This Is Us Season 2, Episode 4
Posted by Shannon
There certainly is a lot going on this week. Thematically, “Still There” is all over the place; the episode splits its focus between race, parenthood and illness, bouncing around between time periods and influences just as quickly. But no matter the time or the subject at hand, the Pearsons as an intergenerational unit are struggling here. Struggling to do the right thing, to share secrets or to keep them, to protect each other or leave each other alone. And it all builds to the first genuine shock we’ve had yet this season; for better or for worse, here we go.
Jack and Rebecca
A blizzard is coming, and the Pearsons are preparing with a staple of my own childhood: the pre-snowstorm video store run. Randall couldn’t care less, since he’s got a science fair project to finish, but Jack, Rebecca and Kate run around grabbing the classics. Kevin’s dismayed to find that none of the Karate Kids are available, and while I’m not convinced he wouldn’t have had this reaction regardless of his health, he has a bit of a meltdown. When Rebecca checks his forehead, she finds that he’s running a fever. Kate’s quietly scratching in the background, and before they know it, the whole family is at the doctor’s dealing with the chicken pox. Rebecca suffers through a phone call with her mother to confirm that she did, in fact, have chicken pox herself as a kid, which leaves Randall as the only family member who still needs to catch it. And bless that child for looking at the rest of his family like they’re insane when he realizes he needs to spend his precious snow days actively TRYING to get sick.
That call to her mother, while necessary for the doctor, put the family at emotional risk; Rebecca’s mother, Janet, whom we’ve only ever encountered as a general nightmare before now, shows up unannounced to “help.” In reality, she starts making demands; for Jack to salt the driveway, for Randall to put on a shirt. Things start off bad and only get worse; Janet presents Kate with a Little Mermaid outfit easily two sizes too small, and suggests that she use it as a “goal dress.” Yikes. Kevin’s present is a football helmet, to protect his looks (double yikes), and while my immediate fear was that Janet hadn’t brought anything for Randall at all, she did one worse. She presents him with a basketball; the third she’s given him already. There was something in Janet’s eyes, something about the disdainful way she tossed it at Randall, that confirmed the worst implications of this gift.
It just spirals out from here. Randall is the kind of kid who just wants adults to talk to him like a person, to show off his science fair project and to treat him like he knows what he’s talking about. That doesn’t get him anywhere with his grandmother; when he tries to talk to her about his project, she listens half-heartedly before saying “why don’t you show me when it works?” She’s problematic or callous with the other kids too, telling Kate that she needs to learn how to cook if she wants to land a husband, and shutting down Jack and Kevin’s chicken pox battle cries because she had a headache. But there’s something in her dismissal of Randall that felt pointed, hateful, and racist.
With Jack sick too (turns out he’d had the measles, and honestly who can tell the difference) Rebecca is left alone with her mother. Rebecca holds it together well for a while, even when her mom starts prodding at why Rebecca doesn’t seem like herself and asking why it is that the family doesn’t visit for the holidays anymore. The breaking point comes when Janet, flipping through the kid’s photo albums, mutters “who would’ve thought that Randall would be the one to get into private school?”
TAKE NOTES, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. This is how you call out a family member for subtle racism. Rebecca outlines exactly how Janet’s problematic behavior towards herself, her husband and Kevin and Kate are complex-inducing and terrible, but ultimately excusable, before diving into the differences in how she treats Randall. Janet consistently separates Randall from Kate and Kevin, she refuses to listen to what he’s actually interested in and instead throws stereotypical bullshit at him, and always keeps him at an arm’s length. Rebecca puts this together with patterns from own childhood; that they changed churches when a pastor from Ghana came in, that Janet would constantly demean their 50-year old maid Dora, treating her like a child instead of a capable, experienced mother. My personal favorite thing about this scene is that Rebecca gives absolutely no leeway to the standard defenses white people cling to when confronted with their racism; that it was about the pastor’s accent, that Rebecca is being hysterical, that Janet is “appalled” by these accusations. Rebecca blows past all of that, and plainly calls her mother what she is: racist.
