This Is Us Season 2, Episode 8
Posted by Shannon
The first half of the season is winding down with a structured trilogy of episodes focused on each of the Big Three. Personally, I love this idea; This Is Us hasn’t played with its structure as much this year, and if “Number One” is any example, this trilogy will play right into my favorite parts of the show, examining thoughtful, emotional mirrors from three decades of each character’s personal growth. Since baby Kevin was the first one on his feet, we get his story first. And while he might have been nicknamed “number one,” as I’ve often pointed out, he’s always second or third in line for his parents’ affection. The pressure and contradiction of those two emotional realities sit heavily on Kevin’s shoulders; it’s an impossible position and rife with turmoil. And no matter the age, for Kevin, that goes straight to his bones.
Since leaving Sophie’s doorstep, Kevin has been holed up in an extravagant LA hotel room with a hell of a view. He’s lost at least a week to vicodin and vodka bottles, numbing himself in every way possible. Despite his “do not disturb” sign, the housekeeper Martina knocks on his door, interrupting what was likely a long string of days without human contact for the sake of some new towels and bedsheets. Kevin’s behavior towards Martina is a sad, dulled echo of his normal self. He tries for some banter, and even succeeds a bit, but half of his comments come out with a much harder edge than usual. (“And yet here you are. Disturbing.”) Kevin’s been ignoring Kate’s calls, too, and when he finally picks up the phone to tell her to stop calling him “every 15 seconds,” Kevin instead finds himself on the other line with Kelly, a high school student at his alma mater McKinley, calling to confirm his attendance at the alumni honors ceremony the following day.
Kevin’s lost all sense of time and date, and is shocked to hear that his east coast obligation is so soon. (“Uh-huh, yep, tomorrow’s the 20th.”) But he’d already planned to come home for Thanksgiving, and with a shove from Martina (“Is it outside this room? If it’s outside this room, you should go.”) he gets himself back on a plane headed to Pittsburgh. High school reunions of any kind are complicated, emotionally taxing, and jumbled in the best of circumstances; and these are certainly not the best of circumstances. Faced with his old hometown alone, with no one to keep him company, Kevin comes face to face with his high school self.
While Kate listens to music and Randall finishes his application to Harvard, 17 year old Kevin is getting ready for a home visit from the head coach at Pitt. And by getting ready, I mean refusing to change out of sweatpants and Sophie’s football tee. While it makes for a hell of a look, the deeper problem here is that Kevin could not bring himself to show a modicum of respect to anyone around him. His teenage football star ego is out of control. That alone would have made him insufferable, but early on in the hour we also see him acting out against his father’s recovery, complaining about Jack’s worksheets and muttering not-so-quietly that “it’s just so lame.” Kevin finally agrees to put on “a collared shirt and pants with a fly,” but he refuses to adjust his attitude when Coach Walter arrives from Pitt.
Jack and Rebecca watch, mortified, as Kevin belittles both Coach Walter and his football program. All of their attempts to get him to behave like a remotely humble human being fall on deaf ears, and when Coach Walter leaves, Jack has had it. It’s not just the rudeness (“That man, he takes time out of his day, he comes to our home, he sits at our table!”) – it’s that, despite Kevin’s behavior, Coach Walter offered him a full scholarship. School isn’t Kevin’s strong suit, and as a C+ student from a middle class family, a full scholarship is nothing to scoff at. But Kevin does just that, hissing “It’s not luck. It’s talent,” and insisting that they can do better. It’s not just that Kevin doesn’t fully appreciate this offer; it’s that he takes it for granted, assuming that this is truly what he deserves. When Jack insists that Kevin write an apology letter, Kevin throws it back in his face, snipping that Jack is projecting his 12-step recovery onto him. Neither of them are in a space to have a real conversation about the deeper issues here, and they quickly devolve into that very specific type of teen/parent fight equally rife with cruelty and honesty. (“It was embarrassing to watch you behave just like you did.” “I know the feeling.”)
