This Is Us Season 3, Episode 12
“Songbird Road: Part Two”
Posted by Shannon
There must be something in the air on Songbird Road that brings the Pearson men down. For all the sadness of Part One, as dire as Nicky and Jack’s estrangement and as complicated as the Pearson brother’s service in Vietnam, the first half of this two-parter still felt like it was surrounded by a ring of hope. We knew that Nicky was alive and the worst-case scenario Randall feared wouldn’t come to pass. We knew that Kevin would swoop in and be there for Nicky decades later. Maybe it was Tess and Annie’s side-eye about their family’s tendency to bring home strays that lulled me into a false sense of security – but I really did (naively) believe that Nicky Pearson would forgive himself. And yet. “Songbird Road: Part Two” still has moments of hope, but all in all, This Is Us’s first formal two parter ends in a much darker place than it began.
Rebecca, Kevin and Nicky:
We pick up again exactly where we left off: with Kevin, Kate and Randall walking into Nicky’s trailer, talking him down, and taking him in. The moment they get to the hotel that evening it’s clear just how naïve everyone has been in regards to Nicky Pearson’s state of being. He shutters the curtains, refuses to eat, checks every room for hidden dangers, and bolts the door the moment the Big Three leave him in peace. In just those few actions, the audience is reminded of something Kevin refuses to fully comprehend: Nicky has been struggling in solitude for decades, and to blindly assume that he’ll be grateful for the attention and assimilate back into society without a word is foolhardy at best and outright dangerous at worst.
Randall and Kate can see all of this with clearer eyes than their brother. That said, though, I was disappointed to see them both assume that Kevin can take it all from here. As cute a moment as it was for them to play “not it” on calling Rebecca to give her the latest update, Kevin’s side comment that “I’ll take care of the whoooole thing” really stings. He’s in a precarious emotional position from the start. It’s frustrating that, after all Randall’s concern and understanding at the last episode, he seems to completely disengage from Kevin’s mental state the moment Nicky leaves the trailer. Meanwhile, Kevin barely sleeps that night, looking up VA centers and researching ways to help their uncle.
The moment Rebecca shows up to the breakfast table, unexpected and emotionally unprepared, the whole game changes. In retrospect there was nothing else to do in the scene – Randall, Kevin and Kate could only get so far with Nicky without another voice. And it had to be one connected to Jack, one who could say something like “you have his eyes” and know it in her bones. I can’t overstate how perfect everyone’s performance was in that moment. Every single actor in this show comes with their best on the regular, but Griffin Dunne, Mandy Moore and Justin Hartley in these few seconds are really something else. Rebecca’s spine practically shutters from the memory of that one, strange weekend when her husband took a work trip and came back in a state of emotional disrepair. Kevin’s eyes physically light up when he watches his mother recognize something of Jack within Nicky. This is exactly why he started the journey to begin with: to be closer to his father, to see what he could identify out in the world that belonged to Jack.
I touched on this a little already, but watching Randall and Kate tap out of Kevin’s whole experience with Nicky really mystified me. Both excuses are valid on their face: Kate certainly has to stop flying across the country at a moment’s notice at some point during her pregnancy, and Randall’s family has been under a ton of stress lately. But in Randall’s case, especially, none of that was new. To hear him so flippantly throw out a sentence like “I can’t just camp out in some hotel with an uncle who doesn’t want our help and dad didn’t want us to know in the first place” felt off key for his character. And Kevin snapping in response should have been another sign to both of his siblings that he needed more attention than they were giving him.
Kevin and Rebecca take Nicky to the VA themselves, and while Nicky looks ever so slightly more at home there than he did at the hotel, he’s certainly never comfortable. Through his eyes, the world outside his trailer is suspiciously clean, tidy, and absolutely full of triggers. The first tinge of hopelessness in the episode comes through here: It’s not just that Nicky’s not comfortable. It’s that he will never BE comfortable. Kevin, fresh from the push of his own newfound sobriety and pinning all his hopes on his uncle (whether he admits it or not), desperately wants to believe there’s hope. So Nicky tries as best he can to stay polite while explaining the truth of his situation to his newly discovered nephew. “I’ve been to counselors before and it didn’t work. Also, I’m a drunk. Oh, and also, I can’t seem to leave my trailer without getting the shakes.” But he just can’t stick the landing, and the moment Nicky utters “You’re out of your depth, kid,” it hits Kevin like a shot – and inspires a short and very pointed glare from Rebecca.
