Back in the fall when This Is Us Season 5 premiered, fans were astonished to learn that Randall Pearson's birth mother, Laurel, was still alive. All of this time we believed Laurel had died of a drug overdose shortly after giving birth to Randall, which is what led his birth father, William, to drop him off at the fire station.
But lo and behold, we discover that after being pronounced dead by the EMTs, Laurel wakes up after William flees with baby Randall to avoid Child Protective Services.
Because This Is Us likes to play with our hearts like it's Laffy Taffy, this storyline isn't revisited until the mid-season finale, where we learn Laurel is somehow connected to a Vietnamese man who sees the viral video of Randall doing his shirtless gym workout dance (which, honestly, was a gift in and of itself).
The only clue This Is Us gave us was that Laurel was associated with this man, and that it was possible she was still alive.
Finally, in last week's episode of The Is Us, we learned what happened to Laurel.
What happened to Laurel in 'This Is Us'?
After the man sees Randall's video, he contacts him and tells him he's a close friend of his mother's. We learn this man's name is Hai and that he lives in New Orleans. We also learn that Laurel died in 2015 of breast cancer. Yup, after everything — all the suspense, theories, and heartbreak — it turns out another parent of Randall's is dead. How much sadness can this poor man take? Nevertheless, Hai invites Randall to New Orleans so that Randall can learn more about his birth mother.
In "Birth Mother" (Season 5, Episode 6), we also learn why Laurel never went looking Randall. It's not that she didn't want to find him (she did, desperately), it's because she physically couldn't. She couldn't reach out to William because their apartment didn't have a phone, and she was immediately arrested after being brought in for her overdose.
"We don't have a phone. I need to call my boyfriend but we don't have a phone," Laurel tried explaining to the police. She called her father instead, but before she could bring herself to say anything, she hung up. She was then sentenced to five years in prison. And instead of serving time in Pittsburgh, she was taken to a California prison due to overcrowding.
Hai told Randall, "The prison in Pittsburgh were overcrowded. So Laurel was sent to California. She didn't talk much about that time. And I didn't push her. There wasn't a single night when she didn't dream about you."
After she served five years, Laurel went back to her birth city of New Orleans, where her Aunt Mae lived. She reconnected with Hai, who she had met many years ago and was her first love. They don't have a romantic relationship for a long time, since Hai is married and has children when Laurel moves back to New Orleans. After Hai's wife dies, Laurel and Hai rekindle their relationship. They remained together until Laurel's final days.
The actress who plays Laurel, Jennifer C. Holmes, tells The Wrap that she wanted viewers to know that Laurel didn't choose drugs over Randall, and that because of one mistake (her wanting to take heroin was to ease the post-labor pain so she could take care of her son), she was cut off from two of the most important people in her life. Because of her lack of access to healthcare, she was punished for it (systemic racism is something This Is Us doesn't shy away from).
“Everyone is going to get to know the why now, right? Hopefully everyone is going to be a little bit more empathetic and understanding toward her and to other people who are addicts and fighting for their lives. We don’t all make the right decisions, but hopefully we can try to understand one another better and not quickly judge and just love more," Jennifer says.
Watch This Is Us every Tuesday on NBC at 9 p.m.