This Is Us Season 2, Episode 15
Posted by Shannon
In retrospect, it was a mercy to have these most recent two episodes air within three days of each other. After building up to “Super Bowl Sunday” for most of the past two seasons, This Is Us yanked the bandaid off and went directly into Jack’s funeral. Just as a washing machine opened the doors of the Pearson home last year, the family Wagoneer guides us through his memorial. It’s a more obvious pairing than the washing machine; I might be a car-less city dweller now, but I still remember the one car I’ve ever owned with an overwhelming amount of sentimentality. There’s just something about cars that are deeply representative of our lives. We name them, sing in them, yell in them, learn in them. They are, in many ways, second homes. And for the Pearsons at this stage in the game, it’s the only home they have.
This portion of the episode is essentially a series of vignettes, each encapsulating a different important moment in the lives of the Pearsons. We begin at the beginning: finding and buying the family car. The kids hurricane their way into the car dealership while Jack and Rebecca come through with a plan. Rebecca claims to be shocked at Jack’s intention to “use” the kids as “walking embodiments of why we’re so strapped for cash,” but she hops to immediately with her own demands; the car must be reliable, affordable, and safe above all else. Mel the Car Guy (his formal name as far as I’m concerned) walks them to the used cars outside, but Jack’s got a glint in his eye when he sees all three of his kids pile into the Wagoneer. Even if we didn’t know how this would end up, it would be SO obvious that he’s not settling for anything else. In a blink, he’s made a deal and nabbed the car.
One of their early adventures in the Wagoneer is to the kid’s first concert. (It’s Weird Al, because of course it is.) We all have our own irrational fears, and as it turns out, Rebecca’s is a rickety old bridge that must be crossed to get to the venue. This whole scene is charming and lovely and sweet, but I was so struck by what it said about Rebecca’s boys and how they react to seeing her in a crisis. Kevin, ever the actor, immediately offers a performance and jumps in with a rendition of his favorite Weird Al song, while Randall’s first thought was to start reciting all the phobias he’s memorized, up to and including fear of bridges. These two could not be more polar opposites. It’s cute (mostly) when they’re kids, but once they enter teen years, their antagonism towards each other just gets worse and even occasionally dangerous.
Years later, while Jack teaches Randall how to drive, Kevin spends the whole time in the backseat riling up his brother. It’s a perfect example of how toxic Kevin’s actions could be; he KNOWS he’s getting to his brother and just does not care. The idea that there could be consequences, that Randall could get so flustered he almost crashes into an oncoming car, never occurs to him. After their close call, Jack kicks both kids out of the car and leaves them to walk home. (I am SO curious about that walk. I’m betting they either never said a word to each other or spent the entire time grumbling about something seemingly unrelated.) When they meander back into the driveway to apologize, they both just look generally miserable to be in each other’s presence. It’s too much for Jack to take. All he had growing up was Nicky, and to see his own sons actively treating their brotherhood as something to be dismissed, ignored, and derided breaks his heart. He knows they’ll need each other, someday. Jack’s only hope is that when that day comes, his sons can get their shit together enough to be there for each other. And they do.
(See, Kevin? He WOULD be proud of you.)
Lest the family vignettes focus too much on Randall and Kevin, we’re gifted with a gem of a scene between Jack and Kate. On his way to work in the middle of the week, Jack drives past a bus stop and sees a familiar teenage silhouette sitting on one of the benches. Found out, Kate rushes to assure Jack that she’s not skipping out on any tests and that she has an excellent reason for being at a bus stop at 10am on a Thursday. This badass kid, who I DEFINITELY would have been friends with in high school thank you very much, played hooky from class to get her copy of Jagged Little Pill signed by Alanis Morissette. (“Alanis, not Atlantis.”) Despite Kate’s best efforts, Jack’s eyes glaze over when she tries to play him “All I Really Want,” which he writes off as “complaining with a guitar.” (Oh, Jack. Thank you for reminding us that no man is perfect.) He tries to steer the conversation towards Bruce Springsteen, never imagining that Kate could find the perfect connection between the two artists: “They make you feel like they’re your best friends, but also you at the very same time.” Jack wants his kids to be the happiest, most fulfilled versions of themselves, even if it means going for a dream that might be lofty to the point of impracticality. He’s walked away from his own dream in an effort to make sure his kids never have to do that themselves. So of course he encourages her to keep writing, to consider music as her career.
