This Is Us Season 2, Episode 3
“Highs and Lows”
Posted by Shannon
Toxic masculinity is some dangerous bullshit. It’s never ending, it’s inescapable, and it’s exhausting. And while I honestly never thought I’d say this, it’s also the crux of this week’s episode. At its core, “Highs and Lows” is all about the three Pearson men and their struggles to open up. To feel something, acknowledge it, and speak to it honestly. To act in any way other than banishing their doubt and struggles to the pit of their stomachs, continuing to pretend they’re fine and that surely, they can handle everything. And if anyone needed more proof as to why Randall is the shining star of this show, he’s the only man this week who can truly access his emotions, acknowledge what it is he’s feeling, and grow from it. Well, him and Sylvester Stallone.
Jack and Rebecca
Jack is keeping his promise to Rebecca and regularly attending meetings, but he’s still early in the process and frankly, it doesn’t feel like his heart is in the group portion of recovery. He’s removed even while sharing, and he knows he isn’t opening up the way he should be. Jack tries to make light of his emotional barriers, commenting that it “feels like you get extra credit around here for crying,” and while he’s frustrated by his inability to open up, he also has a tinge of judgement in his voice. There’s the subtlest hint of an eyeroll with the acknowledgement that “these days men are supposed to talk about their feelings.” But at the same time, Jack knows this hangup isn’t getting him anywhere in his recovery, in his marriage, or even as a father. He’s concerned, as he should be, that Randall and Kevin gain the tools they need to skip this particular struggle so they “don’t end up cavemen like me.” On some level, Jack knows that his walls need to come down if he’s going to get anywhere.
Rebecca trusts that his recovery is making progress, but she’s also spent way too many nights going to bed alone. While out with Shelley, Rebecca admits that her marriage still isn’t in a great place. She and Jack don’t talk much, and they’re certainly not having any sex. Shelley is going through the first stages of her divorce with Miguel, and she sees this as a huge warning sign. She prompts Rebecca to take Jack out for a grand gesture, and so Rebecca picks up her husband from work, unannounced and dressed up, to sweep him off his feet.
The reality here is that Jack and Rebecca haven’t spent a lot of time alone together lately – maybe they’ve barely even had a real conversation in the past three weeks – and it shows. Rebecca attempts a classic date re-creation, but Jack’s emotional walls are firmly in position, and he can’t connect with her. He certainly can’t engage with her physically. Naturally, Rebecca is hurt, and they head home without much of a word between them.
To his credit, Jack doesn’t let Rebecca get out of the car without at least acknowledging his emotional barriers. He admits that this time, and this method, are a lot harder on him so far than the first. He’s finding it impossible to open up to either his group or his wife. The crux of it, for Jack, is a deep-seeded desire to run away from the things that made his life so hard in the first place. His pre-Rebecca life, living with an abusive father in a neighborhood that he felt he couldn’t escape, is haunting him. Even though it hasn’t been shown as the cause for his drinking, those are serious underlying emotional issues that need to be addressed. Recovery is asking him to truly look at those moments, to “sit in all those ugly, horrible years” and to acknowledge how it’s all affected him. Jack can’t bear to do it, but at the same time, he knows he has to. And it’s at least a start.
Finally, Jack and Rebecca are acting more like themselves. They laugh in the car about Shelley’s historically questionable advice which apparently led Rebecca to a bad haircut (though it sounds cute, so, who knows) and together, they remember who they are. Jack’s barriers come down just enough for him to admit that he borrowed money from his father to buy the house, and while he also admits that there’s a whole lot more he hasn’t told her, at least the crack in his emotional facade has started. There’s a long way to go and who knows how many secrets he’s kept over the years, but for now, it’s a start.
Randall and Beth
In the three weeks since they were approved to be foster parents, Randall has moved from trepidation to sheer impatience. He practically jumps up and down at every phone call and spends every spare moment cooking elaborate meals. (“I love it when you cook your feelings.”) Finally, the call comes and brings Deja, 12, straight over. Randall and Beth don’t get a lot of information ahead of time; Deja’s mom has been arrested, the most recent in a string of multiple arrests, and her dad is a question mark; but Randall is so overjoyed at the opportunity that all of his concern about this kind of situation feels miles away. He’s been studying foster parenting books, after all. Despite Beth’s efforts to get him to “breathe through it,” Randall runs upstairs to tell the girls post haste.
If Tess and Annie had any reservations about this whole process, they don’t show it. Annie has created a painting for their new guest, and both are on board to repeat their names as many times as necessary while accompanying Randall on a guided tour of the house. It’s all so well intentioned and so, so naive. Deja arrives and is, of course, completely checked out. She goes through the motions of meeting everyone, but barely speaks until asking if she can go to bed. Randall handles his disappointment well, but he’s shaken, and asks the social worker to say since “I don’t think she’s okay.” (Dearest man, of COURSE she’s not.) The social worker reads him immediately and offers some quick but key advice; he has to take it one moment at a time, things won’t necessarily get easier after the first night, and every single day will be different from the one that came before. Basically, it’s the summation of all his worst anxiety triggers.
