Posted by Shannon
Family dynamics are unique and strange and phenomenally individualized, so it’s no wonder that every annual celebratory gathering (holiday or otherwise) develops its own patterns. Traditions can grow out of anything – quiet, peaceful moments, casual repetition, or even extreme and unplanned chaos. For the Pearsons, what originated as chaos has evolved into a beautiful, cozy holiday celebration. This week, we see a holiday experienced from both sides: we have the origin story and the comfortable patterns that have taken root across three generations. Think of your weirdest holiday tradition – now ask yourself if the annual Pearson family celebration is really all that extraordinary.
It’s Thanksgiving in the 80s for the Big Three, and Jack and Rebecca are gearing up to spend the holiday with Rebecca’s family. Nobody’s very excited to go, and from the sound of things, I can’t say I blame them. Rebecca is as anxious as we’ve ever seen her, laser-focused on perfecting the cranberry sauce so she can avoid passive aggressive commentary from her mother. Jack isn’t looking forward to hearing his brother-in-law wax poetic about his new, top of the line CD player, and Randall is dreading a subtle but odious tendency from his grandmother, who keeps requesting photo shoots with “just the twins.” (Rebecca has called her on it, several times, to no avail. And Kevin wondered why she was protective of Randall.)
Jack, who had hoped that he and Rebecca could develop their own traditions now that his parents have passed, still puts on a smile, packing the car with snacks and Paul Simon records. The kids are enjoying the day before they end up stuck in the car; Kevin and Randall are actually hanging out and having a good time together, and while Kate is annoyed by the itchy sweater her grandmother knitted, she’s still ready to wear it for the day. All in all, it looks like the Pearsons have made the best of their newly annual six-hour road trip – until the boys knock into Rebecca and her cranberry sauce. The day gets exponentially longer, as they now have to kick things off by bouncing from grocery store to grocery store in search of a replacement side. Jack tries to keep the kids in line, but alas – Graceland really loses its powers of distraction after the fifth listen.
While Rebecca probably couldn’t imagine a worse start to the holiday, the Thanksgiving disasters have just begun; a tire blows out, and while Jack manages to keep everyone safe, he can’t avoid veering off the road and taking out a fence. It’s a 3.4 mile hike to the nearest gas station, but there’s nothing else for it, and the whole family sets out for the walk. When the animal noises kick off from the woods, Jack and Rebecca get their first opportunity to come in with a stellar distraction technique – the Thanksgiving game, where everyone describes how they want to celebrate the holiday when they grow up. Kevin’s the only one who gets out a proper plan – he intends to play for the Steelers, and eat a whole turkey after his game – but Randall throws a wrench in works by declaring that he won’t have Thanksgiving as an adult, since “when you’re an adult, you don’t have to do things you hate.” (Oh, kid. If only.)
The rebellion reaches Kevin and Kate, too, and before their parents can blink, the Big Three have revolted against the entire holiday. The quiet pain in Rebecca’s voice is palpable; she’s SO distraught that her holiday tensions have rubbed off on her kids. But it only gets worse when she hears that she’s a part of the problem, too; all the pressure of handling her family turns Rebecca into a walking ball of stress, and each one of the Big Three picks up on the change in her personality. Jack, who sees the situation coming more and more unglued, tries to assure her that the “kids are delusional from the cold” and don’t really mean it. But Rebecca has heard her family’s complaints, and the impact is already taking hold.
We don’t officially know where the Pinewood Lodge is located, but this is a weird, small New England town if I’ve ever seen it (and I grew up in one, so trust me). This lodge has it ALL: separate tiny cabins for each of its guests, a moose head on the wall (and it’s definitely real, despite Jack’s assurances otherwise), a furnace stuck on high and zero television reception. The real star of the Pinewood Lodge, though, is the hotel clerk – complete with a fancy hat, he creepily asks the “kiddies” if they’ve heard of the Mayflower, and refuses to answer to anything except his designated character name, Pilgrim Rick. No matter how firm she was in her decision, the whole set-up is unsettling enough to make Rebecca question whether or not she’s done the right thing. But the decision has been made, and the family settles in for a very different Thanksgiving evening.
