This Is Us Season 1, Episode 14
“I Call Marriage”
Posted by Shannon
The Valentine’s Day episode is still to come, but this week’s episode took the opportunity to focus in on love. What does it mean to love, in its many contexts and forms? Familial love, romantic love, and love of self all carry different burdens and challenges, and the Pearsons are struggling with the definitions and limits of this complex emotion. Some family members are handling it better than others, but for this episode, each of the characters are tending towards insular behavior, focusing in on their own relationships. Solitude has its moments, but this week, every single one of the Pearson clan would have been helped by opening up a little more than they have to their loved ones.
It’s Jack and Rebecca’s wedding day, and after leaving what looked to be a perfectly 70’s ceremony at city hall, Miguel offers a toast during their reception. He summarizes their self-written vows over a montage of Jack and Rebecca living them out in their daily lives; there’s shower sex, bad oysters, and more general evidence of how charming and loving their relationship has been through their early years. Over a decade later, Jack and Rebecca are worn down and even a little awkward while they get ready to meet Miguel and Shelley for dinner. Once there, the reason for the tension makes itself known: Rebecca has been out late playing with the band night after night, and Jack’s work schedule has been increasingly demanding. The timing couldn’t be worse. After years of being unhappy, but before they turn the corner into being outwardly cruel to one another, Miguel and Shelley have decided to get a divorce. It sounds like a healthy move for both of them, and Rebecca hears it as that, but for Jack, it’s an utter betrayal.
Jack has implied his cut-and-dry perception of marriage before, but he’s never laid it out as clearly as he does now. For Jack, marriage is the meeting of two soul mates, never to be separated until death. It’s phenomenally idealistic, but Jack doesn’t see it as such; for him, it’s just a fact. Rebecca, though, knowing how unhappy Shelley has been, sees their divorce as a healthy step. It all shakes Jack to his core, and the next day at work, after seeing Miguel and Heather flirting yet again in the break room, Jack demands an explanation. Miguel promises that he hasn’t been having an affair, and offers up a far more realistic and subtle examination of romantic love. Sometimes, relationships die “not with a bang but with a whimper.” The small decisions made in daily life often carry much more weight than we know; for Shelley and Miguel, it was a cup of coffee, and the slow acceptance that they have stopped noticing each other. Jack hears this as a warning; even the small distance that has been growing between he and Rebecca is too much for him to bear.
Meanwhile, Rebecca sees no such distance. After Ben tells her that the band has the opportunity to play on an east coast tour, “on actual stages, to actual crowds,” Rebecca’s first thought is what it will mean for Jack. When Ben tries to sway Rebecca by saying that “if Jack really loves you, he’ll understand” she calls bullshit. She sees every single gesture that Jack makes, big or small, and loves them for what they are: daily evidence that Miguel’s warning was unnecessary, that these two have not stopped noticing each other. Far from it.
Even still, Jack feels the need for a sweeping, romantic gesture. He packs an overnight bag for Rebecca and surprises her by renting their old apartment out for the night, all done up in lights, with champagne in every room and rose petals on the floor. Jack and Rebecca both appreciate their relationship, and they both make daily sacrifices, big and small, for each other. And now that we know the timeline for Jack’s passing, every moment spent in this year is tinged with sadness and fear of impending doom. The couple re-reads their vows, Rebecca admits that she wants to go on tour with the band, and I for one am left with a new fear – that Rebecca will be away on tour when Jack dies.
Randall is teetering on the edge of a breakdown. And just as Beth feared, he is actively refusing help every step of the way. His nightmare of finding William at the piano was horrific, but it’s also his subconscious trying to make him face what he can’t bear to look at in his daily life. After all, he’s too busy trying to be the perfect father, husband, and coworker all at once. Beth knows that something was very wrong with Randall when Annie wakes them up after wetting the bed, but they don’t get the chance to discuss it (and even if they did, Randall wouldn’t have said a word). Instead, after helping Annie get back to sleep, they find Tess downstairs, practicing chess with William in the early hours of the morning.
Tess is so scared that her parents will blame William for their late-night chess games, but she doesn’t know what else to do. With William napping after school, soccer practice on the weekends, and parents too understandably crazed to check the whiteboard for new obligations, the only time she can spend with William is in the middle of the night. And she knows what Randall won’t allow himself to recognize – their time with William is limited, and she needs to take every opportunity to make memories with her grandfather. William is in a healthy place mentally, all things considered; he immediately apologizes to Randall about keeping Tess up, but his face doesn’t carry an ounce of guilt. Nor should it. Tess will always treasure those moments, and they both know it.