The only scene we get pre-Wagoneer is one that fills in the blanks of Jack’s favorite tree. Before she was pregnant, Rebecca had a serious health scare triggered by an ear issue. In Rebecca’s case, her inner ear problems presented as dizzy spells which potentially shared symptoms with a brain tumor. (As if inner ear and balance issues weren’t terrifying enough.) Rather than going home to wait for the hospital to call with her MRI results, which would make anyone nervous to the point of losing their shit, Jack takes her on a drive to his favorite tree. It’s one of Jack’s perfect spur-of-the-moment distractions. He didn’t have a favorite tree before now, he was just driving around until he could find a peaceful spot close to a payphone. It’s exactly what Rebecca needs to take her mind off things, and it doesn’t hurt that the snowfall makes the whole sequence painfully picturesque. Jack’s right, of course; this wasn’t the day the world gave them bad news. When the Doctor does page, it’s to assure them that Rebecca’s just fine
Jack’s instincts are a little bit magic. He can, sometimes, somehow, seem like he knows something before it happens. Something in his eyes at the hospital last week seemed to know it would be the last time he saw his wife. Something in his assurances to Kevin that he’d find a new passion, or that their house was meant to be their house, are spoken with such a deep and profound level of confidence that before you know it, you’re swept up in a picture of the future that Jack somehow knows to be true. He does the same thing with Mel, back in the car dealership at the end of the episode. When Jack knows something, he just KNOWS it. And after getting back in their old car, he admits that he wasn’t joking when he said Rebecca would live forever. It’s a mystical line, but at the very least, Jack seems to know that Rebecca will outlive him. It’s telling, too, that Rebecca knows he’s serious. She doesn’t immediately rush to change the subject and gives him the space to say what he needs to say. And he’s at peace with it, even all those years ago. He has his priorities: that his kids and his wife be safe, that they’re provided for, that they dream their biggest dreams. That they’re okay.
Whenever This Is Us scores a scene in silence, sit up and pay attention. With the kids staying in a nearby motel, Rebecca has to drive over to pick them up for the service. She still has that look of detached determination that originated at the hospital, and she spends a few moments registering her surroundings without so much as the sound of her own breath to distract her. Rebecca takes stock of her husband’s old coffee cup from their latest grocery run, finds the Bruce Springsteen tickets he’d bought for a surprise that Saturday night. Nothing seems to impact her, except a vague agitation at the kids for not moving fast enough. Rebecca is passing through this stage of her mourning with a laser focus. She’s steadfast. It doesn’t matter that the service isn’t for several hours; the family must get there before the urn. She isn’t tipped off to the impending explosion between her sons (and if she is, she ignores it), and barely blinks when Kate admits that she’s thinking of giving Louie away. It’s not that Rebecca isn’t paying attention to her kids here; she is. But for her to physically drive them there, for her to show up at all, and for her not to lose it, she HAS to keep her head down and push through.
She keeps steady through the memorial service, too. It’s as if Rebecca’s out of her body. As the audience, we register their surroundings; a perfectly fine pastor says some words. Miguel gives a eulogy. Randall is the only one of the Big Three to say anything publicly; I’d assume it’s because he’s the only one who wanted to, though this certainly plays into the impending fight between him and Kevin. But all the while, Rebecca is gazing out into the distance. Memorials, just like any other type of public acknowledgement of a life changed, are so often not about the people closest to the blast. They’re for everyone else to celebrate, or mourn, or pay their respects, while those in the middle of everything go through the motions.
Randall is going through the motions in his own way, which is to say he’s making sure everyone in attendance feels acknowledged. He’s playing the public face of the Pearsons. While it must be taking at toll, he’s also the only one who feels like he CAN play that part right now. Kevin wouldn’t want to do what Randall is doing; he wouldn’t want to shake hands with his dad’s coworkers or mingle through the room. But he sees his brother doing those things, and assumes it’s Randall acting as the new patriarch. Of COURSE he snaps. Jack’s watch is a representation of everything Kevin has felt for years; that his mother favors Randall, that he’s the more capable, more dependable son. Kevin can plug into some internalized toxic masculinity bullshit, but yelling at his brother in the middle of their father’s memorial that a “real man” wouldn’t have let Jack go back in the house really hits a new low.
