This Is Us Season 1, Episode 15
“Jack Pearson’s Son”
Posted by Shannon
One of the most remarkable things about This Is Us is its ability to speak on a topic before really expanding on the details that brought its characters to that point. This has never been clearer than in “Jack Pearson’s Son,” which, for all of its plot points, truly comes down to one thing: that the death of Jack Pearson, however it happened, has left his family with a lack of a clear moral center. Jack was not a perfect man – and that’s never been more clear than in this episode – but he created a family that relied on him to act as their true north. Their constant. Jack wasn’t a superhero, and of course he didn’t have the ability to protect his children from the difficulties of their lives (Randall will always have anxiety, Kevin and Kate will always live with self-doubt and self-confidence issues) but he was one of those rare people who had the ability to center anyone who needed it. And without him, the center has tilted, spun, spiraled – leaving the surviving Pearsons in chaos.
Now that we know the ages of the kids when Jack passes, it’s impossible to watch an episode with them as teens without wondering when the other shoe will drop. That awareness leaves this Valentine’s Day celebration with a fog hovering overhead at every moment. Rebecca is about to depart for her five-state, month-long tour, and she’s in the throes of guilt and anxiety. Leaving her family for that long, with one parent to juggle Kate’s music lessons, Randall’s debate team meets, and Kevin’s football games seems insurmountable, but Jack assures her that he has it all under control. He even has time to book their favorite restaurant and their favorite table to celebrate Valentine’s Day – after Rebecca finishes her gig with the band.
Jack puts on his typical superhero husband face while he and Rebecca make plans, but it’s a different story when he’s at work with Miguel. It only takes a little bit of prodding for Jack to admit that he’s not thrilled about the tour after all (“Who does she think she is, Janis freakin’ Joplin?”). Jack refuses to tell Rebecca how he feels, convinced that she’ll resent him for denying her the opportunity – and he’s right. She would resent him – but she’d be right to do so. And what Jack misses entirely is that his feelings about the tour have already bred resentment in their marriage; except it’s Jack who’s resenting Rebecca. He’s clearly worried about Ben, the bandleader we met earlier in the season, and the fact that he isn’t willing to talk to Rebecca about how he feels NOW, before things blow up, is a real flaw. That said, it’s been a while since Jack has shown flaws of any kind, so it was time to see his perfection crack and give way to a bit of realism.
Meanwhile, Miguel has completed his divorce with Shelley and he’s anxious to get back out on the dating scene. He initially asks Jack to go out with him once Rebecca is on tour (and it’s telling to note that he’s quick to assure Jack that he doesn’t have to drink while they’re out, making it clear that Jack’s sobriety has lasted the decade since he decided to stop drinking). Instead, Jack invites Miguel to tag along to Rebecca’s show, certain that there will be some single women out, keeping busy during the holiday. (This single woman wouldn’t be caught dead out at a bar for a mellow jazz performance on Valentine’s Day, but what do I know.)
Naturally, while their parents are trying to plan their way out of a crisis, the Big Three are in the throes of standard teenage drama. Randall is anxious about his Hamlet paper, which Kevin thinks can only be fixed by setting his brother up on a date, and Kate is quick to jump to Randall’s defense, but does so by outing that Kevin and Sophie have started having sex. Rebecca, of course, overhears all of this, and jumps to attention after hearing that her 16-year-old is sexually active.
She and Jack sit down to talk to Kevin, making sure that above all else, he’s being safe and respectful. There’s no way to have this conversation that isn’t mortifying for all parties, but I do have to say that Jack does an exceptional job. His priorities are clear and on point, and he doesn’t linger or try to make Kevin feel ashamed of himself. However, he also doesn’t really have much of a chance to get beyond the basics before Randall, steadily spiraling into a panic attack, interrupts. The small signs that we know in adult Randall are all here – he’s breathless, shaky, and can’t quite form a cohesive argument while he tries to explain to his father that he hasn’t been able to formulate a topic for his Hamlet essay. Jack immediately calms him down, breathing with him, removing him from the basement and focusing his son by asking him to walk Jack through the life and times of the Prince of Denmark. It’s handled ably and quickly, but Rebecca sees all of this as proof positive that she cannot possibly go on tour right now.
