This is Us Season 2, Episode 1
“A Father’s Advice”
Posted by Shannon
Welcome back, Pearson clan! We’ve made it through a long summer hiatus, nabbed some statues along the way (STERLING, DARLING, CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR EMMY), and are picking up more or less right where we left off. The second season premiere has a few through lines, some more immediately cohesive than others. In the modern timeline, the Big Three are celebrating another birthday and marking some serious emotional milestones. For Jack and Rebecca, it’s the immediate aftermath of the tour and their blow-out fight. And for all of our main partnerships, there’s a distinct focus on the ups and downs of being pushed – pushed into an adoption, pushed into taking a family member in, pushed on stage, pushed, perhaps, into recovery. I have mixed feelings on the episode itself, but one thing’s for sure – I’m excited to unpack it all.
Jack and Rebecca
After the serious let down that was the Season One finale, it was honestly a relief to be back with the Jack and Rebecca we know and love – even if we spent most of this hour wallowing in one of their most painful times as a couple. It’s immediately after Rebecca leaves her tour, and the kids are understandably surprised to see her picking them up. Kate, though, sees that something is off. She has intel the others don’t; she knows Jack was heading to Rebecca’s gig, knows it must not have gone the way anyone planned. When the family pulls up to the diner and sees Jack waiting at a table, they all see the writing on the wall. I was struck by how honest Rebecca and Jack decided to be with the kids; Rebecca is clear that Ben crossed a line, and also acknowledges that Jack is staying at Miguel’s for a few nights because the two of them had a rough, emotional fight.
A couple things about the kid’s reactions jumped out at me here, and each of them sheds light on their unique relationships with Jack. Kate’s first thought is to offer to stay with Jack at Miguel’s. Kevin, in a predictable but no less annoying display of masculinity, checks his father’s knuckles after hearing about Ben. And Randall – Randall is ready to stay, sit, talk – but Jack asks him to leave, to “give your mom and I a sec, Buddy.” All three of those moments are slight, but relate right back to the Big Three’s characters as adults. Kate, constantly acting as her father’s keeper, Kevin following Kate immediately to check on her, Randall trying to help the family emotionally in whatever way he can. It’s touches like this that highlight the structure of This is Us at its best: allowing us to actually see the past informing the future with smaller, honest character moments.
Jack and Rebecca are clearly still raw. Rebecca isn’t ready to let Jack hold her hand (“I need to stop feeling so disappointed. I need to feel something else first.”). She’s desperate for a distraction, and, once at home, packs up the kids so they can all try to find said distraction in the latest Tom Hanks movie. Kate is despondent, and Randall is entirely focused on taking care of Rebecca. As the four sit in the theatre, we find out why; he had left the party early, come home, and overheard one of the nastiest exchanges his parents had had during their fight. Randall and Rebecca already had a strong connection. Hearing Jack belittle her like that must have been almost too much for him to take. It’s honestly no wonder he stormed out when Jack, well intentioned but condescendingly, called him “buddy.”
And what of Jack, over at Miguel’s and settling in for a few nights on the pull out couch? He’s refusing to accept sheets (“sheets are for long-term guests”) and constantly checking the phone to make sure the dial tone is working. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it just gets worse when Jack returns to the jazz club, begging the manager to give Rebecca a solo night on stage. It’s embarrassing, mortifying even, and I folded into myself when he went so far as to offer the manager money. On first watch, I was too busy flashing back to his gross season finale behavior and being generally horrified to wonder if he might have been drunk – but on rewatch, he almost definitely is. Not nearly as glassy eyed or stumbling as he gets later in the night, though.
When Rebecca goes over to Miguel’s house with the intention of setting things right between them, Jack’s a mess. Even as he listens to Rebecca’s assurances, his eyes can’t focus, and his face looks half-frozen. In that state, he can’t help but come clean about his behavior. Jack tries to convince Rebecca (and himself, honestly) that the right thing to do is to get his addiction under control before going home. Her shock in these moments is palpable, but ultimately, she won’t have it, and instead she steers Jack into the car, assuring him it’ll all be okay.