Beth brings in a grief counselor to make plans for the family, but Randall shuts down at every single mention of William’s health. The counselor is there under the guise of helping the girls, but Randall is the one who truly needs coping strategies. And this is where the pressure of trying to live up to Jack’s memory really comes crashing down on Randall. He won’t hear a word about William’s illness or end of life care, insisting that they don’t need any help, trying to be superhuman. Randall is refusing help at home AND at work. Maybe I’ve worked for non-profits for too long, but I believe his boss when he says that Randall’s position at work is not under any threat. After a decade of proving himself, a decade of being the first one in and the last one out, Randall has earned a little support in the office. Sanjay is there to help, to go to dinner with a client when Randall can’t. And Randall’s insistence that he can do everything at once, that he can go to client dinners and handle all his accounts AND support his family emotionally will be his downfall.
Despite all of this, Randall and Beth are still Randall and Beth. She insists that he show up for Tess’s chess game, knowing that the office can wait, knowing that Randall is on the verge of making one too many sacrifices for the sake of his job at the expense of their family. (Perhaps a part of him is hiding at the office, too – after all, his work is important, but it’s not life or death.) It’s a testament to their relationship that, even with all of this on his shoulders, they’re still the couple from the pilot – except now the soccer game is a chess tournament. Randall and Beth haven’t been as good at checking in on their girls’ daily lives as they could be lately, but they will always show up when the chips are down.
Randall’s fear that the girls will be broken by the loss of their grandfather is just more proof of his projection and of the constant emotional barriers he has built against his loss. Randall is the one who will be broken, not Tess and Annie. Just think about Tess’s grin when she knows she has a checkmate. Tess ONLY has eyes for William. She wouldn’t trade this for anything. But Randall is in danger, emotionally and physically. He’s made himself blind from stress once before. This time, his hand won’t stop shaking, and he won’t even wake up Beth to talk it out.
While Randall is being weighed down by the emotional burden of living up to their father, Kevin is trying to live up to Jack’s penchant for big romantic gestures. Sophie has agreed to meet him at their diner, and Kevin is on a mission to stage everything perfectly. Their booth at Sal’s Diner has seen their first kiss (in 8th grade, bless) and their decision to send Kevin off to LA while Sophie stayed behind (eek). Kevin is determined to have this be the beginning of a new stage of their relationship. There’s just one problem – an adorable older couple is awaiting their meal and sitting in said booth. It’s been a minute since Kevin has been recognized as The Manny, but a signed napkin and some grovelling later, and the booth is his. And it’s just in time, too. Sophie shows up on a rampage, furious at Kevin for invading her life with no notice, intending to tell him to screw himself and then leave, when their order comes in. And who among us hasn’t been done in by the power of perfect fries?
It’s immediately clear why Kevin loves her. Sophie has that same ability to call Kevin out on his shit that Kate does, and that Sloane had too. She has no time for his comment about her eating like a truck driver (also, what does that even mean), dismissing him for eating like a rabbit, talking about her job as a nurse manager and owning how successful she’s been with total confidence. (“Are you like the best nurse?” “I’m pretty badass.”) She’s (rightfully) wary of Kevin’s motives and does not abide his comment that they can just “pick up where we left off.” We don’t know what the reasons for their divorce were at that point, but we don’t need to – no matter where they left off, it clearly wasn’t somewhere good. Sophie’s patience for Kevin is extremely limited, and his emotionally tone-deaf desire to just strike back up after a few romantic gestures doesn’t get him anywhere. She takes off, and Kevin chases her into the clearly-not-New-York-City-subway system.
The reveal that Kevin cheated while they were trying to make a marriage work long-distance is completely in character. We know Kevin uses sex as a coping mechanism when he feels emotionally overwhelmed. (Remember his anxiety at packing up his closet back in LA leading to his jumping into bed with an ex? Even Sloane started off as a way for Kevin to handle his frustration at Olivia treating his family terribly at the cabin.) Of course he cheated while his wife was across the country. And of course it lead to Sophie, back on the east coast after their divorce, living out the all-too-familiar story of having to put her life back together after a terrible breakup. When the train breaks down and Kevin tries to comfort her claustrophobia, he learns that she had moved back in with her parents, dated, remarried, divorced again, and that she’s finally in a good place. Sophie has a good job, an apartment with exposed brick, and an x-ray technician boyfriend. The last thing she needs is for her ex-husband to come sweeping back into her life. Kevin claims to want the best for her, and when the train kicks back into motion, he makes one last plea for her to meet him back at the diner the next morning to keep talking. And he gets it. And so help me, if he hurts her again after turning her stable, healthy life upside down, I will never forgive him.
