This Is Us Season 2, Episode 2
“A Manny-Splendored Thing”
Posted by Shannon
This week was such a relief. I know I’ve harped on how disappointed I was by the season one finale, and while last week wasn’t all bad, on the whole it left me very concerned for how season two would play out. But this right here? This is the show I fell for last year. “A Manny-Splendored Thing” focused in on the Pearson family dynamics the way only This Is Us can. We explored a daughter’s experiences with each of her two parents, as well as two parallel love stories for Randall and Kevin, all through the lense of at least 10-20 years’ worth of emotional journeys. And that focused character growth still left space for important plot developments! Let’s settle into the second season with a whole lot more of this, please and thank you.
Once again, Jack’s story line is picking up right where we left off, with he and Rebecca making their way home after Jack’s short lived stint on Miguel’s couch. As the two sit in the driveway, it’s clear neither of them can quite manage the walk back into the house. Rebecca, who had been entirely focused on getting Jack home and hadn’t yet had time to ponder the implications of his addiction, finally starts to ask some questions: had he truly stopped drinking all those years ago? How did he manage to quit without any support? It’s uncomfortable to think that the two never had this conversation before, that Rebecca just assumed Jack would handle his sobriety without a second discussion, but that’s what seems to have happened. In a flashback to the night Jack bought Rebecca her necklace (the same night that ended with him waiting in the hallway) we see exactly how Jack’s drinking started.
At its core, his trigger was work. The office job that he didn’t like, and didn’t really want, which he kept to support the family rather than take the risk that would come with his dream company, all while the weight of endless files stacked up on his desk. That’s what drove him to keep a bottle in his drawer, ready to tip into his coffee at a moment’s notice. After promising sobriety to Rebecca, and after the beatific hallway scene the next morning came to a close, family chaos kicked back in. (And what a weird relief to see that chaos, too; after all, family mornings are never THAT easy.) While Jack looks a little overwhelmed by the kids shift from quietly reading to yelling over each other, that’s not what rattles him; it’s the call from his boss to his home phone, spending the morning being screamed at by said boss, and fielding a coworker’s offer of a liquid lunch, all of which make it clear that he needs some help. Jack holds to his promise not to drink and instead makes his way to an AA meeting, but something about the setting just won’t hold for him, so he takes off to the Big Three’s playground instead.
While a young Kevin is busy showing off for Sophie, Kate immediately hops to attention when she sees her father’s car. She’s so attuned to her father’s moods that she immediately knows something is up. Jack doesn’t tell her what’s really going on, but Kate fundamentally knows that her dad needs some support right now. She’s seen what Jack does when Randall spirals out, feels alone, and needs a family member to center him. So she does just what their father would do: places her hands on his face and tells him it will all be okay. Between that quiet moment and the much louder ones at the boxing ring, Jack buckles down to handle the weight of his recovery entirely alone. That’s how he made it through the first time. And that can’t be how he does it the second.
This time, Jack will accept the support he needs – from a group, from his wife, and even from his kids. Jack tells Kate about his addiction first, promising her he’s going to tell the boys as well. And her reaction is the same as it was years before; to be the same support for her father that he is to them. While this was meant to be a lovely scene, acknowledging their bond, it also set off all sorts of warning signs for me. This is WAY too much pressure for a kid. Jack didn’t go so far as to outwardly ask Kate to support him, but she’s an empath for her father, and she takes his emotional well being SO seriously. He leaves her with no emotional tools to handle that kind of information, and we KNOW that in the present day, Kate still holds herself accountable for Jack’s emotional journey. Whether or not he ever told her as much, Kate was a huge part of what got him through his first recovery. It wasn’t fair to ask that of his daughter, and the ramifications of his inadvertent carelessness resonate through to her modern life.
Randall and Beth
Randall and Beth have done a bit of a 180 since their conversation in the park last week. The entire family is packed up for a whirlwind trip to the west coast to see Kevin’s big return to The Manny, and while Tess and Annie are out packing the truck (“We’re better at it than you”), Beth pokes at Randall, asking why he still hasn’t yet filled out the fostering forms. Randall has suddenly skidded to a halt on the whole process; he doesn’t want to tell the kids yet, complains that the questions are too invasive, and begrudgingly offers to fill the forms out on the plane. But he doesn’t do that either, and while waiting for the taping to start, Beth tries again to get him to finish the necessary paperwork. Instead, he leaves the taping to take a walk, and Beth heads out to follow him.
