This Is Us Season Two, Episode 9
Posted by Shannon
The fall finale trilogy is beginning to resemble a kaleidoscope; with each turn of the camera, we see a new angle, gain a new awareness, and complete important sentences that were only throwaway comments the week prior. It’s a trick that echoes the show’s thesis; every color of the painting has its own story, its own history and its own deeply personal meaning for the individuals involved. Second on her feet and second in our trilogy, this week’s focus is on Kate – Kate, who in her 37th year, has suffered a miscarriage, with her whole family on the other side of the country. Kate, who even as a baby, didn’t feel comfortable going to her mother when she was feeling uneasy. Kate, who as a teenager, was the most mysterious of her siblings, hard to pin down and harder still for her mother to understand.
While Randall narrows in on Ivy League schools and Kevin snarks his way through an invitation for a free ride, Kate has yet to finish her list of five top colleges. Rebecca’s determined to make a connection with her only daughter, offering to go through the college book with her if she’s feeling overwhelmed by it all, but Kate isn’t at all interested in sharing this experience. It’s fair of Rebecca to wonder if Kate, with two equally determined brothers who know PRECISELY what they want, felt a little lost in the shuffle. (Honestly, that was my first guess – but I flipped a coin to pick my college major, so I know that general-humanities-struggle all too well. If it’d been heads, I’d have a History degree instead of English Lit. But I digress.)
Rebecca and Kate are in the prime of teen mother-daughter miscommunications. The tension between the two is palpable, as is Rebecca’s sheer desperation to help her daughter in any way possible. Their communication skills are at an all-time low, and neither can really hear what the other is saying. When Rebecca tries to help out by suggesting that Kate discover her passion at a liberal arts college somewhere, all Kate hears is that her mother thinks she’s passionless and shuts down the conversation immediately, giving a much more pleasant farewell to her dog than to her mom. Rebecca goes to put away Kate’s Walkman and finds a college application, just barely covered under a folder on her desk. I didn’t see this alone as snooping, really, but when Rebecca sees what the application is FOR – Berklee College of Music, complete with her allowance money for the fee – she goes full snoop, putting her daughter’s audition cassette in the boom box and hitting play.
Rebecca is so thrilled at her daughter’s dream, so insistent on being involved, that she can’t make it through a full day without approaching Kate about her Berklee application. When the two meet back up in the stands for Kevin’s football game, Rebecca is scheming from the beginning, anxious to give Kate a check for the application fee. This WAS an invasion of privacy, and Kate reacts accordingly. (“You went through my stuff?!?”) Rebecca apologizes, but she’s too excited by the possibility of Kate’s dream being something she can help with, not thinking that this might be exactly the reason why Kate wasn’t particularly interested in sharing her plans. I expected Rebecca’s next comment, “I thought you sounded terrific,” to be even more upsetting – actively listening to her audition tape without her permission was, to me, the bigger offense compared to finding an application that was laying practically in full view on her desk. But Kate is touched by the compliment, and the tension between the two begins to ease – until they hear the crack of Kevin’s injury, and rush to the hospital.
Once they’re settled, with nothing to distract them from Kevin’s fate but cold coffee, Kate apologizes for keeping her singing a secret, admitting that “If I don’t get in, I think it’ll crush me. But I just could not deal with disappointing you on top of that.” This is a pattern for Kate; it’s not just that she never wants to get her hopes up, it’s that she never wants her disappointments to burden those around her. For Rebecca, it’s a symbol of the relationship she had always hoped to have with her daughter, to no avail. Her own mother “a closed steel door,” Rebecca always wanted the opportunity to be different, to be a welcoming, supportive and loving mom to her daughter. But that isn’t the case for them, and it never really has been. (“Somehow, I dunno. We just never got there, did we.”) This is a tough parent-child dynamic on both sides, but when Rebecca started talking so frankly about how their relationship never clicked into place, I was immediately concerned for Kate – here goes another parent, insisting that she take on emotional burdens far beyond her years. But to Rebecca’s credit (cough cough TAKE NOTES, JACK cough cough) she knows it’s not Kate’s job to fix their relationship. And she makes it especially clear to Kate that the responsibility here sits with the adult, not on the kid. Rebecca will always be there, ready to help Kate when and if she needs it.
