This Is Us Season 1, Episode 5
“The Game Plan”
Posted by Shannon
There certainly are some massive themes rolling around this week’s episode. In both timelines, women had the opportunity to gorgeously articulate their feelings on motherhood and its impact on their sense of self. Also in both timelines, we discovered that two of the Pearson men have a penchant for making large-scale life plan changes in their minds without telling their wives until highly inopportune moments. Jack’s modern day fate, however clearly hinted at in earlier episodes, was finally revealed. Mandy Moore had an excuse to sing. And to wrap it all up, the show delivered its thesis statement, in the form of a stunning closing monologue from Justin Hartley. There’s a huge amount to process here, so let’s get right to it.
It’s pre-Big Three days for Jack and Rebecca, and we see the outline of their courtship through the lens of something deeply instrumental to all the Pearsons: Steelers fandom. Initially, Jack’s the only fan. Rebecca notices herself falling too close for comfort into the patterns of her mother; she’s watching Jack watch football, lacking an attachment to the game but more importantly, feeling separated from something that’s clearly important to her partner. What’s a woman to do? Insist that he teach her so she can be involved herself, of course. This throw-away moment actually highlights one of the very greatest things about Rebecca as a character; she’s tenacious, she cares deeply about every aspect of those she loves, and she jumps into the unknown with both feet. She more than matches Jack’s levels of personal investment and excitement for all things Steelers and Terry Bradshaw, and a few football seasons down the line, the two wake up on Superbowl Sunday ready for some shots.
Rebecca is living her best life; at 29, she’s singing at the local bar, she’s deeply in love with her partner, and she loves the freedom that their lifestyle affords. She listens to Miguel and Shelley’s childrearing horror stories and is happy to dismiss them. We get the impression that, until recently, Jack was taking part in these dismissals too – but twice in the episode, he looks at Rebecca while she declares that she never wants kids, and the sadness in his eyes is palpable. Earlier on in their relationship, the two of them were on the same page about children not being a priority; but at this point, Jack clearly has some other ideas brewing in his mind. Despite the setting, despite the company, despite a living, breathing stereotype of a misogynistic sports fan screaming at them every chance he gets, Jack prods Rebecca to have another discussion about children right here and now. It’s for all intents and purposes a terrible idea, but he just won’t let it go, and Rebecca finally dives in.
I loved this so much. I loved her exhaustion at having to defend not being ready for kids at 29, I loved her owning her confusion about her feelings down the line, I loved how frankly she declared that she never wanted to be the kind of woman whose only priority was having children. It was messy and complicated and contradictory and so, so real. I have nothing but respect for ANY choice that a woman makes with her life and her body; if you want to have kids at 29, or 25, or 38, or never, go forth and live the life you want to live. But we so rarely get these conversations on-screen in ANY real way, and every single thing that came out of Rebecca’s mouth hit me right in the heart. I have felt and questioned and pondered all of those things; so many of us have. And to give Rebecca the freedom to explore that, at a sports bar of all places? It was a hell of a thing to see.
The fight jumps a level when Jack gets into an altercation with the misogynistic, shouty fan (I gasped when Jack punched him out without flinching for a second) and Rebecca was onto something when she implied that Jack maybe wasn’t in a state to be having a family right now either. Of course we know the drinking problem that’s to come, and it’s hard not to point to this moment as an example of questionable decision-making on Jack’s part. But ultimately, and with the help of another well-placed question from Miguel, Jack comes outside to apologize to Rebecca for making such a scene and for forcing her into the conversation when she wasn’t ready. The most important thing in both their lives is each other; it’s a steady bedrock, upon which the two begin to move into the next phase of their lives.
This man needs a vacation, and he needs one now. The stress of handling his biological father’s health, plus his brother essentially moving in without warning, plus his everyday stress, leads Randall to wander the kitchen in a fog first thing in the morning, almost throwing a chemo pill in with his breakfast shake. I was immediately reminded of Beth’s warning early on in the season; Randall will push and push for everyone’s well being, with no thought for himself, until he breaks. Beth is there to make sure none of the men in her home do anything too careless, and catches him just in time. While Kevin is basically a guest in the house, William has truly become family; that change is particularly on display when Beth carefully instructs William on the order of his morning ritual – “toast, pills, shoes.” He’s become folded into their home, and while his health is certainly cause for stress, William’s living there is just adding another layer of love and support to their family unit.
