This Is Us Season 1, Episode 6
Posted by Shannon
In one way or another, every kid is uniquely impacted by observing the choices of their parents and family. Particularly when it comes to the weird, winding road of career paths, we either work towards or run away from the decisions we watch our parents make in their working lives. My parents were both artists; I’ve quietly rebelled with a desk job. It might have happened that way regardless, but the decisions each generation makes to follow (or not follow) in their parents footsteps is integral to that very specific dynamic. It plays out for every person in unpredictable and distinctive ways, and the Pearson kids are all faced with the impact of those relationships this week.
Jack’s career choices (and struggles) are pretty standard, but that’s not to say they’re without impact. He’s in construction, and while he starts off knocking down walls and doing site visits, as time goes on he moves into an office, presumably with the same construction company. With the spin of his chair, his surroundings stay stagnant (with the exception of a typewriter transforming into an early computer), and Jack’s face shows the strain of the years. His frenetic energy would have been better suited to a life out and about and building things, rather than one behind a desk. All of a sudden, his post-work bar stops make a whole lot more sense. Jack will always do what he has to do for his family, and he won’t blink at the sacrifice, but it’s clearly weighing heavily on his shoulders.
So when Miguel lands a promotion and offers to take Jack with him, he’s found himself at a crossroads. In his spare moments at work, he’s sketching logos for his own dream company, Big Three Homes (my heart), but now he’s faced with a different opportunity. Moving to a new team with Miguel would mean even more time behind a desk, but it would also mean an easier time at the kitchen table trying to stretch a paycheck to cover all the bills.
It’s particularly timely, because Randall’s teacher has called Jack and Rebecca in to speak with her after report card season. Randall has tested way above average at school, and the teacher suggests that his standard report card grades are because he’s just not being challenged enough. Jack’s response makes it pretty clear that something else is going on here; he freaks out and hides behind good intentions. He’s so terrified of treating his adopted son differently than Kevin and Kate that he’s devoted himself completely to raising them The Same, for better or worse. Rebecca isn’t convinced, and the two take a drive by of Hanes Academy to see what the switch would really look like. Jack is so focused on the white kids running around with briefcases that he can’t see what’s really happening here; he’s projecting his own fears and worries about taking a boring desk job onto Randall, who, let’s not forget, solved a Rubik’s Cube in moments a few weeks back.
His major outward concern is a seemingly fair one: he knows that Randall is already one of very few black kids at school, but at least here, he has Kevin and Kate. Ultimately, though, Jack would rather hold his son back then treat him differently. It’s a misguided attempt to help Randall feel less different, which, is never going to be possible. Randall will ALWAYS be different – he’s always going to be raised as an adopted, black kid in a white family, and Jack’s desperate attempt to hide from that fact is potentially very harmful. Just like Rebecca back at the pool, Jack’s giving us a perfect representation of how destructive “colorblind” mindsets are to people of color. His attempts to be fair are actually wiping away Randall’s difference, and holding him back from his true potential. Cue Yvette, who’s here to bring Jack to his senses by actually talking through what he’s proposing. She denies him the “black person seal of approval” and lays out exactly how harmful it would be to Randall for Jack to keep him in his current school.
Jack, to his credit, hears her, and brings Randall to work for a bit of a test. Under the guise of needing Randall’s help to calculate building materials, he sees first-hand two incredibly important things: one, that Randall is unquestionably operating at a higher academic level, and two, that he’s terrified to admit it. Jack’s suddenly faced with the real life consequences of trying to raise his children equally – Randall is horrified to be different, horrified that it will mean Kevin and Kate hate him, horrified that it will be yet another difference in a long line of differences that he feels deeply in his little nine-year-old heart.
Jack comes to his senses with another one of his patented amazing father speeches, and acknowledges the difference that Randall feels and that the family has tried to ignore. Difference is not the same thing as inequality, and that finally clicks in for Jack. Each of his kids can be – and are – extraordinary, but in specific, individual ways. That just makes it more impressive, and more empowering to see their different strengths.
