This Is Us Season 2, Episode 11
Posted by Shannon
Between the winter break and the structure of the fall trilogy, it’s been a while since we’ve had the whole Pearson gang together. And DAMN is there a lot to talk about. Supposedly, this week’s episode revolves around Kevin’s addiction, but even in the structure of the show itself, Kevin’s unique experience is most interesting as it relates to the psychology of those around him. His recovery provides an excuse to zoom out on the Pearsons as a whole: the structure of their original unit, the dynamics between each of the four remaining family members, and what becomes of the loved ones who will always be stuck just a little bit outside the circle.
Jack and Rebecca
It’s later in the same summer vacation that brought us the Pool Incident, and on this particular day, the family is relaxing indoors. Kate and Rebecca are playing monopoly, Randall is delighting in his new glasses, and Kevin is away at football camp. Everything is pretty much business as usual – until Jack swoops in and announces that he’s made vacation plans. Thanks to the “new guy in accounting,” they have a log cabin in the Poconos all to themselves for a week. Starting tomorrow. It’s all fun and games, sure, but this is yet another example of Jack making a decision and announcing it to everyone involved before he even asks Rebecca. Honestly, these declarations of his are really starting to get to me. It’s not that Rebecca wouldn’t have been excited at the opportunity to have a free change of scenery for a week; the end result of the week in the Poconos would have been the same. But his thoughtless excitement took away any and all agency from her, leaving her without a voice in that decision for the family. Rebecca’s painted into a corner and that’s never a pleasant experience, even when said corner has a lake view. Regardless, the four trek out to the cabin, ready to pick Kevin up as soon as his schedule allows.
The four have been settled in for days before Kevin’s able to join, and his feelings of exclusion at the arrangement shows from the start. (“Did you guys move when I was at camp?”) He can’t even show Rebecca his football trophies before she switches focus away to Randall, warning Kevin not to tease Randall about his new glasses. Meanwhile, Kate’s thrilled with the cabin and her and Jack’s now daily trips to the ice cream parlor. The rest of the high points she recites to Kevin are in the same vein, which leads Rebecca and Jack to hide away in the kitchen, repeating their cycle of denial and concern. Again, Jack refuses to be the “bad guy,” insisting that Kate’s habits aren’t an issue and that Rebecca is worried about nothing. Rebecca doesn’t say this explicitly, but she knows Jack has more pull with Kate than she does, and that in this particular case especially, she’ll need his support.
I like Jack a lot; really I do. But he’s not a saint, and it’s certainly not all down to his addiction. His handling of this whole situation is pretty abysmal. While Rebecca and Randall spend some time with their respective reading materials, Jack plays football with Kevin and Kate – and uses that time, not to see what his son has learned while he’s been gone, but to get Kate to run back and forth around the yard, ignoring her when she says she’s tired and admitting that he’s running her around because she’s “been eating a lot of sweets.” The reason Jack’s always the good guy is that, frankly, he’s atrocious at being strict in any way, about ANYTHING – ESPECIALLY with Kate. He’s so uncomfortable with his own authority in challenging times; when he speaks to Kate about the importance of being active, it’s with an embarrassed, tentative tone. And that, more than the message he was relaying, sends her all the wrong signals. She takes off and Jack follows close behind, leaving Kevin without a football partner. His gaze turns to Rebecca and Randall, so quietly comfortable with their books, and he snaps, calling Randall “four eyes” and throwing the football in his brother’s face.
When he follows Kate into the woods, Jack immediately snaps back into his preferred type of emotional expertise. He’s supportive, loving, and comforts Kate when she admits to being bullied by the kid down the street. But it’s this switch that’s just as damaging to his family, and that’s what just can’t see. Jack has left Rebecca out to dry, yet again, but what’s worse is that his emotional handling of the situation has now presented a very specific reality to his daughter – that exercising more is a point of shame, and food a comfort. Back at the cabin, Rebecca faces yet another conflict on entirely by herself, and also makes it worse with HER blind spot – her protection of Randall against any and all outside forces, up to and including her other son. When Randall loses his glasses, she immediately assumes Kevin has hid them, and refuses to take no for an answer. Could Kevin have hid them? Sure. But Randall, brilliant as he may be, is still nine. And nine year olds are more than capable of losing a pair of glasses under their bed. But that would never occur to Rebecca, and her dismissal of the possibility results in Kevin finally snapping, “I hate you. This cabin sucks. This family sucks. You suck.”
