her life -- than many characters get across an entire series.
For Randall, he got a sense of wholeness and completeness he's never known before. Last week saw Kate reach a cathartic closure with Mark and her abortion, settling into a refreshing and beautiful peace it's taken her decades to find.
This week, it may well be that Randall is on that same journey. Wanting to reach out to Kevin was a huge statement, considering how much anger he had about not just recent comments but a lifetime of being that outsider, but we're with Beth on the real difference. It was that little smile.
We hope it lasts. The Pearsons have been compelling to watch, but frustrating at times in how stunted they all were with their father's death as teenagers. Now, though, it looks like that growth is coming. They may be healthy, functional, well-rounded human beings by the time this show wraps for good!