Why Sterling K. Brown’s Portrayal Of Anxiety On ‘This Is Us’ Is So Important

Every week since I started watching NBC’s new drama This Is Us, I always end the hour sobbing. Although I could write volumes and volumes on the merits of the series currently gracing us with its second season, there is one feature of the show that hits closest to home for me. In this week’s Halloween episode, the hour dealt with Randall’s struggle with anxiety once again.

Being well acquainted with high functioning anxiety myself, I quickly recognized the little tells displayed by Randall as his character was developed by Knight and his young counterparts, Niles Fitch and Lonnie Chavis, well before the fifteenth episode of the first season when we get intimate exposure to a nervous break. Between his tendency for strict and careful planning, deep discomfort with improvisation, and obsession with perfection inevitably leading to harsh self criticism, it was no surprise to me when Kevin found Randall catatonic and huddled in a corner in ‘Jack Pearson’s Son.’

What was surprising to me was the show’s choice to allow us that personal encounter with Randall at all. That’s not to say that the show had not proven its ability to portray intimate narratives with both heartbreaking honesty and comforting empathy, because it has and continues to time and time again. The fact of the matter is that the portrayal of any form of mental illness in my experience has always been limited, both in quantity and quality. To see the NBC series not only handle the issue in the first place but also delve into it with such nuance is refreshing and admirable.

Randall is a model character in many ways. He is a loving family man, a dedicated worker, intelligent, and enormously selfless. The ticks of a man managing what is probably a Panic Disorder—I am no psychologist and by no means attempt to diagnose Randall—are easy to miss if unfamiliar because they integrate so seamlessly within his Type A personality. Dedicating time each day to physical exertion which allows for mindlessness (e.g. Randall’s jogging habit), a drive to stay busy and remain constantly occupied (e.g. his devotion to work, family activities, and taking care of an ailing father), and strict planning of even the most careless of outings (young Randall’s detailed Trick-or-Treating map) all fit the bill for the garden variety ambitious and organized man. However, these also serve to minimize the risk of variables and occupy headspace that may otherwise be used to worry, both factors ultimately leading to an anxious episode.

That is the true merit of the portrayal of anxiety in This Is Us: the series does Randall, and viewers—an estimated 18% of adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder—who deal with similar distress, the justice of going beyond the nervous break in portraying the ways that anxiety factors into everyday life. The reality is that although the break which Randall experiences can feel abrupt in its escalation and brief in its duration, the effects of an anxiety disorder permeate every moment of his existence. Individuals who deal with anxiety disorders live in constant fear of their next episode and are most often prone to systematically managing every move they make in order to avoid it.

For me personally, the sensation is akin to the image of the “bell jar” which Sylvia Plath’s character Esther (molded from Plath’s own experiences) used to describe her mental illness:

“But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday―at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere―the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

The battle is ongoing, and we see this as this week’s episode returns to the topic as if to parallel the inevitable recurrence of Randall’s episode in the present following the one in his 20’s which of which this episode show’s the aftermath and recovery.

Knight rightfully took home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series back in September for his powerful performance and continues to offer us an increasingly emotional and relatable account. This weeks episode—pointedly, for me, called ‘The 20’s’—brings Randall full circle since his nervous break in the first season, showing his journey of recovery before the birth of his first daughter, Tess.

While ‘Jack Pearson’s Son’ shed light on the heartbreaking reality that anxiety disorders tend to be a matter of not if but when the panic will descend full force again, ‘The 20’s’ delivered a more hopeful message of moving forward, not just managing.

The tale of recovery was heartwarming, because it did not feel forced or inauthentic. Allowing so many weeks to pass between Randall’s break and this week’s installment emphasized the length it can take to recover from such an episode. And further, the episode did not insist on an absolute resolution but instead hinged on Randall’s ability to continue with his life. That in itself is the crux of anxiety, after all. What is most important to remember in the face of crushing fear of what’s to come is to actually allow yourself to continue living in spite of that fear.

The ultimate message of the episode was one of carrying on: Kevin with his career, Rebecca and Kate from Jack’s death, and Randall from his episode. Tess’s birth on the day before she was due forcing Randall to step away from the careful plan and improvise (as Rebecca implored him to do on Halloween all those years ago) symbolizes Randall’s will to carry on despite his fears, and that is perhaps the best resolution the series could have offered.

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