Jack, once again, assures her that he has everything under control, and that she can’t miss touring with the band. But everything comes to a head when he and Miguel arrive at Rebecca’s show that evening. Jack doesn’t really focus during the whole performance; instead, he spends the entire time eyeing Ben, sizing him up and trying to decide if he and Rebecca are flirting on stage while they duet. Miguel isn’t concerned, assuring Jack that it’s a performance for the crowd, but Jack is having none of it. This is a side of Jack we haven’t really seen before; he’s cold, defensive, distracted and above everything else, painfully jealous.
When Ben greets Jack after the performance, he certainly doesn’t help the situation. The two men are both varying degrees of passive aggressive, sizing each other up with every word and glance. Ben drops that he and Rebecca used to date in college, and all hell breaks loose right in Jack’s eyes. He moves from distraction and distance to severity and bitterness, even hints of rage. He ends the night abruptly, insisting that he and Rebecca cancel their traditional Valentine’s Day bacon cheeseburgers and go straight home instead.
This is the first Real Fight we’ve seen Jack and Rebecca weather. Back in the beginning of the season, when Rebecca confronted him about his drinking, she was so clearly in the right that there wasn’t much nuance to the disagreement. But this argument has all the messiness and chaos of a fight with no real right or wrong. They both say things they shouldn’t say, things that will haunt their relationship from that moment on, and it says so much about their characters at the same time. Rebecca DOES feel like she’s sacrificed for Jack and the kids; how much she regrets that decision is unclear, and while I don’t doubt her love for her family for a SECOND, it’s easy to see how much joy performing has brought back into her eyes. She needs to have something that’s only hers, and that’s not too much to ask. However, the family has done nothing but support her new musical venture. Jack, on the other hand, knows those things to be true, but he spins out in every sense of the phrase. His constant perfection is exhausting, even though it’s not an act (and no one, certainly not Rebecca, would have thought of it as such). But no matter how genuine his drive to be a perfect father and husband is, it leaves him feeling entitled – entitled to Rebecca telling him every slight detail of her past, regardless of her feelings, and entitled to deny her the right to go out of the house to follow her dreams if he so chooses.
A fight this deep and biting can’t be sorted in the blink of an eye, and they don’t try to. Jack heads out to dinner, alone, and orders a drink. He downs it so quickly, and with such visible relief and anger, that any doubts viewers might have had about the severity of his addiction are immediately wiped away. This is a Jack we haven’t really seen before, and it’s not pretty.
When a person insists, against all evidence, that everything is fine, that typically means that it’s only a matter of time until they break. Considering what Randall has been through in a short amount of time, and adding in his history of panic attacks and anxiety, it’s a small miracle that he’s made it this long. But while Randall and Kevin are out on their morning run, with no other distractions around to keep his attention, everything flashes across his mind – his work accounts being split with Sanjay, William denying another round of chemo, his mother lying about his father’s whereabouts for all those years – it’s all there, and it’s finally more than Randall can manage. He starts to lose control on his run, pulling over to try to catch his breath. Kevin checks on him immediately, but accepts Randall’s assurances that he’s just pushed the workout too hard.
He finishes the run, but Randall is by no means out of the woods; he can’t get through his shower without shaking, and a late night with William has left him behind on work preparations for a series of important calls with clients. Absolutely nothing goes right this morning. He tries to help William wash a dish; when William refuses, he drops it in the sink, overcome with a bout of muscle weakness. The girls are bickering over a sweater, and Randall tries to settle them down, to no avail. (“Girls, please, will you give your sister back her dividends?”) In the midst of all this chaos, Beth gets a call from her sister, alerting her to the fact that their mother had a fall and has broken her hip. The timing couldn’t be worse – on top of everything else, it’s Kevin’s opening night – but Beth has to make the trip down to DC to care for her mother. Randall has the presence of mind to be there for her completely, making eye contact and clearly telling Beth that she should go, but his barely controlled anxiety is boiling away while he insists that William spend the day with a hospice nurse.