Rebecca has a complicated relationship with all three of her kids. (And really, find me the parent/child relationship that isn’t complicated. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) Randall was the favorite, Kate was the challenge, and Kevin was the mystery. You wouldn’t guess it at first, but in many ways, he’s quieter than Randall. It’s something Rebecca notes in her son’s young life, especially during that fated weekend so many years ago, when Jack just didn’t have it in him to take Kevin to the mall to get his rookie card signed. Rebecca goes along in Jack’s stead, and after Kevin flat-out refuses to leave the line to get lunch with his mom lest he miss his chance, she comes back to find she’s missed the interaction altogether. She sees her young son, alone, chatting up a storm with his rookie idol, John Smiley. But Kevin won’t tell Rebecca a word of what was exchanged – he just waves it aside as “nothing, I asked him to sign my card and he signed it.” Kate would have insisted one of her parents help her look up pool places in the town where her favorite rookie might be traded. Randall would have been in the living room writing out karate places, offering up his own in the meantime, calling in his teacher to offer insights. Kevin never said a word. He never wanted to make a fuss, or maybe never wanted to be known as someone who cared quite so much.
So when Rebecca and Nicky finally talk, it’s natural for her to be protective of Kevin. After asking, somewhat foolishly, for some fun childhood stories (“It wasn’t a childhood worth remembering”), she pivots, suggesting that Jack might have found his way back to Nicky. It’s all so well intentioned, just like everything else the Pearsons have said to Nicky in this hour, but it’s not something Nicky can bear hearing. When she changes gears again, suggesting that Kevin just wants to help Nicky, that he already sees his newly discovered uncle as family, it all becomes too much for him to take. Yes, it’s brutal, but honestly as soon as Nicky said “so let me get this straight, the message here is shape up, Nicky, because the kid needs a win?” I saw everything from his side. It’s crystal clear just how out of his body Nicky feels with Jack’s family. And yes, it’s sad, and hard, and not the way his story “should” go. But it’s honest and real. Nicholas Pearson is not a prop. He’s a man, and a veteran, and a person suffering from PTSD along with a myriad of other mental issues for which he has developed coping mechanisms. As much as I adore Kevin Pearson, and I do, it’s inappropriate for Kevin to try to swoop in and help when Nicky has been clear that despite his pleasantries, he wants no part of this. It’s too painful, and he deserves to be left in peace if that’s his wish.
Rebecca gets to that place too, and immediately apologizes for invading his space when Nicky comes back out to find her. But for all the isolation, and the deep, daily, mundane tragedy of his life, Nicky is a Pearson. So he waves aside her apology and instead offers the very thing she asked for in their first moments alone together: a lovely childhood memory of his big brother building him a fort. He lets Rebecca in to the heart of his one real, deep and painful truth: “it’s been so long, I don’t think I can.” And he knocks on Kevin’s door, who drops everything at just three words from his uncle. Nicky lets him play handyman in the trailer, and promises to attend one meeting – not necessarily two – but at least one. It’s all he can give. But it’s something.
I’ve mentioned in past recaps that I suspect the Pearson elder Kevin most identifies with is actually Nicky. There’s something in the eyes, something in his sneaky loneliness and unassuming sensitivity. Kevin matches his uncle one more time this hour, as he stares in misery out of his mother’s car window, knowing he’s relapsed and drank his uncle’s whiskey but unable to admit it out loud. He can’t bear to connect. Can’t bear to hear that Rebecca is proud of him. It’s the last in a long line of painfully, hopelessly realistic moments from this hour.
Jack, Kate and Randall:
It’s odd, in hindsight, that This is Us hadn’t yet played with memory. Sure, there have been a few times when I’ve been mystified by a character’s (usually one of the Big Three) ability to remember the most seemingly mundane details of their childhood. But memory has been more or less trusted for the first three Seasons. This is a perfect moment to play with that expectation, and while it all continues along on the desperately hopeless train we’ve boarded for the entire episode, I honestly love what they did here.