Beth sets Deja up in her bedroom with a new toothbrush while Randall checks on the girls. Tess and Annie are both pretty freaked out, and convinced that Deja doesn’t like them. Randall tries to settle them down, but they’re interrupted by a scene in the hallway. Beth found cigarettes in Deja’s bag, and Deja doesn’t take well to the intrusion. She’s quick to yell at Beth, but the second Randall raises his voice even the tiniest decibel, Deja recoils. Her fear is tangible and clearly stems from PTSD. Randall basically cowers in the doorway, horrified that he could prompt that kind of reaction, while Beth jumps into action. She handles everything perfectly, quieting her voice, keeping her distance and assuring Deja that nothing bad will happen, before settling Tess and Annie into Tess’s room, with the baby monitor on just in case.
With his fears realized and a scared 12-year-old girl under their roof, Randall finally starts to see the reality of what he’s in for. Not the extremes, though; not the blind terror he felt back in LA, and not the sheer delight from earlier that afternoon. Instead, it’s a complicated, messy, beautiful, difficult challenge. It’ll be everything at once, and while his panic isn’t prevailing anymore, the weight of this responsibility sits heavily on his shoulders. With all the focus on Randall’s anxiety lately, it’s easy to forget that he is phenomenally high functioning. Nearly everything – marathons, school, marriage, parenthood, weather trading, and everything in between – has come easily to him, despite many warnings to the contrary. He’s accomplished countless victories without even batting an eye. But this is something more multifaceted, something that’s truly “as hard as everyone says.”
Deja has been through several foster families during her mother’s arrests, and she knows that the easiest way to get to the truth is to talk to the other kids. While Tess and Annie are anxious at Deja waking them up, they’re happy to give her the lay of the land. Mom’s in charge, breaking the rules means “we have to talk about it for like a million years” and if it’s really bad, they can even lose iPad privileges. (And isn’t that the word for it.) Deja knows how lucky these girls are, even if they don’t grasp it themselves, and she mutters to herself about how unbelievable the whole thing feels. She’s not the only one who thought so.
Ron Cephas Jones is a gift, and so far every time he’s popped up in a flashback this season, it’s been my favorite part of the episode. William felt just as out of place in this big, peaceful, fancy house as Deja. He even tried to leave his first night, only stopping because Annie warned that he’d set off the alarm. It makes perfect sense, looking back, that William tried to leave early in his stay. The pressure of not wanting to disappoint this perfect family that he’d always dreamed of having after all those years, while knowing that his time with them would be limited, must have been almost too much to bear. But if Tess is the chess champion (and she is) then Annie is the empath, and just as she knew that on some level, William was scared to death, she also knew that he’d regret leaving. So he didn’t. He stayed, and learned how to turn on the bathroom lights, and got used to the suburban silence. The memory settles into Annie’s little kid brain, and she realizes that Deja must be scared on her first night, too. So she offers to let Deja join in their slumber party, and Deja accepts.
As comforting as it was for Beth and Randall to overhear the girls bonding on their baby monitor, Randall knows there’s still miles to go before Deja to trust them. He knows because he sees himself so clearly reflected in her eyes. When he was about her age, Randall placed a classified ad in the paper in his continuing effort to find his birth parents. He even got a response from a woman claiming to be his mother, and confessed as much to Kate and Kevin (with minimal prompting). The twins accompanied him, watching from a distance, and were there to walk him home after Randall realized that the woman was only there to ask for money and wasn’t possibly a relation. Randall remembers the ringing in his ears, remembers worrying about his heritage while also not wanting to offend anyone in his family by the sheer act of wondering who he might be. (The way he jumped to assure Kevin and Kate that his search had nothing to do with them was devastating.) Randall was able to articulate his emotions and to act on them, but he still had a lonely, disconnected look in his 12-year old eyes from time to time. He knows that look and he sees it on Deja, plain as day.
Until meeting and loving William, and until forgiving Rebecca for keeping his birth father out of his life, Randall wouldn’t have been able to see his family for what it is. It’s so much more important than the beautiful house and his “super fine wife.” He’s moved from feeling “split inside” to keeping photos of both sets of parents and knowing that his upbringing only meant having more people around who loved and cared for him, as both a child and an adult. It’s the perfect way to open up to Deja, the perfect first step towards getting her to open up to having more adults in her life who love her, too. But Randall moves just a little too quickly, in my view, to telling Deja a hard truth just after gaining her trust; her mother might not be back for a long while this time, and her arrest is a whole lot more serious than they thought. Deja smashes his picture and takes off to her room as a result, but Randall knows that what she really needs just then is a moment alone. And he gives her that space.