The uninvited houseguest, not so much. It’s been days since Kevin appeared without warning at their house, and when the two pull him aside to get a schedule check on the impromptu living situation, they learn that he’s checked into a giant hotel suite in the middle of the city, but that he can’t bear to be there alone. Randall sees an opportunity for the break that he and Beth so desperately need and jumps in, arranging an overnight trip for the two of them while William and Kevin are tasked with watching the girls. He practically skips away to pack, and begs Kevin and William to handle a single night with the kids without calling for reinforcements.
Once at the hotel, Randall is even more overcome with joy, and plots out what frankly sounds like perfect evening. First, loud adult shower sex, followed by room service burgers, cleverly ordered beforehand for timing purposes, which will then be enjoyed in hotel bathrobes with a pay per view movie on in the background. There’s just one problem; Beth has been wandering the room behind him, with a generally miserable look on her face. It’s so obvious that she needs that vacation night too, but it’s just not in the cards. Now that these two are finally left with some time to themselves, Beth comes clean with some pivotal information: she’s late, she’s nauseous, and she’s panicking.
Beth and Randall end up at a nearby drugstore, pick up a pregnancy test, and generally freak out at each other. The mere possibility of another child opens up some really important moments for these two. There’s the fact that Randall has been hiding a “super top-secret Charleston dream” for early retirement. (This is just another thing to add to the list of ways Randall is pushing at all times to create the perfect life for their family.) There’s Beth’s thrill at the idea of finally getting to go back to work full-time, and her anger and dismay at thinking she’ll have to change those plans. There’s Randall, sitting on the bathroom floor with Beth while they wait for the results, offering to work less so she can focus more on her career in spite of a third baby. And there’s the acknowledgement that, with all the focus on Randall and both his fathers, whom he loves so deeply, having “a son wouldn’t suck.”
Ultimately, the test comes back negative, and while Randall and Beth would have made another pregnancy work, I’m glad it’s not in the cards for them right now. The last thing these two need, on top of everything else going on in their lives, is to split their focus even further to include another baby. The conversations it opened up between the two of them were well worth the plot diversion. And I really hope they still got their loud adult shower sex on.
Okay. We have to talk about Toby. I’ve shared my misgivings on his behaviors before, but prior to this episode, he’s at least had one vaguely redeeming scene each week. This episode crossed a line. Let’s take a look at what actually went down, in terms of his character motivations, step-by-step.
Kate opens her storyline in this episode saying that since she feels Toby has gone above and beyond for her so many times, she wanted to find a way to thank him. So she cooks him a fancy breakfast in bed, tray and all. Toby’s reaction? He immediately makes fun of her cooking choices and basically refuses to eat. Is this supposed to be an endearing commentary on how they shouldn’t need to diet? Because it’s not, it’s petulant and ungrateful behavior aimed at a woman who is trying her best to do a nice thing. Then, when she has the gall to politely explain that she likes to watch Sunday Night Football on her own, he makes fun of her AGAIN. Listen. Wanting to do something on your own is not “sad,” and it’s not weird, it’s actually completely healthy. What isn’t healthy is denying the boundaries of your partner and repeatedly acting like her life choices are so abnormal that she needs to be put in her place for wanting to be on her own for a single night out of the week. To make matters even worse, when Toby’s done belittling her personal traditions and acquiesces, she thanks him for being sweet! Everybody, repeat after me. THIS IS WHAT GASLIGHTING LOOKS LIKE.
Toby even includes the unsuspecting public at group therapy, who, remember, are there to discuss a serious emotional and physical struggle that they want to address within their lives, when he decides it’s appropriate to pass a note across the room to Kate. He EVEN passes it by a woman while she’s giving her testimony for the week! I don’t care what’s in that card, this is blatantly disrespectful to literally everyone in the room trying to make serious steps forward for their own well-being, and Toby could not care less. He actually mouths “shut up” to Kate while one of the group members is speaking. His self centeredness is astounding, and I cannot fathom why he’s still showing up to group when he clearly has no interest in being a decent, supportive member of their community. I honestly can’t suspend my disbelief far enough to accept that any self-respecting group therapy moderator wouldn’t throw him out immediately for that behavior.
