This Is Us Season 3, Episode 9
“The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning”
Posted by Shannon
Is this my favorite episode of This Is Us ever? I can’t say for sure. But it’s on the list, right up there with “Memphis” and the entire Big Three trilogy. And there’s no question that it’s my favorite episode of this season. “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” could have gone in so many different ways. I’ve been terrified that Nick’s death in Vietnam would be too horrific to bear, or that the mystery “her” from the flash-forward would be someone painfully tragic like Annie, or Deja, or Kate. More recently, I’ve been terrified that the show would muck up Tess’s coming out story, assassinating the character of one or both of her parents along the way. (It still wasn’t perfect, but more on that later.) Nearly all those fears were put aside this week. And the more time I spent with this episode, the more I think it’s the ideal encapsulation of this show and all the things I love about it. A little inspiring, a little melodramatic, a little flawed. Oft inclined to sneak up on you with a grounded, perfect moment. And always, ALWAYS, ready to come in clutch with the best music cues on network TV.
Randall, Beth, Rebecca and Tess:
Randall is many things and a procrastinator is absolutely one of them. He’s been avoiding debate prep all week, opting instead to sneak into Annie’s room and help her prep for a spelling bee. Beth may have quit the campaign (honestly, for the best) but she’s still there to make sure her husband gets ready to face Sol Brown “in an unofficial, best wife in the world capacity.” But Annie’s not the only kid capable of distracting the parental units. Tess is being angsty, quiet, and coming just short of slamming doors, while Deja is sneaking phone calls to her mom. (I LOVED Beth’s little hop to the carpet to be sure Deja wouldn’t hear her footsteps.) There’s just a lot going on under the Pearson roof, and while Randall wants to jump in and fix anything he can, Beth would rather he take some time, focus, and get ready to fight another day.
He needs all the debate prep he can get. Randall is a first-time politician, and he’s facing a well-known, well-practiced incumbent. Solomon Brown tears Randall to shreds in the first part of the debate; not even Beth’s pitch-perfect, inspired, Michelle Obama-level amazing speech can prepare Randall for Councilman Brown’s attacks. (Most of which he should have seen coming.) Randall’s okay in front of a crowd, but he makes some basic politician missteps: mispronouncing the news anchor’s name opens him right up to Sol Brown going hard on the whole Alpine, New Jersey residence. It’s not even a contest. Brown has Randall on taxes, on bus route negotiations – it felt like a boxing match, and one in which every single swing Randall tried to take was deftly sidestepped. Until, that is, Randall finally hits his stride, bringing it back to his roots and insisting that “you got to say your piece, Brother Brown, give me a chance to say mine if you would.”
Randall’s first big political venture, back at the soul food restaurant, was a disaster. He did better later on, at a small table in Koreatown, and at the soup kitchen one-on-one. So he brings the room down to his size, sitting on the steps offstage, reading city council meeting minutes and rattling off name after name of community members who have been overlooked time and time again. Sol Brown will always have him on big, political machinations. But Randall is better with potholes. Access ramps. Snow plows. And when he starts to lead the crowd in a chant of “take a chance,” every single face that mattered knew he had the room. (How wonderful was it to see Deja, so proud of Randall, nodding along in the audience?)
An election is bigger than a debate, though, and most of District 12 wasn’t in attendance. Randall was inspired, and connected with the community, and had a real shot – if he’d hit that stride earlier. Jae-won and Beth come up to him afterwards to both congratulate him and give him the bad news – there’s just no way they can catch up to the lead Brown has in the polls. It’s a losing war, regardless of the battle Randall just won.
This…happened faster than I thought it would. Just one episode after Tess came out to her Aunt Kate, a larger swath of the Pearson family is brought into her trusted circle. But some are told more appropriately than others. Here’s the thing. Kate should not, under any circumstances, have outed Tess to Rebecca. She shouldn’t have outed Tess to ANYone. The excuse that Kate wanted to make sure someone nearby knew to keep an eye on her was weak and tired and frankly, poor writing. Rebecca could have driven Tess to the debate, had a conversation with her in the car, sussed out that something was up, and given her the same lovely words of wisdom about whatever unknown thing that was bothering her – all without Kate breaking her niece’s trust. Hell, Kate even could have warned Rebecca that something was up while making it clear she couldn’t betray Tess’s confidence on the specifics. A lot of the conversation around this episode from the cast has been about how important it is to see Tess, a young woman of color, come out to a supportive family without making it a Very Special Episode. I agree with that wholeheartedly – those parts of the story need to be seen and felt around the country by other kids and families having similar experiences. But it is also important to model good behavior as the person who receives privileged information. And outing this child to her grandmother does not model good behavior. Not to mention the fact that it breaks any trust Tess might have had with her Aunt going forward.