Beth knows something is up, but she’s also in no mood to really know what’s going on. She makes a cursory effort, asking why the forms have him “Randalling out so hard” (yikes, Beth) and assumes that his hangup revolves around his two fathers’ histories with addiction. But that’s not the problem. Randall is absolutely terrified of supporting a child with a history of abuse, and it has him overcome with doubt and fear. Tess and Annie were miracle children; they slept through the night, self-soothed immediately, and were generally so well behaved that Randall and Beth had to fake being tired. A “newborn, clean slate baby” was one thing, but knowing they could be inviting this kind of a challenge is something else. Sure, they’re legitimate worries, but Beth is at her wits end with how Randall is setting up the conversation:
Beth: We have talked about this, a lot, and we discussed how difficult it could be, and we came to a decision. And now I’m jetlagged, you got me out here sweating, and I traveled across country to miss the taping of a sitcom that I didn’t want to come see in the first place. So can we please just table the convo until we get home? Please?
Randall: I guess the part that concerns me, Beth is…
Beth: Oh my god. You’re driving me nuts. I’m walking. I love you but I’m walking.
Beth finds herself in Kevin’s trailer, entirely out of patience and needing to talk to someone who understands her husband’s anxiety. And even though Kevin and Randall were never that close, Kevin does understand his brother, and has been there to see some of his most debilitating panic attacks. So as soon Beth confides in Kevin about their foster plans, he immediately switches gears and morphs into the best, most supportive version of himself. Kevin knows that for his brother, taking a risk when he has no control over the outcome is a a huge, terrifying, even paralyzing emotional position. And while the stakes might have seemed lower then, Kevin knows that Randall felt that same fear when he asked out Beth for the first time.
Turns out, Kevin was with Randall every step of the way, acting as a vaguely creepy Cyrano De Bergerac, feeding his brother lines through the phone. Let’s take a moment to fully paint that picture. Not only does this mean that Randall called Kevin for help – at NINETEEN – it also means that, when the chips were down, Kevin was there for his brother, ready to be there for him. Kevin and Randall’s dynamic is so nuanced, and I love every insight we get into that relationship. This conversation gives Kevin and Beth a lovely moment together, and it also gives Beth the context she needed. Randall will always have these anxieties, and fostering will challenge him in ways neither of them could imagine. But if anyone can handle that challenge, it’s these two.
Sure, he’s spending his days on a big-time movie set now, but not so long ago Kevin was a punchline on a tacky network sitcom. It’s a little bit of a stretch to assume that The Manny would want to bring Kevin back for their 100th episode after his fireworks display at his last taping, but really, anything for the ratings. Kevin being Kevin, he’s placed himself a strict diet of plain chicken and even picking out his favorite ab (or maybe least favorite? Who can tell?) can’t calm his nerves. After all, the entire family is flying in, and he’s feeling the pressure of making a graceful return after an exit that was anything but.
Even though she clearly thinks the whole thing is a little ridiculous, Sophie is there with him every step of the way. When a panicky Kevin tells her he’s fashioning his cameo to match the style of George Clooney’s grand return to ER, she walks a perfect line of cutting through his bullshit and still being supportive. (“I need people to love me the way they love Clooney.” “This is your least attractive side.”) The two go down to set, and Sophie tries to get Kevin out of his head by reenacting his meltdown. Naturally, the showrunner comes in just when Kevin starts yelling all over again, and the two have a painfully awkward interaction before Casey leaves and returns to his office. There was no way this wouldn’t result in a little retribution, and while Kevin planned to take the high road at every step of the way, Casey’s last-minute script changes have other ideas…
I have a hard time believing that this wasn’t the writer’s plan from the get go, or at least a backup plan that he had in his head in case the two blew up again, but regardless, Kevin is mortified and has a crisis of faith right before going in for his quick change. Sophie is there to talk him down, and she does so exceptionally well: “Be Clooney! Otherwise what’re we even doing here?” She knows that Kevin is nailing it so far, and knows that he came in with every intention of taking the high road and leaving The Manny on good terms. So, with his teeth set, he does just that, with Sophie gently giggling just off stage all the while.
This, this right here is some of the best that the show has to offer. From his middle school talent show to his last gig on The Manny, Sophie has always been the laugh that means the most to Kevin, the one he’s the most focused on hearing. Maybe even the only one that matters. Their history is a whole lot more complicated, and we don’t have the full story yet, but at their core, they’re still the same kids that they were all those years ago. Same laughs and everything.
Kate and Rebecca
Rebecca and Miguel are staying with Kate and Toby while they’re in town for Kevin’s taping, and it’s left Kate in a in full-scale parental-visit panic. This reminded me so much of Rebecca’s freak out before her final Thanksgiving with her mother – these two really are more alike than Kate wants to admit. But rather than fixating on perfect cranberry sauce, Kate digs out gifts from her mother that she doesn’t actually use and yells at misbehaving decorative blankets. (“Why won’t this throw just throw?!?”) Toby has his own mission; to win over Rebecca and wipe the slate clean from his first family meeting. His plan of attack involves pigs-in-a-blanket and making friends with Miguel. From the moment Rebecca and Miguel ring the doorbell, the visit starts out tense, with Rebecca immediately commenting on Kate’s appearance. Soon after the four settle at The Manny taping, Kate gets the call from a band. Their lead has strep, and they need Kate to fill in for a bar gig that evening. Kate’s thrilled, and jumps up to leave, when her mother hears the words “sound check” and jumps up herself. Kate’s clearly nervous and doesn’t appreciate Rebecca taking the opportunity to speak wistfully about her own days singing in bars, but her bitingly sarcastic comment of “you used to sing?” was a low blow, right off the bat.