So within that passed card, Kate finds an invitation to Toby’s to watch the game. Maybe if this had been a few weeks later, after he’d respected her space and her wishes, fine. Kate does need to start branching outside of her comfort zones, it’s admirable to learn about your partner’s hobbies and support their interests, and I get him wanting to share that space with her. But, shocker, that’s not what happens. Instead, Kate gets to Toby’s house to find that he’s invited a random friend to join them. He doesn’t seem to comprehend how this might have been something to at least run past his girlfriend, who has CLEARLY stated that her preferred football watching tradition is alone, in her own damn home.
Every moment I thought Toby couldn’t get more insulting, he found a way. He talks over the announcers, he stands in front of the TV, he PAUSES THE GAME. I don’t watch football, but I don’t have to be a fan to know that’s flat-out disrespectful, and I frankly wouldn’t do this to a friendly acquaintance, much less a partner. And the worst part for me was Kate repeatedly brushing her emotions under the rug. When she’s trying to get Toby to unpause the TV, she says that it’s “not a big deal”, and that the desire to watch sports live is “probably just me.” Even if it was just her (which it’s obviously not or Super Bowl ads wouldn’t be the most expensive of the year) it shouldn’t matter. Her showing up to Toby’s at ALL was clearly a huge sacrifice, and it’s one that he not only doesn’t appreciate, he steps all over it every chance he gets.
So none of this is enough and Toby just keeps going. He actually storms over to Kate’s apartment after she leaves, feigning illness. Toby arrives uninvited, pissed off, and basically throws a temper tantrum in her living room. I just about threw my remote at the television when this man asked “Why did you agree to come over?” GEE I DON’T KNOW. MAYBE BECAUSE YOUR INVITATION WAS PASSED DOWN A LINE OF PEOPLE IN A PUBLIC SESSION WHERE SHE COULDN’T SAY NO, BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T ACTUALLY ASK HER. YOU WERE ACROSS THE ROOM MAKING THE THUMBS UP SIGN AND FIGURED THAT WAS THAT.
Toby even ruins what should have been a somber, albeit expected, moment in the show’s timeline. Kate explains that the reason she likes to watch football on her own is that she’s actually watching with her father; Jack’s ashes, located on Kate’s mantelpiece, are brought out every Sunday. She sits, and watches the game with her father. As I think everyone anticipated, Jack isn’t around in the modern timeline because he’s passed away – possibly as early as 2006. This reveal is many things; human, affecting, understandable, deeply sad – what it’s not, is either of the words Kate uses to describe it – lame and crazy. This is not crazy behavior. This is a woman mourning, remembering, honoring, and sharing memories of her father the only way she can. And the look on Toby’s face said that it WAS lame and crazy but that he was going to get over it for her sake. No.
This is the last straw in a long line of unacceptable behavioral choices from Toby. I want to believe something is going to change here, and that Kate will be able to have a story of her own, away from Toby. I haven’t given up hope for that, and she – both the actress and the character – deserves better than this.
Whenever he’s not getting notes in rehearsals, Kevin is holed up at Randall and Beth’s, hiding from the world, making a ton of bad jokes and even worse decisions. Since showing up without so much as a warning call, he’s not offered much to the Pearson household in return for the intrusion. Instead, he’s single-handedly turned the girls against blueberries and can’t seem to comprehend how a recovering addict living close to poverty hadn’t ever done voiceover work. (The privilege. It astounds.) He’s clearly not good at being alone – Kevin describes his hotel suite with genuine discomfort, and I don’t doubt that he wants no part of it. He’s found familial safety in the hussle of his brother’s house; it’s just unfortunate that he hasn’t seen the need to give anything in return.
When Randall and Beth take off for a night long (supposed) mini-vacation, Kevin and William get their first chance to really spend time alone. I was enamoured with Kevin and William’s dynamic, but there was one painfully notable exception. What the hell was with Kevin asking if William could read? I get that we’ve set Kevin up as a character who speaks mostly in bad, occasionally insensitive jokes, and that he often hides his real impressions and doubts within those jokes, but regardless of what angle that one was coming from, it’s pretty inexcusable. Either we’re poking fun at an older black man or a recovering addict or both – and frankly no version of this “joke” is funny, or even acceptable. Do better, everyone.
