This Is Us Season 1, Episode 17
Posted by Shannon
After saying farewell to William last week, the penultimate episode of the season is full of complex themes. The Pearson clan has spent their recent days pondering legacy, blame, and forgiveness, and while some are making more concrete moves than others, each of them carry a hefty emotional weight. As we head into the season finale, Randall and Kevin share clarity and opportunity in their work and home lives, while the guilt and shame of Rebecca’s decision to lie to Randall is lifted and transposed to Kate. The legacy of the Hill-Pearson patriarchs is felt fully this week, and their children’s emotional connections to those legacies are not a simple matter. “What Now?” is rife with guilt and mourning, but there’s just as much joy to be found in those moments as there is sadness.
It’s time for Rebecca to head out on her two-week tour, and while she’s packing her best dresses, Jack is staying late at work for a retirement party. He’s under no obligation to stay, and he and Miguel don’t even like the guy they’re celebrating, but Jack is searching for any reason not to go home. While he hasn’t stopped Rebecca from going on tour, he’s determined to be as difficult about it as possible, making her wait until the last possible moments to say goodbye. Rebecca calls him out on this behavior as soon as he gets home, and the two bicker privately in the kitchen over schedule changes and getting the kids to a party. There’s a quiet sadness watching them like this, so disconnected, especially after their night in the old apartment was such a short time ago. They’re at least able to share a laugh over Kevin and Sophie, who are deep in the throes of teen romance and unable to keep their hands off each other, but even that doesn’t break their moods. Rebecca gives hugs to each of the kids, but Jack only offers a kiss on the cheek before she leaves for the van.
Kate sees right through her parents’ interactions, and from the moment Jack walks in the door, she knows something is wrong. She glares worriedly at Jack, urging him to give Rebecca a better farewell just with a quiet, muttered “….Dad….” Their connection is so strong (as is Rebecca and Randall’s) that she can feel every single one of her father’s moods, and she knows that he can do better than he’s doing right now.
After Jack drops the kids off at a party, Kate lingers in the back seat, asking pointedly why he hasn’t made the relatively short two-hour drive to Cleveland to watch Rebecca’s show. This is SUCH a tough line for a kid to walk, and Jack does the right thing by assuring her that it shouldn’t be her problem. Her focus should be on “boys, and grades, and that band that sounds like they’re always kidding” – not on the ups and downs of her parents’ marriage. But Kate can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong, and while she does finally leave for the party, it’s only after making sure that her father won’t spend the whole night being sad and alone.
But that’s exactly what he does. After spending some time in front of the television with Chinese takeout, Jack grabs his keys and heads out the door – but it’s not for Rebecca’s show, it’s for his coworker’s after-party. Miguel is nowhere to be seen, but Heather is, and she promptly buys him a beer. She takes the opportunity to ask what’s been bothering Jack, and he opens up with one hell of a Freudian slip. (“She’s on tour with her Ben. Her band.”) Heather tries to get Jack to admit that he’s having marriage troubles, but Jack isn’t having it. He’s a little too slow on the uptake, but once Heather puts her hand on his leg, he catches up quick, and shuts down her advances. Finally, after listening to his daughter’s fears, and defending Rebecca’s dreams to Heather, Jack knows that this has gone far enough. He calls the party and asks if the kids can stay the night, opening his schedule up to make the drive to Rebecca’s performance. Except he’s been drinking. A lot. After a final conversation with Kate, and after fumbling his keys, Jack gets behind the wheel and heads to Cleveland.
It’s just been a few days since William’s passing, but Randall is already trying to make sense of the space William has left in his heart and in his home. The last time William was in Annie’s room, he was packing up for his final trip to Memphis, deciding what to take and what to leave. His instruments stayed; his poems were packed. While Randall sits on the bed, trying to unravel the best way to honor his father’s legacy, (“Do I start wearing sweater vests?”) Beth spots a letter tucked underneath Annie’s pillow.