The blessing and the curse in Rebecca’s confrontation with her mother is that Randall, having finally found the first signs of chickenpox, came downstairs and heard the whole thing. Jack and Rebecca sit him down to talk about the different, covert ways that racism appears. No, his grandmother never said anything directly, aggressively racist. But dog-whistle racism is insidious and way, way more common. It’s all too common for white family members to ignore the subtly racist attacks made by their loved ones; we hide behind the guise of it not being too overt to ignore. The reality is that Jack and Rebecca handle this exactly as they should; they protect their child from any and all types of racist attacks, and they don’t shy away from telling him what’s really happening here. When the reality settles in for Randall, he’s heartbroken, and heads off to bed.
With the confrontation behind them, all five Pearsons are hiding upstairs, waiting for Janet’s car to get dug out so she can leave. Jack can’t allow his family to be held hostage, and he and Kevin head downstairs to dig out her car. While Janet tries to grapple with the reality of her behavior, Rebecca stays firm; she hears out Janet, but doesn’t excuse her. Rebecca does let Janet say goodbye to Randall, and while I frankly have no interest in a redemption arc for this woman, it was good to see her finally recognize Randall as the brilliant, special, science-ie kid he is. After all, what other kid in the house knows Newton’s laws of physics as well as he does?
Randall and Beth
Even before he was staying home to be the primary caregiver, Randall spent any morning he could at the dinner table, doing Tess and Annie’s hair. Now that Deja has moved in, he’s particularly focused on this ritual, trying to tempt her with new jewel tone barrettes. But his efforts are all for naught; not only does Deja continually turn down his offers, she’s refusing to wash her hair at all. After the girls take off for school, Beth broaches the subject with Randall. Sooner or later, they need to have a sit-down conversation with her as a matter of hygiene. Randall is desperate to take the lead; he loves that Beth is the one out working while he stays home, and he wants to take the opportunity to steer their childcare decisions. It’s not just that Randall wants to be the first in line to kiss a scratch; he wants to connect with Deja, hoping that she’ll become comfortable enough to wash her hair on her own, without having a difficult discussion first. Beth agrees to let Randall take the lead, as long as something changes sooner rather than later.
But Randall being Randall, his big idea is to take all three girls bowling. He only had to think this through just a little bit to realize it was a terrible idea, but the reality doesn’t set in until they’re in line for rental bowling shoes. Deja refuses to exchange her shoes, and her resistance inspires Annie to join the mini-rebellion. None of Randall’s panic-induced suggestions help, but things go from bad to worse quickly when a girl behind them in line makes a snide comment about Deja’s hair. Deja confronts her and gives her a shove; the other girl’s father immediately steps in, gets in Randall’s face, and starts making demands. We haven’t really seen Randall get protective of his brood yet, but it’s no surprise that he’s ready to take off his glasses and throw down the moment an outsider starts rebuking Deja. Ultimately she puts an end to the scene herself, having been referred to as Randall’s daughter one too many times. Deja finally mutters “I’m not his daughter” and takes off. Randall throws one last disgusted look at the now-bewildered bowling alley dad before taking off himself, bringing Tess and Annie along with him.
Once he’s back at home, (with Beth trying to get to sleep, but when’s that ever stopped him from launching a serious conversation) Randall keeps repeating his errors over and over again in his mind. He’s wallowing in his mistake, and wallowing in his perception that Beth is just better at connecting than he is. He’s still desperate to bond with Deja, but Randall knows when he’s past a point of no return, and he hands the hair issue off to Beth.