Randall arrives to work (late again, thanks to the chaotic morning) to the news that his biggest call has been moved up a full day. He hasn’t prepped, and his boss is willing to send in Sanjay, but Randall is having none of it. It’s yet another example of Randall refusing help – his boss’s offer was once again genuine, and William had offered to stay with Jesse – but, just like Jack, he insists on handling it all himself. One of the many dangers that come with living this kind of life is that, after you deny help for so long, eventually the offers stop coming. How else can we excuse Kevin, who was at Randall’s office when he got the call, NOT offering to go home and sort out the situation with William and his hospice nurse? Of course, Randall never would have let him help regardless, and he turns right back around and heads home to find the nurse in the driveway and William, despondent and snippy, in his room.
William’s rage is, of course, warranted. He’s losing control of his body, waking up every day to find that something new has broken. The emotional trauma of his illness is weighing on him, and causing him to snap at his hospice nurse. Randall talks him down, promising that the two will watch a movie that night – forgetting, until William reminds him, that they have to attend Kevin’s opening night instead. Randall is barely holding his life in place, and when he’s back at the office, he steps right into the client call, without any time to gather his thoughts. I’m continually astounded at the kindness his office has shown Randall, even though he’s not in a place to recognize it as such. Rather than have Sanjay take the call when Randall was late, they stalled, knowing that Randall would stand by his promise and be back in time. And when it’s clear that Randall is in no state to present, and can’t properly gather his thoughts, Sanjay steps in gracefully and quickly.
Watching Randall fall apart in the presentation, quietly, stoically, without making a scene, is devastating. Sterling K. Brown has had so many moments of brilliance portraying Randall’s anxiety that it’s almost easy to take it for granted. But for Randall to weep openly without making a sound, and without showing a crack in his face, while his eyes display that level of tumult and sorrow – it was extremely affecting. Hours later, he hasn’t been able to leave his office, and calls Kevin to let him know he won’t be making it to opening night. But the call isn’t that simple. Randall forgets who called who, makes non sequitur after non sequitur, and can barely formulate sentences. It’s enough, finally, for Kevin to understand the state that his brother is in. When Kevin arrives at the office, he finds Randall sitting on the floor, sobbing, unable to move.
When we last saw Kate, she was waiting outside Duke’s cabin, phone in hand, debating calling Toby or going inside. And I for one owe Kate an apology, because it didn’t even cross my mind that she might have gone over to cabin 13 to properly tell Duke off for his despicable behavior. And what a satisfying rant this was. We haven’t seen Kate stand up for herself like this since she took the assistant job back in LA (and I’m still hoping we get to see Kate kick ass and take names in a professional setting again soon). It’s the most self-assured she’s been in weeks, and it serves to display both how far she’s come since heading to the East Coast and remind us that she has a real fire in her character. Duke and his smarmy self wastes no time telling Kate the real reason he gets away with literally harassing people without being fired – his parents own the facility, and she’ll be kicked out for standing up to him.
Let’s be super clear about this. Duke’s behavior – not just to Kate, but to her friends (remember him mocking another woman for not being able to make a yoga pose?) has regularly qualified as harassment. And while no one comes away from this thinking Duke is a good guy, no one calls it what it is, either. When Kate arrives back at Toby’s and tells him what happened, he’s not outraged that his fiance has just been kicked out of a health facility that was truly helping her emotional well-being for daring to stand up for herself. No, he’s too busy being relieved that she wasn’t actually attracted to Duke. The plot doesn’t stop to acknowledge the severity of the situation back at the facility, where we’re to believe Duke will continue harassing women, entirely unchecked, kicking out anyone who dares to talk about what’s going on.