William rarely did anything without intention. Especially in the final weeks of his life, every single decision he made ensured that the people in his life knew how special they were to him. So of course, in his final letter to Tess and Annie, he knew just what to say. Rather than let Randall and Beth plan his memorial, he asks Tess and Annie to do it. After all, “adults make these things sad, and I want you two to make it fun.” The change in the girls from the beginning of the letter to the end is palpable. They take their mission so seriously, especially their grandfather’s request that it be joyful. Tess and Annie share mischievous smiles, and immediately scrap the plans Beth’s plans for catering and white doves. Randall asks just one thing of his girls: permission to deliver a eulogy. But eulogies are sad affairs, so it’s retitled a toast, and Tess and Annie agree.
The Pearsons aren’t the only ones mourning William. I had wondered how Jesse would be included in the memorial, and his call to Randall is full of grace. Knowing himself and the danger of a potential relapse, Jesse has decided to stay in Chicago, but he wants to be sure that Randall knows how much William was loved by him and all of the people in their NA group. Jesse specifically passes along the well wishes of a gentleman named Sebastian, an athlete who started attending NA after an addiction to pain pills. Since no one at the group was into sports, William feigned an interest in football, hoping it would give Sebastian someone to connect with. Jesse and Randall’s conversation is painful and quiet and beautifully written. These two haven’t had the chance to get to know one another, and outside of William, they don’t have much of a connection. But William is enough, and they both feel the need to honor him, to share stories, to laugh when they can, to celebrate his memory. Randall won’t have many people in his life with which he can share those memories, and I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Jesse.
When the neighborhood mailman brings in a perishable box from Randall’s office, it gives him another opportunity to learn the extent to which William was “a soft arm rest for weary souls to lean on.” After getting to know each other on his morning walks, the neighborhood mailman is devastated to hear of William’s passing. I was so moved to hear him say simply that “this neighborhood will miss him.” Immediately, I flashed to the first of William’s walks, when his mere presence was enough to make the neighbors call the cops. The subtle racism of the suburbs can’t be handled simply, but his impact on the neighborhood is felt in that one line alone.
Slowly but surely, as the day unfolds, Randall comes back to himself. He greets Rebecca, Miguel, Toby, Kate and Kevin with an ultimate horrible joke: “welcome to the FUN-eral.” He’s able to honor William’s wishes, to let the celebration be a joyful one, and to make bad jokes to his family again. His face is still strained, of course, but it’s good to see Randall continuing to heal after his breakdown, in spite of William’s loss. Beth, however, has spent the last few days just a little off kilter. She’s tense with Randall and clearly showing signs of strain.< Tess and Annie have orchestrated the perfect celebration to honor their grandfather; William’s Perfect Day, complete with streamers, breakfast food, and his morning medication in the form of M&M’s. It’s the pills that finally trigger Beth, and she steps away from the memorial, staring at the cabinet full of prescriptions that she’d refilled while William was in Memphis. While the girls have been able to plan the memorial, and Randall got the trip to Memphis, Beth has been left without a way to say goodbye. It’s very possible that Beth knew William the best out of all the Pearsons; after all, she was spending days working from home, acting as his caregiver, sharing in the joys of his daily life.
When it comes time for Randall to give the toast, he passes Annie’s pink karaoke machine microphone to Beth instead, hoping to give her the closure she needs. She takes a breath, admits her anger, and remembers William as her friend. Her friend, who hummed while he brushed his teeth and danced the Charleston in their living room. Knowing him as well as she did, and loving him so much, Beth’s toast captures William’s spirit completely: “William’s moves weren’t fast, but they were endearing as hell. He was endearing as hell.”
The whole family heads out to continue the day with William’s walk, complete with colorful plastic hats for the everyone (and William’s real hat for Randall). As the Pearson clan meanders down the road, Rebecca finally comes up to Randall to say her piece. Things haven’t been the same between them since Thanksgiving, and she had been anxious about attending the memorial at all. With William’s passing, Rebecca’s guilt has reached a level that must have felt unbearable. Of course it’s not her fault that William was ill, or that Randall found him so late in his life. But she feels a sense of responsibility for the pain of this loss, especially after seeing how deeply the rest of the family had bonded with William. She needs to explain herself to Randall once and for all, and while he doesn’t seem to need to hear it anymore, he knows that SHE needs to tell him. The lie had simply grown too big, too insurmountable, and year after year, she wasn’t able to tell her son the truth. Randall wouldn’t have been able to forgive her before Memphis, and certainly not before his breakdown. He hadn’t yet felt the pain of the betrayal, hadn’t opened himself up to accept what Rebecca had done. But now, with William gone and his recent anxiety healing, he’s able to truly hear and forgive her.