And here we have the major counterpoint to the show’s structure. At its best, we get those small character moments, and the understanding that the fabric of families, blood and chosen alike, outlives everything else. We feel the impact of a legacy. But the flipside is this kind of melodrama, which can veer all too quickly into outright manipulation. We KNOW it won’t be okay for Jack and Rebecca, and in the episode’s final moments, we see Rebecca, driving home after Jack has died, finding the Pearson family home entirely destroyed in a fire. It’s a shock, sure. But it also feels gimmicky, even careless to keep getting slowly-revealed pieces of this particular puzzle, especially the way this montage played out – with cutaways to the kids, sobbing, along with Rebecca’s voiceover that they’d all be ok. Instead of really feeling that moment, I personally felt voyeuristic and tired. The sooner we know what happened – the sooner the structure is refocused on revealing honest, resonant emotional growth and character development over months and years rather than solving the “mystery” of a fundamental tragedy – the better.
Randall and Beth
Right out of the gate in the modern storyline, I got one of my big hopes for Season Two met – Randall is staying home, taking care of the girls, while Beth gets back to work. He’s off to a predictably great start, cooking fabulous breakfasts and shutting down Annie’s problematically gendernormative questions about why he’s “being the girl.” (I have a hard time believing that these are the same kids that so casually schooled Randall on William’s bisexuality, but okay I guess.)
Randall is moving full-speed ahead on his adoption plan, freaking out neighbors with adorable babies, ignoring Beth’s clear signals that she’s having misgivings, and treating the appointment with an adoption agency as a birthday present. He actively requests a newborn boy, and it doesn’t take attendance in a single Psych 101 class to know why. At their first meeting with the agency, Beth can’t take it anymore and lays out all of Randall’s motivations. Sure, her delivery is a little brutal, but as usual Beth is absolutely and entirely correct. Randall follows her outside, joins her in a fake smoking session and the two start to get back into their groove – until Randall crosses a line, demanding that he NEEDS this exact type of adoption, and that Beth needs “to get your head around it.” Immediately, I flashed to Jack constantly making decisions FOR Rebecca, decisions that might have ended up right but that she didn’t get a say in. The continued dynamic of a husband pushing his wife into large, life-altering decisions – buying a house, adopting a baby – was repeating here in a way that was sitting wrong with me.
As it turns out, it was sitting wrong with Randall, too. Armed with the knowledge that often in adoptions, one spouse is driving and one is going along for the ride, he drops by Rebecca’s house to get the full story on his own adoption. And it takes a little nudging, but sure enough, Rebecca admits that this was one of those times that Jack insisted, and she went along with it. “I was tired and I was grieving but he kept pushing me,” she says, before pivoting to tell Randall how grateful she was to have that particular stranger become her son. Again, I got nervous here, worried that Randall would take all the wrong lessons from his mother. But his branch of this family tree is the undeniable highlight of this show for a reason.
I love this apology so much. It’s so good, in every possible way. Randall and Beth’s dynamic IS perfectly imperfect. This apology was everything Jack should have said, and never did. After all, Randall is the kid who saw, first-hand, his father minimizing his mother’s dreams, and as a result he refuses to bulldoze Beth in that way. And Beth – always one step ahead, always completely attuned to her family’s emotional state – notices Randall’s perfectionism spiral getting out from under him, and raises her hand to interrupt.
Every day, Beth has been visiting William’s favorite spot, a park in a less suburban, less fancy, less white part of town. It was there that William and Beth sat right before the Memphis road trip, there that Beth voiced her concerns to William about Randall’s newfound tendency to do exactly what Jack did so many times – to make decisions for her and the family, without so much as a warning to his wife. And in visiting that spot every day, Beth’s been watching the young black men who kick around the park, thinking that so easily, Randall could have been there himself not so many years ago. It’s not a newborn they should take in – it’s an older kid, one “who no one else in the whole damn world is gonna help.”
It’s perfect, of course, it’s perfect. Randall knows that Beth’s right before she even finishes her thought. It won’t be easy on them, but it’s exactly what they need to do. What a way to honor both of his fathers’ legacies.
Kevin, Kate, and Toby
The recently re-established LA contingent of the Pearson clan has settled in nicely to their new normal. Kevin spends his days collaborating with a tennis ball under the watchful eye of Ron Howard and facetimes with Sophie as often as he can. Kate and Toby are all moved in, and Kate is getting ready for her first big audition as a wedding band singer. The four had planned to go out on a double date to celebrate Kate and Kevin’s birthdays, but after Sophie’s mother’s MS acts up, Toby is left as the twins third wheel.