In the near-present day, Kate and Toby have moved into full on pregnancy excitement. Kate is taking prenatal vitamins, singing songs to the Flintstones theme, and making a list of question for her next doctor’s visit. (“I get in there and it’s like an alien abduction, everything just flies right out of my head.”) Toby is happily making her green smoothies and getting a head start on the dad jokes. (“When will the baby move?” “Hopefully as soon as he turns 18.”) Both of them have started making plans for changes to the house, and Toby has ordered a fancy Swedish baby bath which “fits most tubs.” It’s when Kate goes to measure the tub that she begins to feel the pains of her miscarriage.
For me, one of the most frustrating things about This Is Us is that their mistakes tend to be small, unnecessary stumbles, highlighting manipulations over the characters themselves. But I get frustrated because I KNOW they can do better. Because, when it comes to the big, tough, truly important stories – like Randall coming to terms with being the only Black person in his family, or William’s bisexuality being just a fact of his life – they nail it. For so, so many women, miscarriages are a fact of their personal life that never gets brought out into the public. It’s not spoken about, not shared, and so often, not deemed as “legitimate” cause to mourn. But it IS hugely important, and I can only imagine the kind of emotional trauma that can come from a miscarriage. This episode doesn’t shy away from any of that, and Kate is allowed the opportunity and space to move through her mourning in any ways she needs.
Upon hearing the news, Kate completely shuts down. They’re both heartbroken, but as Toby tries to talk about the future, Kate won’t even look at him. The two feel worlds away, both at the hospital and at home. Their loneliness, even while being in the same house, is completely tangible. The use of silence in these scenes was striking; Kate, looking in on the bathroom, flashes back to the previous night, with only the birds outside making a sound. She’s determined to carry on immediately, refusing to cancel a gig booked for that afternoon. Toby’s astounded that she’s even considering leaving the house (“I think you’re a little over dressed for a day of watching classic sitcoms and trying not to cry”). It’s only been twelve hours, but Kate is in complete self-preservation mode. She needs to keep busy, and needs to be completely self-sufficient while doing so. Toby is a reminder of everything she’s trying to ignore, and Kate pushes him away at every opportunity.
Of course, it’s way, way too soon for her to try to be out in public. Kate does make it to her gig, and even starts singing, but a little girl and her mom dancing along throw her into a panic attack. She bails half way through the set, headed out onto the street. Still, Kate is stubborn as hell – she doesn’t call Toby or anyone else for help, and continues to avoid her mom’s calls. Instead, she starts walking – and walks right to a chinese buffet. Kate even goes so far as to fill up her plate with dumplings and lo mein and on and on; but she stops there. After paying and leaving, without eating a bite, she heads back out into the city.
While Kate tries to struggle through her gig, Toby goes through his own flashbacks; he can’t stand to look at that shower curtain, and takes the whole hanger out to the garbage. Toby is mourning, too, but his focus is really on trying to keep Kate as healthy and supported as possible. Which means that, when he gets the delivery alert for the Swedish baby bath, Toby drives himself to the company’s dispatch center in an attempt to get the package before it’s delivered.
Remember how I said the most frustrating missteps in This Is US come from the smallest moments? Watching Toby physically threaten Karl, the dispatch driver, who is JUST TRYING TO DO HIS JOB, is Exhibit A in this argument. The idea is a lovely one, and the scene plays out well by its close, but no part of this required Toby to get in a stranger’s face, demanding that he do what Toby wants because “I am a large and powerful man.” This is unnecessary and threatening and it made me completely uncomfortable. Even just a few tweaks to the language here would have made all the difference. But still, Toby gets his way, and the dispatch driver lets him go through the center itself, searching for the package. The place is a maze, and when Toby finally gives up and goes back to his car, he lets himself feel the frustration and misery of the past day. But it’s not in vain; Karl finds the package after all, delivering it to Toby’s car.