After the dust settles and they find each other in the kitchen, Jack apologizes for his outburst and tries to have a genuine conversation with his son. But Kevin still can’t be bothered, brushing off Jack’s gentle “what’s going on with you, Kev?” Later that night, while Kevin struggles to write his apology letter, he comes back up to the kitchen and finds Jack on the phone with his sponsor. Kevin’s watches Jack practice the prayer for serenity, his face a jumble of contradictions. In one flash he seems moved and emotional, in another, ashamed and even disgusted. One thing is certain – he’s a mess of complicated emotions, and he’s refusing to address any of them.
The same can be said for the 37 year old Kevin who lands, miserable and stoned, back in Pittsburgh. He still stops to take selfies with the occasional fan, but there’s no soul behind his eyes. Plus, Kevin’s out of vicodin (again) and after freaking out his driver by asking if he has a hook up for pain pills, Kevin shrugs it off as a joke and asks for something a little more manageable – a detour to his old house. I understand what drives him here, but as Kevin stared at the new house, remembering his childhood football games in the yard, all I could think was that this was the fastest way for him to guarantee his own breakdown. He’s a mess of memories and nightmares, and barely even speaks when the current occupant comes out to see what all the fuss is about.
The next stop on Kevin’s emotional onslaught tour is McKinley High itself. His visions, which began last week, are veering into hallucinations. When Kevin meets Kelly, the alumni coordinator from the phone, all he can see is Sophie – and as he walks the halls of his old school, his grasp on reality continues to blur. At the reception for fellow honorees, Kevin starts to feel his withdrawal and asks for red wine as quickly as possible. And the fastest way to wine is to grab someone else’s: enter Charlotte, a plastic surgeon specializing in burn victims. She’s being honored too, and still harbors a crush on Kevin from her own school days. Charlotte’s got the classic signs of a nervous crush, but she’s a sweetheart too, asking after Kate and Sophie and keeping an eye on Kevin’s red wine consumption – which, she assumes, is just to help calm his nerves before his speech. Because of course there’s a speech.
His high school football coach has even returned from retirement to present him with the alumni honor. Suddenly, Kevin is faced with someone who truly knows what he went through all those years ago. And since he can’t hide from the past anymore, his visions begin to torture him. As everything rushes to the surface, Kevin’s addled brain sees what he desperately wants; Jack, completely and utterly proud of him, asserting that “this kid is tough as hell.” Kevin’s misery begins to overwhelm him, and while he physically takes the award from his old coach, he can never accept it. Kevin tries to re-set everyone’s expectations of him, insisting that “I’m not strong. At all.” He tries desperately to be heard, to be understood – but all anyone hears is an “amazing speech,” worthy of cheers, accolades and a standing ovation. No one hears what he’s actually trying to say.
Throughout his whole life, Kevin has projected an air of confidence, self assuredness, total and complete ease. But there IS something else going on under the surface, and there always has been. After he leaves the award ceremony and walks around the school yard with Charlotte, Kevin begins to genuinely talk through his emotional barriers. He knows he’s had it easy his whole life, knows that he regularly got chances he didn’t earn. His whole life has been a privilege, and somewhere inside of him, Kevin knows that. (“I didn’t ask for it, I just got it.”) But where his family is concerned (maybe the thing that matters more to him than anything else, though he would never admit it) he’s never truly been first. And so he never lets himself be seen, never lets himself open up or be vulnerable.
Which brings us to the penultimate stop on Kevin’s emotional trauma tour. We’ve known for a while that Kevin’s football career was torpedoed after an injury in high school, and that Kevin’s leg was still in a cast when Jack died. But we haven’t known how, or really when. Half-way through his senior year, with his teenage ego at its height and his dad and brother out of town on a college visit, Kevin took a gruesome hit to his leg. As soon as they heard the crack, Rebecca and Kate knew that something was deeply, horribly wrong – and sure enough, an MRI showed a catastrophic injury. Just months ahead of full scholarships and college football, Kevin could never play again.