Back to their usual spirits, Jack and Kate bound back into the cabin, laughing up a storm after getting caught in the rain. Rebecca is in no mood, and she’s especially frustrated when Jack admits that he took Kate to get ice cream again after all. He tries to explain to Rebecca that he just couldn’t take the look on Kate’s face, but Rebecca knows that look. “I get that look all the time.” And still, she carries on. Making mistakes, surely, but trying to give the family a sense of structure and dependability, even while Jack takes them on secret toy runs and caves at the first sight of a disappointed child. He tries to promise to be more firm, but Rebecca knows better than to believe him, and honestly so do I.
Beth, Toby and Miguel
Beth Pearson has had it. It was bad enough when her brother in law crashed her basement unannounced, barely even capable of repaying her hospitality with a few babysitting nights. The minute Tess hid in his backseat, Kevin was done for – and that’s before he risked Tess’s life and limb, along with the lives of every other driver on the road, with his drunken escapade. It was hard enough for Beth to get on a plane to support Kevin in the best of circumstances, and the tentative peace they reached in Kevin’s trailer is long gone. It doesn’t matter one bit to Beth that Tess continues to claim that she’s fine, happy to be left at home with the babysitter, without any lingering depression or desires to run away. (I don’t believe her for a second, but we’ll get to that later.) What matters to her is that Kevin, once again, is the picture of privilege, sitting in the swankiest rehab facility money can buy after his arrest. Still, Kevin was there for her family at her husband’s lowest moment, so she’s stuck paying him a visit.
Toby, too, has other things on his mind. He’s about to accompany Kate back to the east coast, a mere month after their miscarriage. Kate’s mortified that she didn’t see her twin’s addiction (“I let Kevin get sent to rehab!”), and insists that they keep up their food regime even during this time of travel and chaos. Despite all the family drama, Kate is determined to continue “crushing it in the face of tragedy,” but Toby soon finds out that something else is going on. He takes out the trash only to have the bag break on him, leaving behind remnants of hidden junk food. Toby doesn’t say a word, but he’s clearly hurt – not that Kate’s broken the diet, but that she’s lying to him. Still, they all meet at the facility, ready to join Rebecca and the Big Three for Kevin’s family therapy session – only to find that the therapist, Barbara, has asked to restrict attendance to immediate family only.
Beth can’t get out of there fast enough. (“We don’t want to be the ones to impede on Kevin’s healing!”) She practically drags Miguel and Toby along with her. So begins the group hang I never knew I always needed. “The New Big Three” don’t have a damn thing in common on paper, but their experiences as the partners of the Pearsons are universal. Sure, these three have hung out at family functions, but I’m positive they’ve never spent time alone together until now. And the level of comfort and safety Beth, Miguel and Toby find with each other goes far beyond their rapid inebriation. It’s the type of IMMEDIATE connection you have with people who share a common experience, one that maybe no one else in their lives can understand.
“The Pearson No-Fly Zone,” made up of ferocious sibling protection and 70’s porn star mustaches, is something each of them have run up against – and something NONE of them can talk about with anyone else. By the time the conversation turns to Jack, it’s been so immediately cathartic, so completely natural and unguarded, that it’s easy to understand how Beth could forget who she’s talking to. If it were just Beth and Toby (and if you told me that’s a scene I’d kill for just a few weeks ago I would say you were as drunk as Miguel), the two could have gone a little deeper, spoken a little more honestly about the pedestal Jack stands atop so firmly. But Miguel DID know Jack. He’s not a complete family outsider like Beth and Toby. And Jack Pearson is in his no-fly zone, too. It’s a testament to Beth that, as soon as she steps too far in that direction, she hears Miguel’s pain, adjusts, and toasts the man she’ll never know. (And while we’re at it, those few seconds should be on all of Susan Kelechi Watson’s award reels, ever. Watching Beth Pearson think is always impactful, but the range of emotions that flash across her face in this moment really took my breath away.)