Up until this episode, I’d been very complimentary of Randall’s work environment. He clearly worked too hard, but it seemed more self-inflicted, less pressure from above. But as soon as Randall opened the note on the box of pears, my hackles were raised. So when Randall took off after Kevin’s play to head to the office (at 10pm, knowing they were all still working) I was disappointed in their behavior. But after learning about Randall’s severe pear allergy, AND the fact that his boss knew of it? Clearly Randall’s attitudes about work weren’t only coming from himself and his inner perfectionist. Finally, Randall has a moment of perfect clarity, and he knows just how to honor William’s legacy. By quitting, slowing down, spending more time with his family. Walking instead of running. Spending more time with his mailman. He passes his accounts off to Sanjay and leaves the office for the last time, “in triumph.”
William Hill was many things. Thoughtless was certainly not one of them. There was simply no way he would leave Beth out of his farewells, and the whole episode, I was waiting for Beth to check the mail. Sure enough, the postcard he promised arrived from Memphis, and it’s so very William. Classy, old school, honest, and creative. Amidst a smiley face and pen-drawn musical notes, he wrote: “Told you I’d send you a postcard. Goodbye my dearest Beth, the daughter I never had. Love, William.”
After leaving Sloane on stage alone for their opening night, Kevin’s production has been scheduled to re-open with the full cast intact. While the show has certainly taken a blow, it seems to be a relatively painless process for them to stage a second opening night, but there’s one significant change from the first. New York Times Theatre Critic Brandon Novak (a Brantley stand-in if I’ve ever seen one) is refusing to attend, leaving the Back of an Egg without the all-important New York Times review. Kevin’s on a mission to get Novak to change his mind, but to his credit, he won’t involve Randall’s breakdown in his efforts. (“I can’t tell them Randall’s business, he’s been through enough.”) Kevin’s ego and professional pride won’t let him give up on changing the critic’s mind, though, and several voicemails and bribes to his assistant later, we find Kevin storming into Novak’s office, pleading for a second chance.
Novak gives voice to every single one of the inner-most fears that Kevin has carried with him throughout the season. He plainly states that he believes Kevin was a no-show at his opening night because he choked – that without “five takes and a laugh track,” he doesn’t stand a chance and can’t possibly be taken seriously as an actor. Kevin doesn’t break, and doesn’t throw his brother under the bus, but takes it all in stride and keeps trying to make his case.
One benefit of moving the opening night is that Sophie is able to attend – but she’ll only watch from the back of the house, and insists that she won’t see the Pearson clan, “especially Kate.” Their relationship is still tentative; she’s not ready to have sex with him again, and while they’re dating exclusively, there’s still the feeling that Sophie is holding something back emotionally. That said, she clearly has that same ability to cut through Kevin’s bullshit that Sloane did. Her throw-away line that Kevin’s sexy when he’s loyal but not when he brags about it sums up his entire character so completely. He’s a good man, but he can get distracted by his blind ego in the blink of an eye. Whether it’s their history or an inner quality that Sophie has, Kevin’s able to hear things from her that he can’t hear from others. These two have such an ease with each other; the kind of ease that comes from decades of knowing and loving one another. She practically skips backstage while he’s warming up, wielding a crutch from the ER so he’ll have something to stand on after he breaks his leg.
Turns out, he needs that crutch; Kevin absolutely nails the performance, and while Novak’s not there to see it, his whole family is. Their pride for Kevin in that moment is so gorgeous. After the crowds scatter, Kevin tells Sophie that he knows now that he came back to the city to “win back my girl” – and that might be part of it, sure. But perhaps more importantly, look at the bridges he’s built with his brother, and that he’s begun to build with Miguel. None of that would have happened on the west coast, and Kevin is all the better for it.