Instead, Toby and Kate come to the realization that they’ve become engaged a little too quickly. There’s still so much that they don’t know about each other, in between their breakups and health issues and cross-country travel – so the two decide to have a question game to uncover some of the lingering questions they still have about the other. While shopping for an outfit for Toby to wear to Kevin’s opening night, they try to cover as much ground as possible, exchanging celebrity crushes, childhood pets, and high school snapshots. They even touch on the question of kids, which, almost more than anything else, shows how quickly the pair rushed into their engagement. There are a lot of significant questions that Toby and Kate still have about each other, so it’s only a matter of time until one of them takes the opportunity to ask something more intimate. Kate breaches the line by asking about his depression and suicidal thoughts. (“Yeah, I know, I’ve been sitting on that for a while.”)
Toby walks her through his history of depression thoughtfully and sensitively. He began to struggle with it in high school, when his parents were going through a nasty divorce, and when his own divorce became imminent, everything resurfaced. But he’s been doing the emotional work ever since, regularly going to therapy, keeping himself healthy. With that on the table, Toby asks a big question of his own. While he knows the broad strokes of Jack’s death, he asks Kate to tell him the details of what happened. Kate WANTS to tell him, and tries to begin telling the story, but the words can’t formulate. She’s just not ready to go there. (“It’s been blocked for a really long time.”) Her reaction doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that it’s Toby who’s asking. Kate has JUST started to truly work on her emotional state, and now that she’s been kicked out of the facility, her work has been cut short. She’s in no place to put to words what her father’s death has meant to her, not to anyone. Toby doesn’t push in the moment, but when the two arrive at Kevin’s opening night, it’s clear that her inability to discuss Jack has taken on a real weight for him. He asks to delay the wedding, saying “the woman that I marry should be able to talk to me about everything.”
It’s the right move, but for the wrong reasons. Kate and Toby DID rush into their engagement, and taking some time to feel more settled is a good thing. But for Toby to put it on Kate specifically, rather than their relationship up to this point, means that she now has the pressure of saying when she’s ready, rather than when THEY are. As if discussing Jack’s death wasn’t going to be hard enough for her – now that conversation implicitly signifies when she and Toby are ready to get married.
At long last, it’s Kevin’s opening night. And he has a little pre-show tradition at the ready: a recurring nightmare starring Katie Couric, who wastes no time calling Kevin a “vapid pretty boy” and insisting that he can’t be taken seriously after sleeping with both the lead actress and the writer of his show, before taking off to play tennis with Salman Rushdie. Kevin wakes up in a state when Sophie calls to wish him well. She immediately knows what had happened (“Did you have that Katie Couric nightmare again?”) and giggles at Kevin’s predictability. Sophie isn’t able to make opening night since she’s stuck at the hospital, but Kevin thinks this is probably for the best anyway – after all, the whole family will be there and he and Sophie are in the VERY early days of “cautiously dating.”
Kevin’s nerves aren’t helped by a stop over at the theatre, where Sloane tells him that a reviewer from the New York Times will be in attendance. It’s nice to see that the two have settled into a supportive working relationship (for now). There are no hard feelings from their relationship, and Sloane and Kevin are both thrilled to see her production finally come to life. In an effort to calm himself down, Kevin kicks off a bit of a Pearson family tour. His first call is of course to Kate, but she can’t pick up the phone, since she and Toby are in the midst of their afternoon out. His second stop is Randall’s office. (And that alone shows how far their relationship has come.) But Randall is in no state to talk his brother down. Finally, Kevin jumps in the car and heads out to Rebecca’s house, hoping to speak to her “artist to artist.”