Basically left to their own devices, the girls seize the opportunity to have Uncle Kevin appear as a proper celebrity judge for their Barbie fashion show. He has other ideas for their evening activities, and casts the entire Pearson family in a kitchen table performance of his Broadway play. As we’re coming to expect from Kevin, it falls apart fast. In the blink of an eye, and after some legitimately adorable line readings from Tess and Annie, the girls hear a sentence about ghosts and start asking questions. What started out as a chance for Kevin to get off-book turns quickly into a discussion of mortality and the afterlife, and he’s is out of his depth basically as soon as it starts.
William really sits back and observes this whole exchange, without offering much help to Kevin. Wise Owl that he is, William sees the impending spiral a mile away, but he also knows this is Kevin’s responsibility to clean up. There’s a disappointment in his face at how clear it is that Kevin doesn’t know how to resolve the situation, but he doesn’t hold Kevin’s carelessness against him. After taking the girls up to bed, William sits down with Kevin and walks him through the real problem.
William can see this for what it is; the same self-confidence issues that plague Kate, the same fear that he’ll be made fun of, the same insecurity hidden behind varying degrees of horrible jokes. And yes, he even sees Kevin’s good heart, in spite of the fact that between the reading joke and telling his grandchildren not to get too attached, William has been on the receiving end of his most cruelly careless throw-away lines. By acknowledging Kevin’s very real talent, his ultimately kind heart, and the fact that his deepest instincts are so often right until he gets in his own way, William opens the door for Kevin to deliver what is essentially the show’s thesis statement.
And what a thesis statement. As an apology to Tess and Annie, Kevin offers to share something private – something not even Kate knows about. Turns out, after receiving a script, Kevin’s first course of action is to paint the way it makes him feel so he can begin to emotionally connect with the story. The painting he completed after reading the play is a stunner: a colorful, abstract expressionist-style drip painting. Within every drop of color, within every corner and every space on the canvas, he sees the infinite possibilities and the infinite number of people who have all come together to create each of our lives. His personal belief system is that we are all deeply interconnected, with a clear ancestral line that goes above and beyond the traditional viewing of a family tree. Every person’s impact is felt to those they love regardless of the timeline, because “we’re all in the painting everywhere.” The far-away past, the everyday struggles, the stories yet to come, all live within the reaches of the canvas.
The idea that people remain with us after death, that all of our futures will offer the basis for another loved one to take flight – it’s a gorgeous, powerful sentiment and it underscores the strength of the show. Jack’s fate, or William’s, doesn’t make their impact one iota smaller than it would have been otherwise. Their presence will still be felt, their characters still vital. After all, “Just because someone dies, just because you can’t see them or talk to them anymore, it doesn’t mean they’re not still in the painting.”
Colors of the Painting
- Miguel and Shelley had at least two kids, and I have a few questions. One, where did Shelley end up, and two, should we be expecting some cameos from the step-siblings? Maybe they even live on the west coast and know some people who aren’t gaslighting nightmares, then Kate can hang out with them instead of Toby.
- Can someone make a Netflix genre grouping for “Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep Movies That Sound Like A Black Lady” because I would watch the hell out of it.
- We don’t know the details on Jack’s passing, but as the final montage reminds us, it’s just a matter of time until Randall, already living with the loss of his adopted father, will face the death of his biological father. Here I was thinking that episode couldn’t get any worse.
- As retribution for wiseass 16 year olds making fun of Jackson Pollock, I was tasked in one of my high school art classes with creating drip paintings much like Kevin’s. I can attest that this is WAY harder than it looks. Well done, This Is Us art department.
- I know I fawn over Ron Cephas Jones literally every week but he’s perfect and I will not stop. I can’t pick a favorite moment from him this week – but his delivery on “their logic seems sound” is pretty evenly matched with “I remember thinking, he is very talented.” Protect him at all costs.
- I am here for literally every Manny joke the Pearson family can lay down.
What did you think of “The Game Plan”? Was Toby’s behavior unacceptable? Let us know in the comments.