The next morning, Beth finds Deja packing, assuming that after shoving a girl at the bowling alley, she won’t be welcome at the Pearsons’ anymore. Consequences are a big point of issue for Deja; it was the first thing she asked about when she finally spoke to Tess and Annie, and she radiates disbelief when Beth clarifies that the consequences for something like this would be grounding, but certainly not getting kicked out of the house. Finally, Beth starts to talk about her own upbringing; with three sisters and their mom, loving yelling matches were frequent, battles over lipstick seemed massive, and siblings were constantly promising that they’d never speak to each other again. And yet, they “always came together to do each other’s hair.” Beth uses her mother’s mantra, that how you present on the outside is a reflection of how you feel on the inside, to pivot to Deja. There’s got to be a larger, emotional reason why she’s not washing her hair. And Beth knows that, and doesn’t demand that Deja tells her what it is. But she does gently insist that they “get it taken care of,” either at her own salon or at home.
I can’t speak to how it would feel to watch this scene from the perspective of a woman of color, and I don’t know these experiences personally. But watching Beth do Deja’s hair, watching her discover the alopecia patches and assure Deja that it’s perfectly normal for black hair, felt important on so many levels. Deja didn’t know that her hair was nothing to be ashamed of, didn’t know that there was a name for the patches that flare up during her most stressful life moments. Beth normalizes Deja’s experience immediately, assuring her that no one else is around, and that her own sister had this too. She braids Deja’s hair to cover up the spots, and is overwhelmed with emotion when Deja quietly comments that her “mom’s hair is beautiful.” She’s happy with how she looks, happy to sit in the mirror and admire her braids the next morning. But Randall gets blinded by the opening here. He’s grateful that Beth handled it, and grateful that the family made an in-road with Deja at all. But at the same time, all he really hears is common ground between himself and Deja.
He just isn’t thinking. He’s not thinking about how quickly Deja recoiled from him when he raised his voice, he’s not thinking about how tentative the bond between Deja and Beth is. Randall saw a way in, a way to offer Deja support that he could understand – to handle her stress by running. In and of itself, it’s not a bad idea, but Deja doesn’t hear any of this. All she hears is that Beth, who had essentially promised Deja that no one was around before opened up to her, had turned around and told Randall the first true piece of private information that Deja had shared. She feels deeply betrayed, and shows that betrayal the only way she knows how; by chopping off her new braids, and sitting at breakfast daring anyone to speak of it. They don’t.
Kevin went down hard on set, and while he took some time to ice his knee, he hasn’t done a thing to take care of it since. He also hasn’t taken any time off, but surely he’s been showing signs of pain from time to time, prompting executive producer Brian Grazer (just that guy, no biggie) to take a look. He finds Kevin’s knee badly swollen and generally banged to hell. There’s no hiding this anymore – Grazer demands that Kevin visit the medic, who sends him to a doctor, who gives him the bad news. Maybe if he’d come in after re-injuring himself, the diagnosis would be different, but as it stands now Kevin needs surgery to repair a tear in his meniscus.
With Sophie working through the weekend, Kate and Toby take Kevin to surgery and put him up for the week. Kevin begins pushing his recovery the moment he gets in the door; he immediately removes his brace, insisting that he can push through. Twice, Kevin declines pain medication – once when it’s offered by the doctor, and again when Toby offers to make him a quesadilla so he doesn’t take his meds on an empty stomach. Kevin’s reasoning is the same both times; “I don’t like how they make me feel.” There’s clearly a history here. Sophie asking for Kevin to report on his pain scale didn’t feel like it came just from the perspective of a nurse, but Kate doesn’t seem particularly concerned about anything being triggered. If you’ll humour me for a rare prediction: I wonder if this is the one thing in Kevin’s life that Kate doesn’t know about. If Kevin first encountered pain meds right after Jack’s death, it would make sense that Sophie was there to see it. AND it would make sense that he kept it from Kate, to spare her during a traumatic time. It’s a lot for a kid to hide, but underestimating Kevin is an easy mistake to make. It certainly would explain a lot about Kevin’s reaction to his injury.