All that private school has paid off, and in adulthood, Randall is clearly proud of the work he does. He’s also a little defensive; turns out, trading commodities based on long-term weather patterns is tricky to explain to kids and adults alike. After walking in on William playing piano and singing for Tess and Annie (MORE OF THIS PLEASE), Randall learns that music and poetry have a strong hold on the biological side of his family. The girls are hoping their dad can teach them music too, but that’s not in the cards, since Randall declares that all the musical talent went to Rebecca and Kate. Tess and Annie see an opportunity to trade Randall’s boring day job speech at career day for a piano recital from William or even a visit from the Manny, but Randall bats off the attempts and holds his booking steady.
During a dry run of the career day speech later on, the real emotional trigger makes itself known. He’s spinning out a little, and suddenly upset that no one in the family (Beth included) really understands what he does. But no one really needs to – Beth knows which partner he likes and which one he hates, she knows he’s considering firing his assistant for saying “like” too much, and she knows that’s what actually matters, not the ins and outs of weather-based commodities trading. Randall is facing a little bit of an early midlife crisis, triggered by the sudden potential for a new identity, one more in line with the biological side of his family. Beth encourages him to try to pull some of that creativity into the career day speech as a sort of test run, before he goes off and joins open mic saxophone nights in search of his Wesley-in-Mo’-Better-Blues self.
Of course, this poor dear man has to follow a firefighter at career day and gets introduced first as a “weatherman” instead of a weather trader. (“I don’t know what that is, but I think he’s gonna tell us.”) Armed with a school piano and a new sense of self, Randall launches into a song about weather trading. Listen, this is a disaster, but it’s also LOVELY. He tries so hard, and sees the song through, and even pulls the crowd in for a sing-a-long of “If you’ve got a farm.” I had it stuck in my head for a solid day. Tess, Annie and Beth have pretty standard horrified looks on their faces, but I couldn’t look away from William. And he, for all his second-hand embarrassment, couldn’t look away from Randall. William is so proud of him, so proud of his dedication in spite of a blatant lack of talent, and sees the bravery for what it is. Let it never be said that Randall is easily scared, even when he probably should be.
When the two are alone in front of the piano later that night, William tells Randall exactly what he needed to hear – that he’s actually as inspired by math and his work as William was by his art, and that, again, his difference is ok. More than that, it’s exceptional, and Randall is right to be proud of his career choices. One of the most touching things about Randall’s character for me is how subtle his emotional triggers can be; he was clearly upset that the girls didn’t jump at the chance for him to speak, and he’s equally bothered by William not wanting to teach him piano at who knows what hour of the night. But, he takes these things in stride, sees them for what they are, and continues moving forward. It’s not that he won’t feel his feelings – he will, and it’s what leads him to sign up for piano classes with Mrs. Perkins down the road. He also has the self-awareness to know that adding a new dynamic to he and William’s relationship, especially one so sensitive for Randall, is a dangerous move. He tells the family as much the next morning, and I for one am already counting down to his first recital.
Back at the theatre, Kevin is still struggling with the play. When faced with a pivotal scene focusing on his character’s grief, the best he can manage is to “summon up the emotion of a google maps voice.” (OOF, Kevin.) The director and playwright are beyond frustrated, but Olivia seems zen and assures everyone that Kevin will “get there.” I was suspicious of this move from the beginning; Kevin hasn’t been shy about the difficulties he’s had with the play, and considering the last time we saw Olivia she smashed a glass against a table in frustration with Kevin’s casting, it seems like a dramatic change of heart. She asks Kevin to come along to a party with him, rather than his original plan to‘“spend the entire day feeling like a failure.”