Kind reader, if you were wondering if my overwhelmingly negative feelings about Toby mellowed over the hiatus, let me assure you that they have not. He’s atrocious from the word go. After hearing about Sophie’s cancellation, his immediate reaction is to assume the whole thing is off – which would leave his supposedly future (I know, I know, it’s happening, but a girl can dream) brother-in-law entirely alone and without plans on what is also HIS birthday. Yeah, sure, he wants to spend the night alone with Kate but even if Kevin wasn’t family, leaving someone in the lurch for their birthday dinner is just cold. The twinning behavior from Kate and Kevin, which Toby treats with such disdain, was almost entirely charming. Kate is so excited to ask for Kevin’s opinion on her audition outfit, and he wonders if it looks a little bit like she’s trying too hard. (Yeah it’s kinda harsh, but my immediate reaction was that Kate needed to, in the wise words of Coco Chanel, look in the mirror and take one thing off, so I’m with Kevin here.) Despite Toby’s assurances that she looks great, Kate and Kevin go off to plan a new outfit.
Once at the audition, Kate almost immediately starts to feel overwhelmed. She flashes back to the pool, focuses in on the appearance of all the other women there (really, there are THAT MANY people at a wedding band audition?) and bails before her name is even called. When they arrive at the fancy restaurant, which Kevin bought out entirely, Kate avoids telling Toby that she bailed. I do not blame her for not wanting to talk about it. It’s her birthday dinner – it’s entirely HER call whether she wants to discuss it or not. It comes up, of course, after Toby toasts Kate’s bravery, and when Kevin leaps to her defense, all Toby can hear is that she told Kevin – HER TWIN – before she told him. Okay. I’m an only child, so I’m often clueless about sibling dynamics of all kinds. But my immediate reaction here was that not only can Kate tell, or not tell, whoever she damn well pleases about her day, but that a twin – especially when they’re as close as Kevin and Kate – gets an automatic pass to know pretty much anything before anyone else, ever. Toby is trying to close Kate’s life off to any man that’s not him, and it’s gross and creepy and I hate it.
This fight isn’t Kevin’s shining moment, either. He’s used to being Kate’s entire emotional support system, something we regularly see throughout their childhood, and admittedly he takes it too far here. Later on, when Kevin and Toby make up, it’s a more fairly minded argument that the two ultimately just need to learn how to get along, how to coexist while respecting each other’s space. Still, it’s a relief when Kate tells them both off, leaves them in the dust and goes back to the audition, demanding to be heard.
I had a bad feeling the second she got on stage that Kate, while remarkably talented, just isn’t trained enough for this right now. It felt like the kind of room where you get ten, maybe sixteen bars before being cut off, and sure enough she doesn’t make it through the first three lines of “Nothing Compares 2 U” before being shut down. Kate immediately assumes it’s because of her body type, but my first thought was that she sounded a little breathy, a little nervous, and just not good enough. The manager calls up his backup singer to do the same few bars, makes his point, and gives Kate some pointed but accurate criticism that “your range is limited and your falsetto blows.” These are the kinds of gig where your technical skills need to be perfect, and her aren’t. Not yet.
Kate’s disappointed, of course, but she’s also relieved. Her vocal abilities are something tangible that she can work on, something she knows she can improve, and something she has total and complete control over. And that’s something Kate – both as a character and in her own storyline – desperately needs.
Colors of the Painting
- “You alright, old man. I coulda done without the Manny in my basement for a year, but you alright.”
- I forget just how hot Justin Hartley is sometimes and then this kind of look happens.
- Jack and Miguel’s conversation felt strangely forced to me this week. I couldn’t tell if it was because Miguel thinks that Jack’s marriage is truly in trouble or because, perhaps out of any of the people in his life, Miguel had the best sense of Jack’s alcoholism.
- Okay, let’s talk about William. His theme opening the episode, his poem acting as a bookend, and his small but pivotal scene are the set pieces that really gave this episode its heart. I’m really, REALLY hoping that This Is Us can continue to find ways to feature William as often as possible, not just because Ron Cephas Jones steals every scene he’s in but because William Hill has been the subtle moral and emotional backbone to the entire show and I’m frankly a little worried about what will become of it without him.
- Blanket statement that I am here for all the Tom Hanks love.
- NOPE, still entirely too soon for this.
What are your thoughts on the season premiere? Let us know in the comments!