Be all that as it may, the scene itself is pretty perfect. While I was surprised at the quick turnaround, I’m very happy to not have this be a big, scary burden that Tess carried with her for months and months. Randall and Beth are not in the ideal place to hear Tess’s fears; they’re exhausted, emotionally and physically, and have already taken a parental hit after hearing that Deja wants to go to Delaware to see her mom. (But while we’re on the subject, I love that Randall immediately says okay and I LOVE the look of relief – and slight disbelief that it was so easy – on Deja’s face.) So when their first born comes down the stairs, looking a little weepy and more than a little scared, it almost would have been understandable if they had brushed her off. Almost. I wish the moment Tess started talking, they both took her just a little more seriously. I wish Randall wasn’t so quick to assure Tess that he never really wanted her to have a boyfriend anyway. But I can accept all that. Because Beth holding her daughter’s hand, assuring her that no two people on the planet love her more than they do, and Randall matching his daughter’s wishes to not make this a big deal, keeping his face practically frozen for fear of making her feel like he’s more freaked out than he is – it’s all exactly what we’ve come to expect and love about Randall and Beth.
Which brings us to that last scene. I admit, I was so paralyzed with fear that the show would fuck up Tess’s coming out, I didn’t see the writing on the wall. Looking back, though, it’s obvious. Beth has gone above and beyond to support Randall in this campaign, formally and informally. The kids need both of their attention, and they need it desperately. If the debate had gone a different way, or if this conversation had happened the night before, or both – I’m confident Randall would have dropped out, no questions asked. But to drop out the night he had a room full of people who need him chanting that they’d take a chance? The night he promised a community, in no uncertain terms, that he would not be deterred, and that he would show up for them no matter what? He can’t bring himself to do it.
Without a word – and worse, without a touch – Beth puts linens out on the couch. Randall’s broken a sacrosanct promise, and I get the feeling it’s the first time he’s ever crossed that line. He has certainly learned how to talk like a politician.
Kate and Toby:
Back on the West coast, Kate and Toby are getting a lot of good news from their Doctor. The ultrasound is normal, tests are all looking positive, and they’re far enough along to find out the sex if they want. There’s a slight catch, because of course there is. Kate’s job as a singing Adele-a-gram has her sitting in the car for too many hours a day, and while Dr. Jasper stops short of insisting she quit her job, she strongly implies as much. (Dr. Jasper continues to try my patience, tbh.) I’ll always beat the drum for more female friends across all timelines and storylines in this show, because how great was it to see Kate go for a walk with Madison to talk things out? Madison is there to brainstorm, having a moment of clarity as she realizes that the school she volunteers for is in need of a new short-term choir teacher.
I LOVE THIS IDEA and not just because I’m a choir kid for all of my days. Kate’s professional ups and downs have been frustrating, and it’s been hard to see where she should land. But a chorus teacher? She knows the kind of peace and support choirs offer students. She would click in with her art, work within the community – it’s perfect for her. The principal agrees, and if Kate had finished college, the job would have been hers.
We have to talk a little about Toby here. I’ve talked about it before but honestly the turn-around on his character has been remarkable. When he suggests Kate stop working, it’s not from the same controlling place it would have been in Season One. It’s not about shutting her out from her community or ignoring the crux of her fear – that her job is the only thing distracting her and occupying her time in between ultrasounds. Both Kate and Toby have been paralyzed within this pregnancy so far. They’re too frightened that something will go wrong to settle in and enjoy this time – even opting to not know the sex of the baby, when they both patently hate surprises. So Toby, emotionally intelligent, kind, thoughtful Toby (I’M STILL NOT USED TO WRITING THIS WAY ABOUT HIM BUT I CANNOT DENY IT) drives Kate over to “the Harvard of San Fernando valley” with the next best idea after choir director. The six months that remain in Kate’s pregnancy offer just enough time for her to finally finish her degree: to close the loop that Toby knows keeps her up at night, to distract her from the day to day of all her medical concerns and make her smile. It’s as perfect as the sparkle they both have in their eyes.