The two meet up outside a suburban home, which turns out to actually be the site of a memorial service. For a stranger. Olivia found a publicly listed memorial and jumped on it in an attempt to make Kevin connect with his grief. This whole thing is so disrespectful and gross and manipulative (and here I was thinking we finally got a Toby-free episode). It’s so clear that she has no respect for or interest in Kevin, much less any respect for the family whose service she’s crashing. The only savior for this scene comes in the form of the widow, Grace. When Kevin storms off to get a drink (why he didn’t just leave Olivia and flee, honestly, I’ll never know) he runs into Grace, hiding out in the kitchen as she tries to sort out all the food people keep bringing her.
Grace and Kevin meet each other exactly where they need to be; she’s in the early days of her grief, and Kevin is many years in, but they find common ground when she mentions her 15-year-old son Jeremy. In a fit of anger, Jeremy has refused any of his father’s belongings, and Kevin knows exactly where this came from. In a blur, it all comes out; Kevin walks through his childhood, building the biggest models possible to sneak some extra time with his dad. After Jack’s death, he threw them out in a fit of rage, and is now left with a single necklace, which he wears every day.
It makes complete sense that Kevin wouldn’t want to plug into this grief for the sake of his work. The anger, the crying until he fell asleep and waking up to cry some more, the complicated emotions that all of this would bring up – it’s the last thing Kevin wants to bring back up. Whether or not he properly grieved Jack’s loss, he just does not want to go there again, and who can blame him? Kevin is essentially alone, adrift without his twin and without the work he’s known for years, feeling vulnerable and freaked out about his job, when all of a sudden he’s being confronted with one of the darkest times in his life. Finally faced with someone who can see the fragility right under Kevin’s surface, the two embrace and cry and mourn together. It’s beautiful, and it’s painfully real; expressions of grief are not something you can plan, not something you can orchestrate or share with the most appropriate people at the most appropriate time. They come up when they choose, and we’re just left to manage as best we can.
It all makes Olivia’s manipulations that much more distasteful; she falls into bed with Kevin after he confronts her about how intrusive their presence is at the service, but it’s just another level of the fakeout. Rather than have a real connection with Kevin, she’s setting him up to plug directly into their characters, and tells him as much after he delivers her a coffee at rehearsal the next day. This blatant manipulation is actually just as lazy as she thinks Kevin has been; except it’s also potentially much more emotionally harmful. She’s set him up to face a barrage of emotional trauma in a time when he has very little in the way of a support system, and while I’m sure it’ll work out in terms of the plot, that doesn’t make it less cruel.
Back in the interview game, Kate has tracked down a perfect potential gig. While she sits down to interview with Karen for what sounds like a catch-all Development job, her professional skills are clear. Kate is “abnormally organized” (girl, same) and ready to jump in with some event planning, grant writing, and anything else Karen can throw her way. She’s hired on the spot. The wrinkle comes quickly in the form of Karen’s teenage daughter, Jemma, who immediately mumbles to her phone that “I see you picked the fat one.” Ugh.
If Kate’s triggered by this, she doesn’t show it, and instead gets her own career montage. After all the focus on her romantic life, it’s SO refreshing to see Kate on the phone, kicking ass, taking names and helping the homeless. (“How do you feel about homelessness? I know, it’s a bummer, right?”) Wrangling Kevin must have been a challenging gig in all sorts of ways, but Kate is reveling in the opportunity to use her brain and honestly it looks like she’s having the time of her life. We haven’t seen Kate this self-assured, this confident and this happy all season and I hope we get a lot more of it. Karen is obviously thrilled with her work, but throws in one of those personal tasks a little too quickly, and all of a sudden Kate’s working day comes screeching to a halt when she’s tasked with giving Jemma a ride to her friend’s house.
