“Susan Kelechi Watson, it is my pleasure to rep black love with you, sister,” Sterling K. Brown said on the Emmys stage this year. “Let’s keep doing it like Martin and Gina.” Brown was accepting the award for Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Randall in This Is Us, and thanked his acting partner in one of the best TV marriages currently on air. Because just as there is no Martin without Gina, there’d be no Randall — or Brown on that stage — without Beth, his onscreen wife.
Played by Watson with a discerning warmth, Beth is not just magnetic, she’s the magnet; she’s holding the whole joint together. “I’m excited for people to get to know [Beth] on a deeper level,” Watson told BuzzFeed News in August.
Watson, 35, is not a member of what This Is Us calls “The Big Three,” aka the trio of siblings at the center of the series, and didn't feature much in the first trailer for the show. But make no mistake: Beth is essential, and the first season proved it. How integral she is becomes clear by the show’s second episode, when Beth pulls aside Randall’s long-lost birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), and delivers a monologue about her husband’s vices — namely, his heart and his perfectionism. She moves between looking into William’s eyes and at the wall as she recounts moments from their past, the half-smile on her face telling a story of devotion as much as worry. It’s this sort of nimbleness with mood and easy evocation of her history that quickly established Watson as one of the show’s powerhouse performers.
“I try to give her an eyes-wide-open perspective,” Watson told BuzzFeed News of her character. “With her, I try to let information be new, and assess it in the moment. She’s always grounded in the reality.”
The be-all and end-all of This Is Us is family. The series follows a married couple in the 1970s (played by Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia) and the present-day family tree that branches out to include three children — biological kids Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) and adopted kid Randall. As for Randall and Beth’s family, they have two daughters (played by Faithe Herman and Eris Baker). The ensemble drama found success soon after it premiered in September 2016: Its ratings have given network TV rare hope, and the show was nominated for 10 Emmys (it won two). It also quickly became known for its ability to make viewers cry, cry, cry. NBC renewed it for two more seasons halfway through its first, guaranteeing at least two more years of targeted weeping and social media watercooler moments. “We didn’t realize the responsibility that it innately has,” Watson said about the show’s impact on viewers. “It’s been responsible for this sort of cathartic response that’s been happening. ... As an artist, it’s kind of dreamy.”
The opportunity to join the show came to Watson during what she calls a “tough time” in her career which she got through with the help of friends. Watson, who was 33 at the time, was living in New York and was mainly known for her role on Louie as Louis C.K.’s character’s ex-wife. “I was really thinking, Should I just move to Montreal and get an apartment and work in a coffee shop? … Sometimes when you’re down, you’re looking down and you only see down. But if you have people around you who are looking up, you’re like, oh, there’s some sunlight out there.”
This Is Us was a part of when things started to look up. Watson happened to be leaving an audition for the Oprah-produced Queen Sugar when she found out she got the part on This Is Us. “I came out and I got this message from my agent saying she had news and to call her back. I thought, Oprah called her already? Did Oprah just see that?” That agent and Watson’s manager played around with her a little before telling her the news. “[They] got on the phone and asked me if I wanted to do Queen Sugar,” Watson recalls. “I said ‘I think that’d be great,’ and they said, ‘Well, you can’t, because you got this other thing!’” And so it was goodbye to Oprah, and hello NBC. “I told them to pull their phones away from their ears because I was about to start screaming. And I did.”
At first, Beth is quite literally a supporting character. As Randall’s Season 1 storyline revolved around exploring a relationship with his birth father and his ethnicity as a black man raised by a white family, Beth spends a lot of her initial screentime as a fortifying beacon. She speaks truth into scenes, asking the tough questions that Randall wasn’t quite ready to speak aloud, pointing him in the right direction. Like when Randall brought William to live with them without bothering to ask anything about his life, or when she senses that the stress has been secretly eating away at her Energizer bunny of a husband. Alongside Brown as her most frequent scene partner, Randall and Beth’s relationship felt instantly lived in, real, emotionally weighty, and sexy, all without even a single sex scene. They’re stars, especially together. If the marriage between Moore and Ventimiglia’s characters grounds the series during the show’s frequent flashbacks, so does Beth and Randall’s in the present. And none of it would work without the sly, crackling charm Watson brings to the experience.
This Is Us has yet to explore much of Beth’s backstory, though Watson hints that there’s more of that to come. “There are scary moments because they’re giving me a lot of new material, so I’m learning on the spot about Beth,” she said. “I keep impressing on myself to keep discovering her, and I’m trying to maintain the integrity of who we’ve established that she is, and who I created her to be.”
And the Beth that Watson and the writers did co-author is beloved by viewers. Beth is sure of herself, but open to the right kind of change (after some convincing). She is protective of the life she’s built, and loves with the kind of fierceness that makes any of This Is Us’s best scenes shine. Her intelligence is palpable; so is her vulnerability and her humor. She’s a well-rounded woman of color on one of the biggest shows on TV right now — of course viewers want more of her. As BuzzFeed News’ own Sylvia Obell wrote last season, “This show should honestly be called This Is Beth and Her Sweet Husband Randall.”
“She’s earthy in a lot of ways, she feels very down-to-earth,” Watson said. “And that has a lot to do with her knowing herself, and knowing about herself. She’s not so lost, you know what I mean?” This makes her the perfect balancing act opposite Randall, who’s still actively grappling with his upbringing through his relationship with William and flashbacks showing his struggle with his white surroundings as a kid. “Beth’s black as hell. That’s the great thing between Randall and Beth — she’s grounded in that kind of thing, and he’s still looking to discover it,” Watson said.
Beth shines separately from Randall too — something that’s evident throughout This Is Us’s first season, but particularly in the season’s penultimate episode. In “What Now?” William has just died, and Beth is wrestling with her treatment as a supporting character in his life. “I loved him too, Randall,” Beth says. In the eulogy she gives for William minutes later, she takes center stage. Her grief mixes with anger and — again — with the full vulnerability of affection as it all spreads across her face. She’s the kind of actor who can make you cry with a smile.
This Is Us is an undeniable force in television, and as the show sinks deeper and deeper into the family life the series is built on, there’s more opportunity to dig deeper into Beth. Think of all the things we have yet to discover about her, for a show so grounded in how where you come from shapes who you are. “I hope that people learn more about her and have the same appreciation for who she is,” Watson said. “If nothing else, they get more of her point of view on the world.”
Knowing This Is Us, that’s a flashback worth waiting for.