With his mission accomplished, Toby heads back downtown to pick up Kate – but she’s already gone, and wasn’t thinking clearly enough to let him know the logistical change to their day. Instead, she’s back home, eyeing the now-removed shower curtain. Kate knows she needs to tell someone from the family, to get the news out and give herself the space to mourn, and since her mom was the one who kept calling, she’s the one Kate tells. (“I just wanted to tell you so that you know and it can be over.”) When Toby comes home in a panic, the stress and horror of their day finally catches up to their relationship, and they blow up at each other. Kate isn’t in a place to hear that Toby was worried about her (“Did you have a couple of emotional hours?”) and once the dam breaks, Kate lets everything go: she’s livid at Toby for letting her get excited, convinced that if she was able to stay in a mindset of fear then this wouldn’t hurt as much. She finally pushes too hard, yelling that “It happened to me, it didn’t happen to you.” Physically, she’s right, but Toby isn’t trying to take ownership of that experience. To his credit, he’s ready to be there for her in any way she needs – “but what I will not do, what is not fair for you to do, is to tell me that I wasn’t a part of this.” They both know they’ve hit a wall, and they retreat to their corners; Kate naps on the couch, and Toby heads out for some air.
When Kate and Rebecca finally talked on the phone and Kate told her what had happened, her mom’s immediate response was to ask what she could do. And while Kate wasn’t in a place to answer that question – even hanging up as her mother asked it – Rebecca knew the answer already. It’s to show up, without making any demands on her daughter, without a plan or an overnight bag – just to show up and be there. When Kate sees Rebecca on the other side of the door, she takes a beat – and then finally feels all the sadness and pain she’s fought to keep hidden, and lets herself cry.
Rebecca knows this pain, too. She knows that Kate’s a jumble of emotions, hormones, and mourning, and she knows the cycle of blame that Kate is putting herself through; first the shock and sorrow, then wondering if something SHE did set this all off. No one is at fault for these losses, but both Rebecca and Kate tried to blame themselves; and they both insist that the other let go of that blame. (“It wasn’t your fault.” “And it wasn’t yours.”) Both women have tried to keep their pain away from their partners, too; Kate has been so vicious to Toby because, in part, she feels like she robbed Toby of his experience. All those years ago, Rebecca tried just not sharing her grief at all, which only lead to her having a breakdown in a grocery store about a bag of yellow onions.
It’s not easy to come back from decades of distrust. Kate and Rebecca have had a hard relationship, full of miscommunication and angst and blame that we very likely haven’t truly understood yet. But for the two to sit and share their stories on the couch, knowing that the other was there, and that each truly understood what the other was feeling like no one else in their lives? That goes a long way towards healing. And after spending the afternoon cuddled on the couch with her mom, Kate is in a far better place than when she woke up. When Toby comes home, she’s ready to talk to him, ready to admit where her bitterness was coming from, and willing to try again – when she’s ready. They fish the shower curtain back from outside and re-hang it, relieved, moved, and stronger than ever.
Colors of the Painting
- I would listen to Hannah Zeile sing “Summertime” all day long. Her audition tape performance perfectly balanced both nerves and excitement, and the song itself was phenomenal. I hope we get the chance to hear her sing again sooner rather than later.
- Rebecca’s exceptional taste in hats continues, with a cozy rose beret in her grocery store flashback and a gorgeous blue beret in the stands for Kevin’s game.
- Jason Rogel, who played Karl, absolutely nailed the dispatch scenes, giving Chris Sullivan just the right levels for his reactions. Small roles really can make or break an episode, and Jason Rogel made it.
- “Randall is gonna go major in some Math thing that none of us will understand.”
While we wait for the trilogy to complete with “Number Three,” let us know your thoughts on “Number Two” in the comments!