After begging off from the Kevin and Nicky experience, Kate and Randall take a little detour to the house where they grew up. Of course, as Kate is quick to clarify, it’s not the actual house of their childhood. But the space is there, and it’s more than enough to ignite their thoughts. On the car ride out, Kate starts to suspect that she too remembers the weekend Jack left to visit Nicky. It’s a weekend she remembers gleefully, one filled with pizza ordering and sequin fights. But from the very beginning, Randall remembered things differently. Sterling K. Brown delivers his quietest “huh…” with all the subtlety you could ask for, radiating the memory of something he’d rather forget, knowing all the while that he shouldn’t let on. He carries on with Kate, hoping that the visit will bring her the same type of joy it brought William back in Memphis. So Randall and Kate show up to the house, ready to greet an unsuspecting family of unknowns who are going through their own drama, thank you very much.
Returning to the streets of one’s childhood after a very long absence is emotionally draining at best and outright traumatic at worst. For Kate and Randall, it’s a bit of both. Once they actually get inside the house and start piecing together rooms and memories, Kate is practically high with the thought of her father and his sequin fight. It’s the most blatant example we’ve ever had of Kate ignoring everything about her childhood that didn’t lionize Jack above all else. But Randall is more keyed-in. And he was as a kid, too.
It was incredibly unusual for Jack to beg off of a parenting duty – so much so that I wonder if it wasn’t that very moment, Jack despondent and admitting that he just couldn’t face taking Kevin to a card shop, that marked the weekend in Rebecca’s memory. While Rebecca took Kevin off his father’s hands for the day, there were still two other little ones to care for. And even though they were usually the type to leave their father alone while he does “grown up stuff, work, taxes,” they’re still just kids who want to order an insane pizza and over decorate their school Valentine’s Day cards.
From the beginning, Randall knew. He came out to sit on the porch with his dad, never saying a word, a tiny little rock of comfort. He came out to check on Jack in the garage. And he knows the plate didn’t just slip out of Jack’s hands after he came in to discover glitter all over the living room – Jack threw it against the wall in a fit of rage and sadness. It all flows over him again as an adult, when he’s standing in that space and his sister insists that it was one of the very best weekends of their childhood. It wasn’t. (It’s also SUPER inappropriate to have that conversation in front of total and complete strangers, but hey.)
Dissecting memories in this way – questioning their validity, examining how you’ve swayed your own history – is really hard stuff. For all that we’ve seen Kate address her personal struggles with self worth, it’s more rare for her to face her tendency to put Jack on an impossible pedestal. And I’m not talking about how the memory of Jack influences her romantic relationship with Toby – Jack and Rebecca’s relationship left an indelible mark on all three of their kids’ lives with their partners. But Kate, more than anyone else, has refused to see fault in her father. She’s refused it to the point of altering her memory to suit her belief. While Randall is right in regards to parenting, that the most important thing is to “pack the days with as much good stuff as possible and hope that it outweighs the bad,” Kate is still ignoring some of the more complex aspects of her childhood. I hope this is the first moment for her to being to really examine those realities.
But for now, after an hour filled with melancholy, at least we can end with a sequin party.
Colors of the Painting:
- As unimpressed as I am with the lack of emotional support Randall and Kate offered to their brother, I do love that Kevin and Rebecca were given space to admit to each other how angry they were at Jack for keeping Nicky a secret.
- Again, let’s give it up for Griffin Dunne, who manages to precisely match the sad, disconnected way Michael Angarano stares out onto the distance – both in the passenger side of Jack’s car, and sitting out on the dock in Vietnam.
- In an episode rife with varying levels of sadness, this was a sheer moment of childhood levity that just cracked me up:
- “Pringles are pretty great.” “Don’t be funny right now.” “I’m not, I really like pringles.”
- “You guys might be geniuses.” “Pizza geniuses.”
- Once he’s back home, Randall has assigned each of his girls a Schuyler sister likeness: Deja is Angelica, Eliza is Tess, and Peggy is Annie. This… fully checks out.
- Toby is soaring along on his upward trajectory, ready and waiting with new slippers for Kate when she gets home. He’s fully on board with her plan for a big projector and popcorn and movie nights with the kiddo, and honestly, what monster wouldn’t be?
- As Randall rejoins the house, Beth runs right out of it: her mom has hurt her hip, and she’s got to make a break for it in DC. Folks, hang on, because the Beth-centric episode is coming up next!
- Look at this man with a paper heart on his face. LOOK AT HIM.
What did you think of the conclusion of Songbird Road? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Source: NBC