Kevin, Zoe, Jack and Nicky:
I want to talk about all of the Vietnam scenes together here, not just because of the masterful cut of Jack and Kevin walking the same landscape decades apart, but because these sequences were in direct conversation with each other for the entire episode. Kevin and Nicky have a lot in common, and it’s not just down to the pain medication addiction. Kevin is antsy, moody, and leaning too hard into a torturously meta debate about which episode of his own imaginary docuseries he’s in. His Uncle Nicky is much the same, and he’s also taking it out on the only person who has any interest in supporting him at the time. Kevin often gets lost in the little worries without paying attention to the big picture. He’s focused entirely on if the roads will clear, without registering that he has no control on how this story plays out or thinking about the larger moment of his own history. Nicky can’t bear to look at anything outside his day to day, breaking into his medicine stash because “I don’t want to get clean, Jack. I see it all again when I’m clean.” There are moments when all of the Big Three channel their father, but so far when it comes to Nicky, I see the most direct line drawn right over to Kevin.
Kevin and Zoe’s hotel guide is basically a plot delivery device, but I’m not mad about it. He’s the one who introduces them to the local historian (not the little boy who cut his foot after all), and acts as translator, going above and beyond every step of the way. (It doesn’t hurt that the guide’s sister is a Manny fan and that Kevin’s agreed to give her a shirtless selfie. Bless.) Kevin is impatient and frustrated when it becomes clear that the historian has nothing for him and he very nearly misses the big picture yet again. Finally, he does settle in, listening to the historian talk about his father as an actor of sorts, one who spent his time in the war sneaking back to see his son, pretending that he was safely exploring fantastical lands. (“He was a good actor, maybe like you…. they both hid their war stories, they both pretended to be okay for their children.”) It all comes back around to lean into the thesis of the show, and frankly, the thing I always think about with war stories of any kind: we’re more the same than we are different, and at the end of the day, was it really worth fighting?
In one of the last conversations we’ve seen between Jack and Nicky, Nicky throws away the line, “I didn’t really feel like being found.” And OH, THE FORESHADOWING. Nicky. Pearson. Lives. Listen I fully love this and not just because I had a sneaking suspicion (along with select corners of the internet) that Nicky hadn’t died. (If he had, how would Jack have said that his biggest regret about the war DIDN’T involve his baby brother??) Nicholas Pearson, 46th Infantry, is nowhere to be found on the war registry because he’s alive and well in Pennsyl-fucking-vania. Did he fake his own death to break out of the war? Did Jack know this whole time and help him cover his tracks? Was Jack sneaking off to meet up with his brother from time to time, or did he live out his days NOT KNOWING that his baby brother was within commuting distance? Honestly I can’t wait to find out.
Colors of the Painting:
- The other big reveal of the episode – that the flashforward has the elder Big Three traveling to see Rebecca – strongly implies that Randall and Beth are no longer together. Why else would Tess call her, and not Randall? This is generally awful for a ton of reasons but the plus side is that we get Beth living her best Angela Bassett-inspired life and managing a ballet studio?
- Shut it all down because this episode brought out one of my favorite songs of ALL TIME: John Prine’s masterpiece, “Angel from Montgomery.” Listen and cry because I do every damn time.
- “Hey Annie, can you spell career defining moment?”
- “It’s an adolescent girl conveyer belt in here.”
- Rebecca talked to Tess like she was an adult: not a teen who wouldn’t understand the serious deep pain Rebecca has lived through. She hides from nothing and as a result, it registers with Tess. I hope we get to see more of Rebecca grandparenting because she absolutely nails it.
- “Listen, these are tumultuous times but I’m not running for president.”
- “Human beings are not supposed to be in baked goods!”
What did you think of the midseason finale? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Source: NBC