It was only a matter of time until the New Big Three move from discussions about their partners to sharing truths about themselves. A few beers later, Toby kicks things off by admitting that Kate has been hiding junk food from him. For once, his jealousy around who earns Kate’s immediate confidence felt less creepy and controlling and more human and honest. Toby has always seemed fixated on Kate’s relationship with Kevin – but as her twin and as the family member physically closest to them, it’s only natural that Kate tell him everything. When Toby opens up more honestly with Miguel and Beth, he can zoom out and see that the issue is bigger than that. He feels entirely left out of her emotional world. While his jealousy might have started with Kevin, Rebecca’s support during Kate’s miscarriage turned a corner in their relationship, too. And it’s left Toby to acknowledge that there’s a larger context to this than he’s ever admitted, one that keeps him on the outside. She won’t tell him about her change in diet, “But who knows, maybe she’ll tell Kevin at therapy, or maybe she’ll tell Randall or her mom – one of the Pearsons on the inside.”
Up until now, Miguel has been mostly silent. He’s bantered a little with Toby and Beth, but he’s kept to the side, letting them do most of the conversational driving. So when he finally snaps and opens up, it’s with one hell of a bang. Maybe it was his appreciation at Beth’s conversational 180, or a more general sense of comradery, or maybe he just couldn’t let it go unsaid any more. But after a year and a half of almost entirely ignoring the matter, Miguel finally speaks what we’ve all known and left untouched: “I married my best friends wife. Nobody talks about it, but everyone’s always thinking it.” Beth and Toby keep out of the way of his drunken truth-telling, only interrupting to gently deny his claims that “I’m one of the fighter pilots who doesn’t even have a name.” Miguel knows he’s just outside the Pearson family walls. But unlike Beth and Toby, he’s seen the reason the walls got built in the first place. He knows that no matter how much they might love their spouses and no matter how much they might fight amongst themselves, when it comes down to it, Rebecca, Kevin, Kate and Randall have built a protective force around each other. Because they’ve HAD to. Even at the expense of mental and emotional issues that need to get dragged into the light.
I’ve been saying for a while that each and every one of our surviving Pearsons needs to get into some no-bullshit-allowed therapy. But never in my wildest dreams did I picture a family therapy session that got into it so fully, so comprehensively, and so FAIRLY for all involved. Once the hugs, initial greetings and “Mister Rehab” behavior is behind them, Kevin’s therapist Barbara gets Rebecca and the Big Three in a room to talk about Kevin’s addiction. At the start, Kevin is so polite it physically hurt. But his apologies are genuine – at least, the ones to his siblings are. (“They tell us that we have to forgive ourselves for our wrongdoings, but that one’s gonna take some time for me.”) Kate is ready to forgive him immediately. It’s not as easy for Randall, who’s still livid at Kevin for risking Tess’s safety. (“When I think about how angry I am with him, I’m just gonna take a deep breath and force myself to say, ‘We’re here for you, Kevin.’”) Randall’s restraint, added to Kevin’s half-hearted apology to his mother and an overwhelming sense of well-mannered caution, makes it clear that no one was telling the whole truth. But Barbara is a professional, and she had no intention of letting the Pearsons get away with this.
After Barbara opens the door for Kevin to dig deeper and admit the real cause of his addiction, Kate sees what she thinks is an opening to what she’s been saying all along. She’s relieved and SO certain that Kevin is about to pour his grief about Jack’s death out into the room. Randall, though, looks more cautious. He might not want to get into this (“Oh, God, do we have to?”) but I think Randall suspects that something else is going on here. Still, Kate, Randall and Rebecca are put on edge when Barbara says that they want to discuss issues with the family that started long before Jack’s death.
The MINUTE Kevin starts speaking honestly, Kate and Rebecca interrupt him, refuting and minimizing his experience with their own perspectives. Still, Kevin keeps at it, quietly broaching the subject of his exclusion from the family, his constant status as no one’s favorite son, and the fact that addiction runs deep in their family – their grandfather, their father, and two of the three kids all show signs of the gene. Kate practically laughs in his face when Kevin states a simple fact: the Pearsons are a family of addicts.