Kate is working SO HARD. Since her breakthrough in class, she’s showing up, she’s energized, and she’s focused. This is easily the most determined we’ve seen her since her short-lived stint as an assistant back in LA, and I for one want to see more of this Kate. Instead, her plotline this week circled around various men being various degrees of horrible to her. Duke, the smarmy jackass in charge of the stables, is wandering around demeaning her friend’s effort in yoga and then telling her she’s “looking fine” and Toby shows up under the guise of delivering four month’s worth of EW and body wash, when really he’s just been cleared for “low-impact lovemaking” and wants her to leave the facility for the night.
This was so close to being a decent Kate/Toby interaction. Kate doesn’t want to abandon the facility, but one disheartened look from Toby and she’s willing to throw it all away for a night. To his credit, Toby sees what she’s doing and sees the parallel to their struggles back in LA. (“I have screwed with your progress in the past, and it won’t happen again.”) But of course, he runs into Duke on the way out, who immediately pegs Toby as a kindred spirit, assuming that he, too, idolizes Neil Strauss and lives his life by “The Game.” Now that Duke has presented himself as a threat, Toby runs off to nab a day pass and crash Kate’s classes, back to his old habits of making fun of instructors and belittling authority.
Kate is pissed, calling Toby out for his shitty behavior immediately. (“I take this place seriously and you are acting like a total ass.”) The thing is, Toby is right to say he’s just being himself – this is exactly the kind of behavior he always displayed during their support group. Kate wasn’t in a position to call him out on it then, but it wasn’t okay in group and it’s certainly not okay now. Toby never takes this kind of thing seriously; he knows that about himself. And Kate can finally see it, too. But of course, just like in the past, rather than take a beat and have a real conversation about his emotions, Toby goes into one of his patented guilt trips. He takes this opportunity to tell her that his healing isn’t going as well as it should, that he’s lonely in New York, and that part of the reason he came was to give her his grandmother’s ring. Presenting your fiance with a family ring is not something that should happen at the end of a long, passive-aggressive rampage, and it certainly shouldn’t be followed by storming out of the place, but that’s just what Toby does.
In yet another example of how far Kate has come, she heads to the treadmill to sweat out her anger. But Duke is there in a blink, projecting a “lover’s quarrel” that he knows damn well he helped instigate by bringing out the worst in Toby in the first place. Duke’s monologue is the worst kind of manipulation, even in a plotline rife with the stuff. It’s fundamentally bullshit to claim that self-acceptance is at odds with self-improvement. Those two things CAN and DO coexist. But it’s Kate’s fear that they cannot, and he plays right into that fear. She ends the episode standing outside his cabin, debating between going inside or calling Toby, when in reality, she should turn on her heel and go talk to one of her friends. That’s the storyline she actually deserves. Not this one.
Colors of the Painting
- There is a Beatles joke to be made about Miguel calling Rebecca Yoko Ono while “Photograph,” by George Harrison and Ringo Starr, plays in the background.
- Sophie is the only character who seems determinedly pro-Miguel (other than Rebecca, of course) and it makes sense that the only true outsider, and someone who’s been there since the beginning, can see the impossible task Miguel took on by marrying into the family after Jack’s death.
- Kevin posing behind a fake Facebook profile to keep tabs on Sophie after their divorce is another in what’s becoming a distressingly long list of examples of the writers claiming that unsettling and dangerous behavior from men is “romantic” and “sweet.” It’s unacceptable and unnecessary. Do better.
- Beth’s comment that neither of them were prepared for their father’s death gives us one more piece of Jack’s puzzle – a long standing illness, it was not. At least Randall hasn’t had to live through that twice.
- We still don’t know what brought Kate to the West Coast, and I wonder if it was in an effort to help Kevin clean himself up after the divorce.
- “Please take off that shirt, baby, it wasn’t cool on Sisqo in 2001 and it’s not cool now.”
What are your thoughts on “I Call Marriage”? Let us know in the comments!