After the performance, something gives way for Sophie. She believes Kevin’s promise that he’ll be there for her, and that he’s truly in it after all this time. They’re about to test that connection, and far sooner than they should. There was no Times critic in the audience that night, but thanks to a young Manny fan with a convenient Uncle, there was a Ron Howard. And he’s hoping to coax Kevin back to LA to shoot a film for several months. Considering a bi-coastal relationship was what began their split in the first place, this is a tall order for Kevin and Sophie’s burgeoning relationship. Kevin can’t possibly turn it down, but he has to know to proceed with caution.
The impending LA exodus isn’t limited to Kevin; Toby is anxious to get back to LA so he and Kate can move in together and resume their old lives. Kate, though, has a mission to attend to first, and it’s fulfilling Tess and Annie’s request for 50 rainbow balloons. Kate is her best badass self on this call, and if her going back to LA means we can get more Professional Kate Getting Shit Done, I’ll allow it. (Especially with lines like “Oh I don’t know, Sharon, CAN you help me?”)
Toby, though, senses that something else is going on for Kate in this moment. She IS concerned for Randall, and wants to do exactly what the girls have asked, to the letter. Fifty balloons, not 49. Toby’s quick to dismiss that drive as a shield for her grief – but he’s not completely wrong. This is a complicated time for Kate. She’s just been dismissed from a program that was working for her, and was finally starting to open up her emotional work on Jack’s death, only to be thrown out without completing that work. To be faced now with the funeral of her brother’s biological father is almost too much to take.
Beth’s toast in honor of William is Kate’s breaking point. And while she refuses to speak to Toby, when Randall follows her outside, she quickly falls into his arms. I loved this scene, and a moment with just Kate and Randall was overdue. Their relationship is so gentle and supportive, and they trust each other completely. Kate’s grief for Randall is wrapped up in her own, but it never once diminishes her sorrow for her brother. Kate is the one to hear about Randall’s dream: that Jack and William finally met, shared stories, heard each other laugh. And while it’s cruel that Kate has been pulled away from a system that was working for her, it’s important that she’s in a place to keep doing the work right now. Randall can see that, and takes the opportunity to remind her that he of all people knows the importance of expressing one’s feelings before they build up beyond recognition. Kate agrees, and pulls Toby aside to tell him she’s ready to talk – later, though, after Kevin’s show.
When the time comes, Kate takes the opportunity to brag about Kevin – she’s SO proud of her twin, and so thrilled to see that all his hard work has paid off. Toby, now that the door has been opened, doesn’t want to let it shut, and asks again about Jack’s death. Kate takes a deep breath and finally admits the piece of the puzzle that has plagued her for years. We know that it was her wish that Jack drive to Cleveland, and we’re lead to believe that she was the last person to speak to him on the phone: and for half her life, she’s blamed herself for his death.
Colors of the Painting
- Sterling K. Brown is the master of many things, but most devastatingly, he’s the master of the single tear. One falls down his face when he speaks to Kate about Jack, and again when he hears Rebecca out. I really don’t know how he does it.
- It could have gone without saying, but I for one was glad to hear Kate acknowledge the emotional trauma that Randall must feel going through the loss of a father not once, but twice.
- “I meant what I said, but I’m a grown-ass man and this is gonna cross a very weird line.”
- William’s Perfect Day is a clear call back to the Pearson Family Thanksgiving Traditions, with heightened recreations of their family’s habits. It’s worked well enough both times so far, but I’m wary of this becoming a repeated plot device.
- Kevin hasn’t had a lot of time with Tess and Annie so I loved seeing him lead William’s walk, holding hands with both his nieces.
- I’ve always loved Beth, not to mention Susan Kelechi Watson’s performance, but this week especially she deserves a shout out. I need to see a LOT more of her in season two.
- “Are you gonna leave me here with a floundering career and a lukewarm Americano?”
- “Stage penis is so 2015.”
What did you think of the penultimate episode of Season 1? Are you ready for the finale? Let us know in the comments.