You’d think that, from Kate’s reaction, Rebecca was a nightmare stage mom. That she pushed her daughter to perform, delivered cruel comments about her abilities, or actively belittled Kate. But that’s not really the reality. The first time Kate was getting ready to sing during her middle school talent show, her mother nothing but encouraging. Yes, Rebecca nitpicked Kate’s last note during her breakfast table rendition of “Lean On Me,” but she also tells Kate she’s the best singer in the house and cuts up the dress she wore to her first performance to give Kate an extra bit of courage. Rebecca was there for her, and middle school Kate was visibly moved by her mother’s support. Moving back into the modern timeline, Rebecca quietly insists that Toby take her along for the first gig, and while she’s standard-issue embarrassing mom, shush-ing the audience and pushing her way into attending the performance, she’s CLEARLY so proud of her daughter.
But for Kate, that’s not what it’s about. Her perceptions of her mother’s feelings are fully a projection of her own. As a kid, Kate went from being thrilled to perform in her mom’s dress to faking a sore throat to get out of the talent show after overhearing Rebecca sing “Lean On Me” in the shower. (And mind you, Rebecca didn’t force Kate to sing anyway, taking her daughter’s “I don’t want to” as the final word on the matter.) As a teen, she callously refers to her mother as “the Queen,” and openly favors her father. It’s gone on so long that Kate is blind to her mother’s real efforts to support her.
Kate fully shuts down when her mother walks into the bar, and while she still nails her performance (“Landslide” was pretty on-the-nose, but I’m a sucker for Fleetwood Mac so I’m not mad at it) she’s already decided that the night will be an emotional loss. The band leader compliments Kate immediately and asks for her to return, the crowd loves her, and she KNOWS she did great – but none of that matters. Instead, Kate takes Rebecca’s compliment that she “sang absolutely beautifully” to have a hidden meaning; her poorly timed but well-meant comment that it’ll get easier to sing through a crowded room is taken as a rebuke of Kate’s experience level. Kate finally snaps, and when Rebecca practically begs her daughter to tell her once and for all what it was that she did wrong, Kate replies simply “You existed.”
Damn. This didn’t HAVE to be Kate’s memory of her first gig, but it will be now. And the reason this comment felt so biting, so cruel, is that it’s clearly the truth. Rebecca could have been more supportive, could have kept her mouth shut about any and all singing advice when it was clear that her daughter was taking it badly. And there’s probably additional history here that we haven’t seen. But from where I sit, Rebecca didn’t deserve any of this.
Speaking of deserving, I have got to give Toby some props. This week he was supportive of Kate in all the ways a partner should be, and his speech to Rebecca in the bar was perfection. Rebecca was really out of line asking Toby to defend her after their fight, even if she saw it as just trying to understand where her daughter was coming from. He handled that with respect to Rebecca, and didn’t once back down from being “Team Kate, all the way.” Aside from that genuinely awesome moment, I felt for his embarrassment over his first family meeting ending in a heart attack. Obviously that was NOT his fault, but I get him feeling like he was the sick newcomer who wrecked a tight-knit family’s holiday celebration. And still, he didn’t let his embarrassment or his clearly stated goal of winning over Rebecca stop him from correcting Rebecca’s bad behavior. You’re not all bad, Toby. You’re not all bad.
Colors of the Painting
- Shout out to Miguel, who got some subtly great character moments this week. Dude could not have been more excited to get in on the Manny dance competition, immediately sniffed out Toby’s pigs in a blanket, and was happy to be the lone adult in the front row of the taping so that Tess and Annie weren’t there alone.
- I’m mystified by the inclusion of those images of Jack in Vietnam. His history as a veteran seems to come into play next week, but in this episode it felt out of place and a little jarring.
- “It’s great for America, a black manny. Especially…. in these…. times.”
- Between William and Jack, addiction was rampant in Randall’s life, and I find it a little hard to believe that he never would have spoken about that before now.
- LOOK AT LITTLE BABY RANDALL AND HIS YOYO TRICK
- After all the build up of family tension with Sophie last season, it’s odd that there was no acknowledgement of her seeing the family for presumably the first time again on set.
- Sorry in advance for this comment, but all I could think about when Randall and Beth were packing up the car was how much William would have LOVED the chance to go to a taping of The Manny. (Editor’s note: RUDE SHANNON.)
- Friendly reminder that Beth Pearson is the greatest character on the show.
What did you think of “A Manny-Splendored Thing”? Let us know in the comments!