With her sons at each other’s throats and her daughter blaming herself for Jack’s death, Rebecca is in dire need of someone to cry with, someone she doesn’t need to protect or guard. Miguel would be too in his own head, as we saw last week. And it’s frankly a blessing that Rebecca’s mother is nowhere to be seen. So when Gerald McRaney, our beloved Dr. K, showed up outside the service, I immediately started bawling and simultaneously yelling that he was exactly what she needed. Everything about this scene was perfect. Rebecca’s walls come crashing down the moment she sees him. She knows he’s there to support her – just her – in whatever way she needs. And so she opens up completely, admitting that she’s been following the urn around because of her guilt at not being there the moment Jack passed. Rebecca’s not just mourning her husband; she’s terrified to suddenly find herself a single mother of three. Dr. K hits a masterful balance in all of his responses. He’s cautious and considerate when admitting that he knows a few of Jack’s secrets, but he’s also not afraid to be firm with her when she spirals into full scale self doubt. After all, Dr K. was there to bear witness to Rebecca’s strength in a way that she only otherwise shared with Jack. “You’re as tough as they come, Rebecca Pearson,” he insists, refusing to let her wrigle away from admitting her own strength. He comforts her, makes her laugh, lets her sit and cry and be scared. And he sets her up to do the same for her kids.
Dr. K knows what the hell he’s talking about; Rebecca Pearson is tough as nails. She knows this memorial isn’t what the four of them need. They need their own memorial, somewhere they can really be themselves, somewhere they can safely cry. So she swoops them all up and takes them to Jack’s tree. It’s the most Rebecca speaks the whole episode; she laughs about how terrible Jack was to watch movies with, she starts to tell the same story about her health scare over again. She’s HERSELF here, for the first time since Jack’s death. In the safety of their mother’s presence, without anyone else around, all three kids start to break down. Rebecca knows what they each need to hear, and while she also knows her kids won’t necessarily be able to let her words sink in, she HAS to say them. So she assures Kevin and Randall that their only job is to be 17 year old boys; to go on dates and hang out with their friend and “do a load of laundry every now and then.” And even though she knows that “no matter what I say, you’re gonna blame yourself,” Rebecca insists that Kate listen to her as she swears up and down that this wasn’t her responsibility; “He was a grown man, Kate, who made a choice.” With their arms around each other, the four remaining Pearsons scatter Jack’s ashes at his tree, leaving some for Kate to keep watch over. And, because both Jack and Rebecca always know exactly what their family needs even before they know why, she tells them what she found in the car that afternoon.
They’ll end the night at a Springsteen concert, honoring their father precisely as he’d have wanted. It might even be at the same venue as their first concert together, over that rickety, frightening bridge. But this time, Rebecca drives right over it, with barely a blink and a deep breath. They’re okay.
Colors of the Painting
- It’s subtle, but when Rebecca flips through the Springsteen tickets, she has a few visible burns on her hands. That hellscape fire was so recent even though it feels a lifetime away, and props to the makeup department for adding in that reminder.
- Another subtle and devastating makeup touch: when Rebecca wakes up to find Kate at the kitchen table, her face is still clearly marked with tear stains, even though she’s not actively crying.
- During their car dealership shopping extravaganza, the kids rattle off their requirements: for Kate, it’s all about a pink car, while Randall wanted four wheel drive because he is a tiny responsible adult.
- “Sitting is what I’m best at these days.” You and me both, Dr. K.
- Have you listened to “All I Really Want” lately? It’s so damn good. Here, take this. You’re all welcome.
- “Don’t you try and sell me what you can’t do because I’m too old, I’m too smart and I’m not buying it.”
- “Please don’t tell me that I’m gonna die on my way to a Weird Al Yankovic concert.”
- Give me a Bruce Springsteen cameo, NBC. I know you want to. He showed up for High Fidelity, he can show up for this.
What did you think of “The Car”? Let us know in the comments!