Twenty years later, fueled by red wine and the fumes of prescription meds, Kevin returns to the scene of his injury, forcing himself to remember every single play – and every single one of his most painful moments since that last game. He goes through each and every chance he got, forcing himself to remember and admit his carelessness – and the accolades that still, somehow, follow him. (“What can this kid not do? Can’t go four hours without a vicodin, but everybody loves him anyway.”) His divorce with Sophie – caused by his infidelity – was rewarded with The Manny. His set walk-out was rewarded with getting Sophie back, and an even bigger break into film. And now, with his injury prompting an addition (for what seems to be the first time in his life), he’s self destructed and wrecked everything he holds dear. And still, a standing ovation at his alma mater, and an award he feels he doesn’t deserve. Still, Kevin knows, “even when he tries to tell people how pathetic he is, they just, they don’t hear it.”
But still, Kevin’s yet to hit rock bottom. He heads back to the reception to pick up Charlotte, insisting that they go to her place rather than to his hotel, and there, he begins to hit the depths of withdrawals. Kevin’s sweating, badly, and asks Charlotte to pull together a midnight snack. Listen, Kevin can be dumb, but he can also be conniving. Charlotte is a doctor, and remember, he was already looking for a refill from his car driver back when he first pulled up to the house. Kevin knew what he was doing, and knew that he’d find a prescription pad somewhere in the room if he could just get enough time to look hard enough. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time he bailed after a one night stand, either, and without a second thought, Kevin takes off to the pharmacy. The only thing that stops him from filling his very illegal prescription is the realization that his necklace – the one thing he has left from Jack – is gone.
Jack had rushed back to Pittsburgh with Randall after hearing about Kevin’s injury, and he takes it upon himself to tell Kevin the harsh diagnosis. The bargaining that Kevin launched into with his father was heartbreaking; the worst case he’d allowed himself to think was that he’d miss playoffs, but this reality is far worse. Suddenly Pitt looks like a great football school (“I wrote that letter to Coach Walter, like you said, Dad, it was really nice…”) and Kevin even apologizes to Jack for his behavior, desperate for any possible kindness to somehow help heal his knee. Jack, knowing that nothing can help make this better for his son, places his own necklace on Kevin, holding his hand and promising that it will all be okay, somehow. I have to give a word for Logan Shroyer here; his performance is full of desperate hopelessness. He’s so nuanced, so genuine, and SO perfectly matched to Justin Hartley’s own breakdown that he took my breath away.
Finally, Kevin has hit rock bottom. He runs back to Charlotte’s house, banging on her door and screaming to let him back inside. She’s (understandably) mortified and insulted, and refuses to let him in. Despite Kevin’s screams that “It’s the only thing I have left in my life from my Dad,” Charlotte insists “I don’t have your damn necklace, just leave me alone.” She shuts the window, leaving Kevin sobbing on her front lawn. Kevin has refused to feel these feelings for years; just like his sister, sobbing at class, everything snaps inside him all at once. Kevin finally – and completely – breaks down. He’s ready to admit his addiction, ready to genuinely ask for help for the first time in his life, and again, he heads to his brother’s. Randall will always take his brother in, no matter what, and does it again here, thinking that he knows the reason for Kevin’s bloodshot eyes. Instead, Kevin learns the reason behind all the calls he’d been ignoring; Kate has had a miscarriage.
Colors of the Painting
- Once again, the music in this episode is top notch. Cat Stevens is a fixture for any father and son story, but “Where Do The Children Play” is such a Jack song that I can barely stand it.
- Kelly inviting Kevin out to party was deeply upsetting to say the least, but I admit I laughed at “Just the Manny I’ve been looking for.”
- When Kevin and Charlotte are in bed, he’s not wearing his necklace, so unless he somehow lost it on the football field, it *should* still be in her house.
- At least once, Rebecca and Kate were having what looked like tense, complicated conversations off-camera, and I suspect the director is lining us up for some simultaneous flashbacks during Kate’s episode.
- Teenage Randall called Kate “LL Cool K” and I need that to happen again immediately and often.
What are your thoughts on “Number One”? Let us know in the comments!