This Is Us Season 1, Episode 14
“I Call Marriage”
Posted by Shannon
The Valentine’s Day episode is still to come, but this week’s episode took the opportunity to focus in on love. What does it mean to love, in its many contexts and forms? Familial love, romantic love, and love of self all carry different burdens and challenges, and the Pearsons are struggling with the definitions and limits of this complex emotion. Some family members are handling it better than others, but for this episode, each of the characters are tending towards insular behavior, focusing in on their own relationships. Solitude has its moments, but this week, every single one of the Pearson clan would have been helped by opening up a little more than they have to their loved ones.
It’s Jack and Rebecca’s wedding day, and after leaving what looked to be a perfectly 70’s ceremony at city hall, Miguel offers a toast during their reception. He summarizes their self-written vows over a montage of Jack and Rebecca living them out in their daily lives; there’s shower sex, bad oysters, and more general evidence of how charming and loving their relationship has been through their early years. Over a decade later, Jack and Rebecca are worn down and even a little awkward while they get ready to meet Miguel and Shelley for dinner. Once there, the reason for the tension makes itself known: Rebecca has been out late playing with the band night after night, and Jack’s work schedule has been increasingly demanding. The timing couldn’t be worse. After years of being unhappy, but before they turn the corner into being outwardly cruel to one another, Miguel and Shelley have decided to get a divorce. It sounds like a healthy move for both of them, and Rebecca hears it as that, but for Jack, it’s an utter betrayal.
Jack has implied his cut-and-dry perception of marriage before, but he’s never laid it out as clearly as he does now. For Jack, marriage is the meeting of two soul mates, never to be separated until death. It’s phenomenally idealistic, but Jack doesn’t see it as such; for him, it’s just a fact. Rebecca, though, knowing how unhappy Shelley has been, sees their divorce as a healthy step. It all shakes Jack to his core, and the next day at work, after seeing Miguel and Heather flirting yet again in the break room, Jack demands an explanation. Miguel promises that he hasn’t been having an affair, and offers up a far more realistic and subtle examination of romantic love. Sometimes, relationships die “not with a bang but with a whimper.” The small decisions made in daily life often carry much more weight than we know; for Shelley and Miguel, it was a cup of coffee, and the slow acceptance that they have stopped noticing each other. Jack hears this as a warning; even the small distance that has been growing between he and Rebecca is too much for him to bear.
Meanwhile, Rebecca sees no such distance. After Ben tells her that the band has the opportunity to play on an east coast tour, “on actual stages, to actual crowds,” Rebecca’s first thought is what it will mean for Jack. When Ben tries to sway Rebecca by saying that “if Jack really loves you, he’ll understand” she calls bullshit. She sees every single gesture that Jack makes, big or small, and loves them for what they are: daily evidence that Miguel’s warning was unnecessary, that these two have not stopped noticing each other. Far from it.
Even still, Jack feels the need for a sweeping, romantic gesture. He packs an overnight bag for Rebecca and surprises her by renting their old apartment out for the night, all done up in lights, with champagne in every room and rose petals on the floor. Jack and Rebecca both appreciate their relationship, and they both make daily sacrifices, big and small, for each other. And now that we know the timeline for Jack’s passing, every moment spent in this year is tinged with sadness and fear of impending doom. The couple re-reads their vows, Rebecca admits that she wants to go on tour with the band, and I for one am left with a new fear – that Rebecca will be away on tour when Jack dies.
Randall is teetering on the edge of a breakdown. And just as Beth feared, he is actively refusing help every step of the way. His nightmare of finding William at the piano was horrific, but it’s also his subconscious trying to make him face what he can’t bear to look at in his daily life. After all, he’s too busy trying to be the perfect father, husband, and coworker all at once. Beth knows that something was very wrong with Randall when Annie wakes them up after wetting the bed, but they don’t get the chance to discuss it (and even if they did, Randall wouldn’t have said a word). Instead, after helping Annie get back to sleep, they find Tess downstairs, practicing chess with William in the early hours of the morning.
Tess is so scared that her parents will blame William for their late-night chess games, but she doesn’t know what else to do. With William napping after school, soccer practice on the weekends, and parents too understandably crazed to check the whiteboard for new obligations, the only time she can spend with William is in the middle of the night. And she knows what Randall won’t allow himself to recognize – their time with William is limited, and she needs to take every opportunity to make memories with her grandfather. William is in a healthy place mentally, all things considered; he immediately apologizes to Randall about keeping Tess up, but his face doesn’t carry an ounce of guilt. Nor should it. Tess will always treasure those moments, and they both know it.
Beth brings in a grief counselor to make plans for the family, but Randall shuts down at every single mention of William’s health. The counselor is there under the guise of helping the girls, but Randall is the one who truly needs coping strategies. And this is where the pressure of trying to live up to Jack’s memory really comes crashing down on Randall. He won’t hear a word about William’s illness or end of life care, insisting that they don’t need any help, trying to be superhuman. Randall is refusing help at home AND at work. Maybe I’ve worked for non-profits for too long, but I believe his boss when he says that Randall’s position at work is not under any threat. After a decade of proving himself, a decade of being the first one in and the last one out, Randall has earned a little support in the office. Sanjay is there to help, to go to dinner with a client when Randall can’t. And Randall’s insistence that he can do everything at once, that he can go to client dinners and handle all his accounts AND support his family emotionally will be his downfall.
Despite all of this, Randall and Beth are still Randall and Beth. She insists that he show up for Tess’s chess game, knowing that the office can wait, knowing that Randall is on the verge of making one too many sacrifices for the sake of his job at the expense of their family. (Perhaps a part of him is hiding at the office, too – after all, his work is important, but it’s not life or death.) It’s a testament to their relationship that, even with all of this on his shoulders, they’re still the couple from the pilot – except now the soccer game is a chess tournament. Randall and Beth haven’t been as good at checking in on their girls’ daily lives as they could be lately, but they will always show up when the chips are down.
Randall’s fear that the girls will be broken by the loss of their grandfather is just more proof of his projection and of the constant emotional barriers he has built against his loss. Randall is the one who will be broken, not Tess and Annie. Just think about Tess’s grin when she knows she has a checkmate. Tess ONLY has eyes for William. She wouldn’t trade this for anything. But Randall is in danger, emotionally and physically. He’s made himself blind from stress once before. This time, his hand won’t stop shaking, and he won’t even wake up Beth to talk it out.