Kevin and Kate
Kevin and Ron Howard are still hard at work, and Kate drops by for a set visit during a particularly busy day. Kevin’s got a big emotional monologue to get through, and an action scene later in the day, both opposite none other than Sylvester Stallone. I wasn’t sure what the deal would be with this guest spot, but right off the top I have to say that I’ve never loved Stallone more. (I’ve also never seen Rocky, so maybe low bar? I know, I know.) When they first meet, Kevin once again finds himself in the awkward position of being overheard by the person he’s talking about, though this time it’s all really charming. Kate is the perfect level of thrilled and endearingly star struck, and after Sly heads off to “check out the frittata situation,” she fangirls out with Kevin. They both know Rocky by heart because Sylvester Stallone was their dad’s favorite actor, and Rocky his favorite movie. Kate is overjoyed thinking about how much it would have meant to Jack to see Kevin succeed in this way, but Kevin can barely hear a word about his father and changes the subject immediately.
While Kevin is holed up in his trailer practicing his big monologue, Kate and Sylvester Stallone (I’m taking my cue from Kate and just continually full-naming him) find themselves at craft services together. Kate takes the opportunity to thank him on behalf of their father, and when Sly offers to have their dad come by for some photos, she clarifies that Jack passed away. Already, this is WORLDS more comfortable than we’ve ever seen the adult Kate while talking about Jack. She’s secure in her words and in her feelings and she doesn’t shy away from telling Sylvester Stallone just how much he meant to her family. For his part, Sly is clearly touched, and he and Kate sit together for a spell, laughing and talking about their careers.
The moment Sylvester Stallone started talking to Kevin about Jack, Kevin was in a spiral. Sly’s entire monologue here is gorgeous, and in a lot of ways, it’s an echo to Kevin’s own speech to Tess and Annie about his painting all those episodes ago. But Kevin can’t handle thinking about his father this much on the best of days, much less directly before he has to go in and shoot one of the most challenging monologues of his career. Of COURSE he throws his lines.
None of this is anyone’s fault but Kevin’s. Not Stallone, and certainly not Kate. But Kevin needs someone to blame for his emotional barriers disrupting his performance, and his sister gets the brunt of it. Kate knows exactly what’s going on here. She went through it too, and tries to talk to Kevin about her breakthrough at camp, and all the hard work she did in therapy. Doing that work and processing her grief was the only way she could break through to the other side, to a place where she CAN thank Sylvester Stallone for making her dad feel happy during fevers and bad days, and she’s right to say that Kevin needs to do that work too. Therapy is the right move for him (honestly therapy is the right move for basically everyone, but that’s a discussion for another day) but Kevin does just what Jack feared. He mirrors his father, refuses to address his past, and insists that he’s fine, that he can handle everything himself. Feeling your feelings is not the same thing as wallowing. Talking to a therapist is not a sign of anything except being human. But Kevin won’t hear any of it, and he finally snaps, telling Kate “I don’t need to walk around and be sad and damaged just because you are.” She slams the door behind her, leaving Kevin to ignore his emotional work alone.
The action scene later that day doesn’t end well for Kevin, either. Without any tools to process his emotions, and without even knowing how to manage feeling them, he’s stuck with flashbacks of his father rolling through his head. It lands him in a bad jump, twisting the knee on his bad leg, the same one he broke right before Jack died. While icing his knee in the trailer, Kevin calls Kate to apologize, but even then, he can barely speak about Jack without becoming completely overwhelmed. It’s basically the same emotional journey that Jack took in the car; he can’t bear to confront his feelings head on, but he takes a small step towards opening up, before shutting down again. He is so much like his dad in this way. And I for one think that Kevin’s mental health similarities to his father are the some of the most interesting things that have been explored in his storyline. He doesn’t need anything else to make that parallel engaging. But the last shot of the episode implies another similarity: Kevin grabs a bottle of pain pills to make it through the rest of the day. Without more plot evidence, I won’t say too much about this, except one thing: I really, really hope I’m reading too much into that.
Colors of the Painting
- Real talk, WHAT GENRE IS THE RON HOWARD MOVIE? During the season opener it looked to be a romance and now it’s a full-scale war film? I just need to know what’s happening here.
- Remember how William was originally introduced to Tess and Annie as a “work friend” because until he told Annie that Randall is “the best work friend a guy could ask for,” I certainly didn’t.
- I really can’t overstate how wonderful Sylvester Stallone was in this episode; he and Chrissy Metz in particular had a completely fantastic dynamic. They were adorable and I want them to pal around on the regular.
- “That call was my calling calling!”
- Now we know how the Pearsons finally get their dog! And what an adorable, scrappy little thing he is, too.
What did you think of “Highs and Lows”? Let us know in the comments.