With Rebecca out shopping, Miguel sits Kevin down with a cup of coffee. He’s barely settled in before Kevin launches into crisis mode at the slightest opening from Miguel. Everything comes stumbling out; once again, Kevin is certain that he’ll fail, that he never should have quit The Manny. Miguel can’t speak to Kevin artist to artist; after all, he worked as a project manager for 30 years, but he CAN speak to Kevin like family. And he does. This is the first time we’ve really been able to hear from Miguel during this timeline, and he finally displays compassion and sensitivity, putting to rest some of the questions I’ve had about why on earth Rebecca would have married him.
It’s easy to forget that Miguel and Jack were so close. But Miguel takes the opportunity to really speak about Jack and his legacy – reminding us that Miguel loved him, too. (“He was my person.”) Miguel went to Jack at every moment of crisis, knowing that he would settle everything down. And Jack did that for everyone, certainly for each of his children. Jack had the ability to act as an anchor when faced with a moment of panic. And Miguel sees that quality in Kevin, too; a quality that has too often gone untapped. It’s on display with Kate, but rarely with anyone else. But Miguel sees it regardless, and sees the similarities in their hands, their walks, their speech patterns. Miguel does take a moment to make it about himself (“That’s why it breaks my heart that you don’t like me, Kevin”) but he doesn’t linger in that point, moving quickly to assure Kevin he can handle this crisis of faith by tapping into his similarities with Jack. “When you’re nervous, or when you’re at your most nerve-wracking moment… all you have to do is remind yourself of that. Think about what he’d do. And you’ll be fine.”
It’s exactly what Kevin needed to hear, and he’s able to get back into the theatre centered and calmed. At the five-minute call, Randall gets through to tell Kevin he won’t be able to make it to the show, and finally, the pieces fall together. Now. When Kevin had dropped by Randall’s office unannounced earlier in the day, he had already found Randall in a state. His brother was wearing a headset while looking for it, snapping at his assistant, panicking that he had missed non-existent meetings. Kevin saw all of this, and watched while Randall ran back home to handle a crisis with William and his hospice nurse. And this, combined with their morning run, should have been enough to trigger Kevin’s concern. After all, Kevin’s seen all of this before. We don’t know if he was around during Randall’s first severe breakdown in adulthood, but he certainly saw his brother’s triggers as a child, and they’ve been living together for months now. Kevin KNOWS what Randall has been through, and knows his history. It shouldn’t have taken this much for him to know what was going on.
Kevin leaving Sloane alone on that stage, knowing that her career is on the line, left me feeling really uncomfortable. Kevin SHOULD be there for his brother. But he should have been there before now. And to abandon Sloane, to make that moment so entirely about him and his priorities, without so much as a word to an understudy or to Sloane herself, felt misguided at best and selfish and cavalier at worst. Kevin could have told her what he had to do while they waited in the wings; she could have walked on stage and cancelled the performance – anything. It would have been embarrassing, sure, but it also would have allowed her to maintain at least a small semblance of dignity and control while Kevin did the right thing. Instead of being done with grace and full-hearted kindness, Kevin’s grand gesture did real harm to Sloane. Not to mention their careers.
Colors of the Painting
- Once again, the teen actors are nailing the ticks of their adult characters. Between Kevin’s “You are de-twinned” and Randall’s “Honestly, I just assumed”, the teenage versions are regularly reminding all of us how little people change from high school to adulthood.
- Miguel is spot on about Jeff Goldblum. He was hot in the 80’s and he’s hot now. And while we’re on the subject, Kate’s first crush being Aladdin is so on point. When’s the last time you watched that movie? He’s so dashing!
- I do love that Toby named his pet turtle “Shirley. As in Laverne and.”
- I hereby declare Katie Couric the winner of the “NBC Personality Cameo Competition” for This Is Us. She was having SO MUCH FUN playing her vicious alter-ego that I can’t help but wonder if she’s going to make storming out of interviews for tennis matches with pretentious authors into a habit.
- “I winked and waved at the same time, it was too much.”
What are your thoughts on “Jack Pearson’s Son”? Let us know in the comments!