Jemma wastes no time in being a horrible teenager, and won’t even give Kate the address where they’re headed. Instead, she’s leaving Kate to drive out of the neighborhood with literally no direction, and takes every opportunity to poke and prod and push Kate’s boundaries. Kate, though, is having none of it. She keeps her head high and reminds Jemma that she works for her mom, not her, and that “If I didn’t value the work, I wouldn’t be tolerating this attitude.” Jemma keeps pushing as hard as she can, but Kate knows this game and she will not bite. A few sentences into a particularly cruel tirade which covered both personal ground about Kate’s weight and professional ground about her not being more than an intern, Kate has had it. She pulls over, looks straight at Jemma and instructs her to “Get out. But don’t feel bad for me.” I don’t generally advocate leaving teenagers on the side of the road but honestly I CHEERED. Jemma’s not a child, she’s in a safe area, and she should not get away with speaking to people this way. Kate flashes Jemma another smile, underlines the value of a good walk, and drives away.
After hearing from Jemma that the two had had a great time (and considering the fact that Kate didn’t come back to work afterwards), Karen knows something must have gone on and pulls Kate in the next day to talk about it. She isn’t surprised to hear Kate left Jemma on the side of the road, and she certainly isn’t angry about it. Instead, the two have an honest conversation about the difficulties Karen is having connecting to Jemma. Specifically, it comes out that yes, Karen did partially hire Kate because she was hoping for some help identifying with Jemma, who’s also struggling with her weight. Mother and daughter haven’t been able to connect for years, Jemma is angry all the time, and Karen is at her wit’s end. It’s not the only reason for the hire, and that’s apparent; Karen knew Kate would do the job well, and she connected with her immediately, but the ulterior motives played a part too. Kate’s professionalism is clear in her handling of the conversation AND in her negotiations; before going back to work, Kate clarifies that there will be no more personal tasks, she will be receiving an office to call her own, and she’ll work as chair of the Butterfly Ball. Kate only comes up short on the whole assistant thing, which, was a stretch to begin with.
Karen wasn’t entirely off base to see a potential connection between Jemma and Kate, but she also couldn’t have imagined the real link between these two; both have skinny, gorgeous moms, and they have been acting out against them. Kate recognizes the behavior in Jemma IMMEDIATELY and calls her out on it after the negotiations with Karen. She’s coming from a place of wisdom and understanding; it’s no accident that Kate is across the country from the rest of her family. As a child, Kate looked up to her mom and wanted to be just like her – she played piano, helped her mom get dressed, and was clearly entranced by her. But during her adolescence, once Kate has cause to compare their clothing labels and listen too closely to Rebecca making side comments about her own weight, she sets herself firmly against her mother. After at least a decade spent hating her mother for the comparisons Kate held up in her own brain, the two barely speak, and Kate doesn’t want the same for Jemma.
I’m curious to learn more about Rebecca’s modern day relationship with both the twins; the only one we’ve seen interact with her in the present timeline is Randall. Kevin and Kate have a more direct sense of anger against one or both of their parents, and I can only imagine the impact that has on their adult relationships with each other. Between Kevin’s play and Randall’s piano recital, I’m hoping for a reunion sooner rather than later.
Colors of the Painting
- Rebecca plucking out the theme song in the first moments of the episode was such a beautiful touch.
- Kevin isn’t always the cleverest of the Big Three, but he understands his job. I have a hard time buying that he would actually exclaim, even in a moment of extreme frustration, to his director that “It’s not my job to make sure you believe me.”
- I have absolutely no idea what Randall is doing with his life but, like Beth, I don’t need to. Go forth. Trade weather. Sing songs about it.
- We’ve got talk a little bit about William and Beth. He gets SUCH a kick out of her, and their playful but supportive moments, however tiny, are some of my favorites every week.
- I loved that Kate, while being incredibly professional and capable, wasn’t afraid to tell Karen the real reason she left her job prior to Kevin – she had fallen in love with her boss, recognized an unhealthy situation, and got herself out.
What did you think of “Career Days”? Is Randall’s song still stuck in your head? Let us know in the comments!