Jack’s not a perfect father. No one is. But Rebecca was right when she said that Jack is an 11 when he sets his mind to it, and that quality really shines this week. He completely turns the evening on its head – under the guise of ducking out to talk to Pilgrim Rick about the furnace, he returns in character, knocking on the door and pretending to be Pilgrim Rick himself, at the room on a mission to fix the heating. The entire family’s reaction to Jack is so joyful – every single one of the kids is giggling, and Rebecca, who had been genuinely nervous when she thought Pilgrim Rick was knocking on the door, is clearly relieved – the family is finally LAUGHING, and they each really feel like themselves for the first time all Thanksgiving. In a whirl, a terrible gas station dinner becomes a thrilling floor picnic, complete with cheese dogs and Police Academy Three. Rebecca closes it all out with one last touch; Kate’s itchy sweater is coming undone, and it’s hard to avoid the symbolism here – while the family truly branches out to become their own unit, with their own celebrations, they physically destroy the only thing in their room that represents the holiday they were “supposed” to be having. Each family member yanks on the string, says what they’re thankful for, and throws the sweater to the next person. And so the holiday origin story is complete; the Pearson family traditions are born, the kids are enchanted, and the Thanksgiving holiday morphs from something each child was dreading into a truly special celebration of their unique identity.
Stuck on the West Coast with Toby, Kate’s position as the outlier was particularly intense this week. Even though Toby has decided to leave the group in peace, she’s still attending meetings, and this week the group focuses on each person’s Thanksgiving struggle. Everyone has a trigger that they’re particularly worried about, but Kate perks up when a member of the group mentions her gastric bypass surgery. It’s been a difficult road for the group member, but so far it’s been successful – she’s lost 30 pounds, and cautiously tells the group that the journey has been worth it. Frustrated with her lack of progress so far, and feeling particularly vulnerable after the change in Toby’s diet, Kate is visibly curious about the procedure.
Her focus, Kate knows, needs to be on herself right now. Her emotional reaction to Toby quitting his diet has clearly shook her, and it’s enough to make Kate take a step back and evaluate what this relationship is truly bringing her. The plan was for Toby to come with her to New York for Thanksgiving, and even though he already knows Kevin, it’s a daunting ask. Toby is in the middle of planning out his points of discussion to win over her family when Kate puts the brakes on the relationship.
It’s no shock that I think this is the right move for Kate, and I’m proud of so many things that she said in this conversation. She knows it’s okay for Toby to travel his own road with his health, she knows that her journey is hers alone and shouldn’t rely on his behaviors matching up. There is no magical romantic comedy version of a relationship that will fix her emotional struggles, and Kate sees that she needs to make the change for herself, and no one else. There are issues she needs to look at beyond her weight and she is right to put all of these concerns ahead of a romantic relationship, especially one that isn’t supporting her emotional needs. However, she doesn’t give voice to many of the aspects of the relationship that are emotionally destructive, and I doubt this is the end for Kate and Toby. Still, I’m heartened to see her put herself first. Kate’s first priority right now has to be herself and herself alone, and while he doesn’t see things that way, Toby accepts her decision with minimal argument.
Now that she’s traveling solo, Kate boards her flight to New York on Thanksgiving morning. A flight that’s running four hours late, and sitting 12th in line for takeoff. (I know work schedules are a pain, but girl, book a buffer day!) Once she boards, Kate is seated next to a woman can’t seem to stop herself from staring – frequently, and without apology. She doesn’t even say hello when Kate assures her that she’s bought two seats. But when the flight hits some seriously extreme turbulence, the two women end up holding hands. Complete and utter fear for your life will do that – and more. Kate’s seatmate, believing that she was going to die whilst married to a man who was clearly cheating on her, finally connects on a human level and decides to make a change for her own life.
Fresh from a breakup, still shaken from her flight, and with her seatmate’s declaration to change her life ringing in her ears, Kate finally arrives at the Pearson home and announces her plan to get gastric bypass surgery.
Kevin, working steadily on the play, still hasn’t given up on Olivia. Why, though, is unclear. While they wrap up rehearsals ahead of the holiday weekend, Kevin extends an invitation for her to join the Pearson family in their celebrations. Olivia, who had a whole plan to hang out in Sunset Park with her favorite bartender and watch Rocky II with some bourbon (which, to be fair, sounds amazing), has no interest in joining them. She declines, which on its own, isn’t a problem – but the dismissive, demeaning assumption that she makes about Kevin and his family is a cavalier sign of more bad behavior to come. Despite her best efforts to keep him at a distance, Kevin is in true puppy dog mode. He lays out the family dynamic in the most dramatic terms possible, and tempts her into accepting the offer.