I’ve watched this full scene at least five times, and on every viewing, I notice something new. The moments when one of the family members quiets down to let the other two say their piece: Randall, silent at talk of addiction, knowing he’s the only one who doesn’t share the same genetic pool – but that addiction is rampant in his own genetics, too. Kate, silent while Randall finally goes off on Kevin for his privileged life, even in the face of endangering his child. Rebecca, with a single tear falling down her face as she realizes that her late husband’s addiction cannot be swept under the rug, as much as he wishes it could be. And the moments when each one of them decides they can’t take it anymore, that they MUST speak: Kate trying to talk Randall down when he threatens to “compare tortured childhoods,” Randall breaking when he feels his mother is threatened, and Kevin calling out the reason Tess was hiding in his backseat in the first place.
Randall and Beth know that Tess and Annie are phenomenal kids, that they can handle basically anything thrown at them with a grace far beyond their years. But Annie is still the baby of the family, and the one they keep a stronger eye on, while Tess suffers from a quality that I know all too well – something I call the curse of the competent. Everyone knows Tess can handle anything, that she’ll bounce back, make the best of emotional trauma, getting good grades and winning chess competitions all at the same time. No one has to worry about her – and so no one does. And she’s taken that to heart, never wanting to be any trouble, never wanting to cause a scene or make a fuss. But her Uncle Kevin sees right through it because he’s got the curse, too. Kevin might not have swept through school with flying colors, but he’s still a picture of success. In the face of a debilitating injury, he found a successful second career, moving to LA and landing a lucrative acting job. He kept going through it all, kept ignoring his feelings of inadequacy at never being the focus of his family, painfully aware of the heightened challenges his other siblings faced compared to him. He kept going, until he couldn’t.
From the moment the Pearsons step into Barbara’s office until Rebecca finally snaps and admits the truth, there’s not so much as a whisper of a score. Rebecca’s admission that yes, she does love Randall more than her other children, plays in complete silence. So it’s purely on the strength of each of these four actors, and the characters that the writers have built, that I cry every single time this scene ends. It’s painful, yes. And it’s a shock that Rebecca finally was driven to that degree of honesty. But it’s also a relief. A relief for Kevin to finally know he’s not crazy, that he hasn’t made any of this up, and that his feelings are justified.
This right here is the strength of the Pearson No-Fly Zone. These three have been through hell and back together, and even though Randall and Kevin’s relationship has had serious ups and downs, they WANT to be there for each other. Randall knows he let his brother down when he attacked his perspective with such a cavalier attitude. (“I did a bad job today, and I’m sorry.”) Kate is now confronted with the reality that her issues around food might have another side to them, one than she ever considered. She knows she has to tell Toby the truth about her eating, and Randall knows Kevin was right about Tess, even if he doesn’t want to admit it yet. But for now, The Big Three just need to sit on a bench, look out at the scenery, and laugh together.
Just as she did back at the cabin all those years ago, Rebecca knows she owes Kevin an apology. And while there’s a lot to say that still goes unsaid, she recognizes the important things – that she just assumed Kevin would always be okay, that she took his quiet ability to push through as an assurance that he didn’t need her support at all. And that, even if the examples aren’t nearly as top of mind as they should be, she’s certain that they had moments – just the two of them.
Colors of the Painting
- KaToby IS a pretty great couple name.
- “I could get down and dirty with some cheese fries.”
- I wonder what Sophie would have to say during that New Big Three bar trip. After all, she knew Jack, too – and as Kevin’s high school girlfriend, she probably heard about his less-than-admirable qualities more than anyone else.
- We are all Beth’s exhausted sigh at Kevin saying “I’m blessed to have you all here.”
- Toby left Han out of his Star Wars metaphor as a reminder that, despite some solid arcs lately, I still don’t FULLY trust him.
- Of COURSE Randall loved Boyhood.
- I demand a Julie vs Randall Brownie Bake-Off.
- “That is some white people level repression, babe.” “Well I was raised by white people.” “Everybody knows.”
- Please enjoy a bonus Sterling with his latest Golden Globe.
What are your thoughts on “Fifth Wheel”? Let us know in the comments.