In the face of the revised pages that came along with the movie production’s care package, Kevin kicks into high gear. Toby finds him limping on the the treadmill, clearly pushing his body beyond a reasonable degree, and Toby finally has to unplug the machine to get him to stop. Kevin admits that his initial injury had been a life changing one; his original career path was to be a football player. College scouts had started coming to his games, and Jack had been making reels for his application. His injury stopped all that, and without a purpose or a way to spend his days, Kevin began acting. His distraction turned into love, and now that he’s on the precipice of another career breakthrough, he’s stuck with his bad knee again. Sure, Ron Howard is being understanding, but he’s also being pragmatic. Kevin knows that this could rob him of his remaining action sequences and re-assign his lines, and he can’t allow that to happen.
There’s clearly something deeper hidden in Kevin’s reaction to his injury. We’ve known that he had his leg in a cast when Jack dies, but beyond that, the details on how he hurt it in the first place are scarce. And what about young Kevin, facing the chicken pox without any of the quiet determination that he has now? What is it about watching his old college reel, and hearing Jack proclaim how strong he is, that leads to Kevin finally taking his prescription? We don’t get that answer this week; but we do see Kevin driving back into the lot, not a limp in sight, ready to jump back into action.
Well, Toby acting like a decent partner was nice while it lasted. He’s back to his usual self this week, turning off Kate’s workout videos with only 15 minutes left, complaining that she got rid of all the food in the house again, and insisting that she loosen up and eat the muffin he made. (Did Toby place the muffin in front of her, knowing that she was mid-work out? Or did Kate take it to shut him up and then not eat it? Discuss.) Kate is pushing herself, yes, under the guise of needing to get ready for her first paid gig. She’s got a dress in mind for the occasion, and wants to be sure it fits.
Kate isn’t acting unhealthily here, she’s acting focused. Leaving Kevin with Toby after he gets out of surgery to make her afternoon yoga class is meant to be a sign that she’s gone too far, but I don’t see that at all. Kate knows when her brother needs her and when he’s fine, and Kevin in that moment couldn’t care less if his sister was around to watch him get settled. (Also, sir, you were JUST angry that she and Kevin were too close. Make up your mind.) There were only two things that actually concerned me: Kate’s walk down the pharmacy aisle and her despondent look after trying on her dress. So yes, something was up.
OKAY. Okay. Okay. First off, I did not see this coming, so I will give them that. But Kate getting pregnant and Kevin’s probably-impending addiction to pain pills means we’re mirroring two of the Big Three’s modern story lines directly after their parents. Just like Rebecca, Kate will be faced with ending her singing career to focus on motherhood. If she makes a different professional choice, then she’ll lord it over Rebecca for seasons to come, and if not, then we’re running dangerously close to repeating stories. And those are just the external issues. Toby had asked to slow things down, which certainly doesn’t include having a baby. Neither of them are in a solid emotional place to take this on, their relationship is still very new, and other than Kevin, the whole family is on the other side of the country. Realistically, we’re in for Toby expanding his control issues to Kate’s pregnancy and continuing his reign of terror. I’m going to need a whole lot more William flashbacks to bear it.
Colors of the Painting
- It was great to spend time with Jack and Rebecca in their relationship heyday. The bantering this week was top-notch and it’s been too long since we’ve seen them at their best.
- So far, Annie’s dreams have involved flying around with William and accompanying Queen Latifah on a search for puppies. My heart for this child.
- There is one misstep in how Jack and Rebecca handled Janet’s racism; while they were right to talk to Randall first, and alone, they also needed to talk to Kate and Kevin. Kate and Kevin should also know this reality, know what their brother is up against, and know that all forms of racism are inexcusable. Their grandmother’s racism shouldn’t just be Randall’s weight to bear.
- Big, important talks never happen without inadvertently suggesting something equal parts horrible and hilarious, and Rebecca and Jack’s talk with Randall offered up this gem:
- What was up with Kevin knocking Toby for binge-watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Toxic masculinity runs amuck, part eleven billion.
- I demand to hear all three of Randall’s verses on the benefits of antibiotic ointment.
- Throw all the awards at Susan Kelechi Watson. All of them. Post haste.
How did you feel about this week’s episode? Let us know in the comments.