While Kevin doesn’t have a ton to do in this episode, we get a few small but extremely telling moments with his mother and Miguel. Both relationships are varying degrees of strained. On the whole, Kevin is far more sensitive than he cares to admit – he’s flat-out despondent when Rebecca can’t remember the name of the play he and Olivia are working on, and his distrust of Miguel rivals my own. It’s particularly clear when Miguel asks to take part in the family tradition of Pilgrim Rick, a duty that Kevin and Randall trade every year in honor of their father. This year is Kevin’s turn, and so Miguel broaches the subject with him directly. To his credit, Miguel handles the ask perfectly – he’s thoughtful and sensitive about the tradition, and reminds Kevin that he has taken part in the whole Thanksgiving cabin re-enactment each year without comment. It must have been emotionally charged for Miguel to step into that celebration year after year for all of the family members, and it’s appropriate for him to want to be more involved, but Kevin’s dismissal is quick, complete, and pretty callous. There has to be more to this story, but for once I felt for Miguel; Kevin can be particularly cold when he wants to be, and he clearly has no interest in changing his opinion here.
Olivia, over the course of the episode, lays out her own family history and Thanksgiving traditions – which sound legitimately horrible. She does open up to Kevin, explaining that her father would hide affairs under the guise of late nights at work, and that her mother dealt with the situation by drinking and getting angry and sad. It’s pretty heartbreaking stuff, and it’s understandable that she wouldn’t want to spend one more holiday with her family. But it’s also no excuse to be blatantly cruel – and she has a few moments of genuine, casual cruelty throughout the day. When she meets Randall and his family, she references him as “the adopted one,” which would have been atrocious behavior any week, but coming on the heels of Kevin and Randall’s recent breakthrough, it felt particularly horrible. Olivia moves on to sort of thank the Pearsons for taking her in for the holiday, but assures them that their gracious welcome won’t matter, because she hates Thanksgiving. It’s the cavalier attitude with which she handles everyone else’s feelings that really grates; she’s counting on people not to call her out, and counting on the shock value that comes along with such behavior. And so, when Olivia asks William “how does it feel to be dying,” the last thing she was expecting was an honest answer. But that’s what William gives her.
In any other episode, this would be the monologue that stopped everyone in their tracks. Ron Cephas Jones has regularly brought complete and utter truth to every scene he’s in, but this is top form. He covers every emotion that William has felt since moving in with his son and granddaughters: the urgency of trying to catch every single moment, the gratitude for the time he has, knowing it will never truly be enough but never once portraying any sense of bitterness or anger for the time they spent apart. And once again, William has the grace to offer his own experience to the people around him, even to those who haven’t been particularly kind. His advice to Olivia isn’t to be a person that she’s not, or to change her behavior for the sake of a man – William would never. Instead, he reminds her of the importance of a quality she continues to cast aside – kindness. That when a person is compassionate, the appropriate response is to say “thank you.” It’s enough to stop Olivia in her tracks, and it turns her around and lands her right in Kevin’s arms.
Now that they’re going down this road, I’m not too sure how Kevin and Olivia will work. She was right to say he shouldn’t see something in her that isn’t there. Kevin has a bad habit of assuming that everyone in his life will do what he thinks they should, and Olivia isn’t going to stand for that – nor should she. But her barriers won’t help him be vulnerable and connect more honestly with his emotions, and his cavalier attitude will only exacerbate hers. We’ll see how things progress, but I’m not expecting too much personal growth to come from this pairing.
Once again, after the hike and Olivia’s about-face, Kevin reverts from his earlier bad behavior to stick the landing just in time. While he starts the Pilgrim Rick portion of the Thanksgiving tradition, hat and all, his conscious gets the better of him. Kevin has made a habit of behaving poorly and making up for it in the end, but at least before now there’s been some semblance of a reason for his change of heart. I’m struggling to understand why he couldn’t go through with his Pilgrim Rick performance this year – there were no new interactions with Miguel to warm their relationship even a little bit. But in a moment of kindness, or guilt, or both, he cedes the hat and Miguel takes the role on with gusto, performing for Tess and Annie while Kevin and Olivia watch from the couch.
This man loves Thanksgiving almost as much as I love him. Every single moment of the Thanksgiving tradition, born in the cabin all those years ago, is imperative to Randall. He finds joy in ALL of it. Randall bounces out of bed early Thanksgiving morning, dancing from room to room, singing “You Can Call Me Al” with abandon. This is the most gleeful Randall has ever been, and it underscores the magic that holidays can create when they’re done right; for the first time as an adult, Randall feels like a little brother here – he jumps on Kevin’s bed, teases him for bringing home a British date, and assumes that everyone else in the family loves this just as much as he does. He practically skips to the kitchen and gets cooking, even though no one else is moving as fast as he’d like.
It’s not just that Randall adores Thanksgiving; he’s particularly overjoyed this year at the prospect of finally having his biological father and his mother at the same table. While William’s days are getting harder and his coughs deeper and more frequent, Randall’s excitement barely dims. He adapts quickly, reassigning William from yam to relaxation duty, and he’s still euphoric when he describes his excitement to Beth. It’s a good thing too, because it means he’s too distracted to pick up on Beth’s anxieties about seeing Rebecca, who’s been dodging her calls.
When Rebecca and Miguel arrive at the house, Beth sees an opportunity and grabs it, once again proving that she rivals Jack for the best-partner-ever-award. Her approach to Rebecca is measured and calm, but still appropriately lays out the severity of the situation. Both women have a point here; Rebecca knows she has to tell Randall the truth now that it’s come out to another family member, but it’s fair that she doesn’t want to do it in the middle of Randall’s favorite holiday. But Beth also can’t be expected to keep her mother in law’s secret, especially when she knows the impact it will have on her husband. This is the kind of secret that has tentacles; Randall would have every right to be angry at Beth for keeping it from him, despite the fact that Rebecca is the one who truly made the decision. This all could have been avoided if Rebecca hadn’t dodged Beth’s attempts to communicate.
Meanwhile, Randall is still running around like the King of Thanksgiving; he welcomes everyone in, and kicks off the now-traditional 3.4 mile hike, representing their walk to the gas station all those years ago. Randall takes the opportunity to learn more about William’s own traditions, which were of course completely lovely and wonderful. Without a family around, William and the rest of his sober friends would have a musical potluck, playing the blues and recording the sessions for posterity. Once he was too ill to make the trip, William started listening to the tapes to celebrate his own Thanksgiving, and before he can even finish saying how much he wishes he had the tapes now, you can see the plan formulating in Randall’s mind. There’s no way he would let Thanksgiving go without letting William keep his own traditions, not when Randall’s family traditions are so important to him.
So off he goes, driving two hours to surprise William with his Thanksgiving tapes while the rest of the family watches Police Academy Three. Rebecca at least tries to take the opportunity to drive with Randall, knowing that if she doesn’t come clean by the end of the holiday, Beth will have to be the one to tell him, but Randall brushes her aside and sets off on his own. Once he’s at William’s apartment, alone and rummaging through his desks, everything comes apart. A letter from Rebecca sits below his tape collection, with a photo of eight year old Randall, kept safe in a drawer with William’s most important personal possessions.
We all knew that when Randall discovered that his mother had kept his biological father a secret, it would be a hard hit. But nothing prepared me for this monologue. It’s the fact that he didn’t confront Rebecca full on immediately once he got home, that he waited until he genuinely couldn’t bear it anymore. That the trigger was hearing his mother repeat his father’s words from the cabin, all those years ago. That the sign to Beth that something was very, very wrong came with the dismissive, matter-of-fact way he dropped the ball of yarn from his hand, all child-like glee at his family traditions wiped away from his entire body. That he’s crying the moment he brings up the letter from his pocket. And, perhaps especially, that the part of the letter he doesn’t read is even more damning than the part he does.
I had hoped, for everyone’s sake, that Rebecca had only refused William’s attempts at communication once. I suspected, though, that William would try again and Rebecca would continue to turn him down, and that’s what we find in the second paragraph:
“I’m sorry for the pain it may cause, but you cannot meet Randall. This is for the best, for him. He has an extraordinary father who gives him everything he needs. And if he ever can’t, we have others who will.”
“This is for the best, for him.” That’s the worst part, isn’t it, because it wasn’t truly done for Randall’s sake. It was for Rebecca’s. Which is not to say that it’s not understandable – it is. But for eight year old Randall, already keeping a tally of every single black person he ever met, asking over and over again to learn more about his family, and with Rebecca knowing that William was already clean and sober and looking so well – how could this have been the best for him?
Colors of the Painting
- The ease with which Randall ran into William’s room on Thanksgiving morning, declaring “wake up, old man” was so touching. These two have fallen into a lovely rhythm, and I’m not ready for it to end.
- Jack and Beth are clearly both so exceptional that none of the other family members can find a decent partner. Seriously, what is with the twins and their horrible taste in romantic interests?
- I rolled my eyes into my head when Kevin announced the title of his play. Back of an Egg? Really? I know we’re going for pretentious and weird, but come on.
- “We’ve listened to Graceland like five times! We get it, Dad, we can call him Al.”
Were you prepared for the scene between Randall and Rebecca? Let us know your thoughts on “Pilgrim Rick” in the comments!