This Is Us Season 3, Episode 14
Posted by Shannon
Generally speaking, this is not a family that handles large-scale transitions well. Without their patriarch, without their self-declared center, big life changes tend to throw everyone out of their grove. So a graduation theme was bound to be heavy, bound to involve a whole lot of Pearsons acting out without thinking. That said, it’s been a while since so many characters in This Is Us have so properly pissed me off. It’s not that “The Graduates” is a bad episode. It’s that very very few of our beloved Pearson’s are at their best in this hour. So buckle up, everyone, because I have a lot of yelling to do.
It’s mere months after Jack’s passing, and Rebecca is faced with two separate graduation ceremonies on the same day. She’s in the middle of the worst part of her mourning, when every single step she takes brings her back a decade or more, vaulting her memory back to the way things were when she and Jack began their life together. In this case, it’s the time they first bought a camcorder with sound to start recording the life and times of the Big Three. As she wanders the aisles herself, all the gadgets blur together, until the single dad from the PTA swings by to play white knight. And here we have the first person I need to yell about: Fuck. This. Guy. Pro tip, men of the world – do NOT ask out a woman who is clearly in the throws of a depression which has been spurred by the loss of her husband in a traumatic accident. Don’t do it. Literally no one should do this. Rebecca’s reaction couldn’t be better, and she shuts him down with the sheer look of shock and disgust on her face. But really, one more time, fuck that guy.
Back at home, the teenage Big Three are going through it, too. Randall tries on his graduation robes (he’s valedictorian, because of course he is) while Kate watches Felicity and refuses to speak to her twin. Kevin’s knee is healed, but his football career is over, and he’s decided his next step will be moving to New York with Sophie to become an actor. As Rebecca walks in, beaten down and heartbroken by Kate’s decision not to walk at her graduation, the portrait of the kid’s first few months out of high school starts to come into focus. Kate feels deeply abandoned by her twin. From her point of view, the only other person who’s always looked out for her, always comforted her when she’s needed it, is about to jump ship, leaving her alone – and worse, leaving her without a plan for her first year out of high school.
While Kate holds fast in her decision not to walk at graduation, she at least takes Kevin up on a party invitation. The twins sit out on the deck, forgiving each other, standing up for each other, and assuring the other that they’re in an okay place. But as Kate says, it’s not the Big Two – it’s the Big Three. Indeed, Randall is there too, watching from a few feet away, not wanting to intrude but ready to step in if he’s needed. It’s a perfect picture of the dynamic Randall has with Kate and Kevin for most of his young life; he’s there for his sister, the one who assures him that yes, they’ll be at each other’s houses for barbeques, while kept at a distance by his brother. Randall sees his spot with the Big Three as the stopgap, the person to swoop in when Kate needs help, but to stay out of the way when the twins are there for each other. And we know that Randall will step into that position in mere months after Kevin moves, refusing to leave his sister alone. By this time he’s already called Howard to give up his spot. As he gets up to leave the party, telling his siblings that the only way forward for the Big Three is together, he must have been thinking about that phone call. Must have been feeling confident in his own decision to stay, even as Kevin decides the opposite.
This Is Us has done an admirable job of facing the mental health issues of its main characters. It’s one of the things about this show that stays the most grounded, the most true, the most touching. But they hadn’t yet truly examined Rebecca’s mourning process. We know she’s a powerhouse, we know she did everything she could to hold the family – and herself – together. The particulars, though, have stayed pretty vague until this episode. I wasn’t surprised to see Miguel at the ready for Randall’s graduation. He made a promise to Jack to take care of his family if anything happened, and he’s a man of his word. But I was deeply grateful to him for being there while Rebecca spun out into a full blown panic attack, desperate for time to stop. Miguel’s suggestion, that she take some time and go to a group, is a good one. (He maybe could have held onto it until she had calmed down and caught her breath, but still.) He centers her, reminds her that “all you have to do is just be there for your son.” He matches so precisely to Rebecca’s priorities, and drops everything later that night to bring her to a (perfectly timed, but okay) grief counseling session. As painful as these sequences are, I really hope this isn’t the last we see of this time period. There’s so much to the weight of Rebecca’s mourning, and it’s empowering to see her take the same advice she used to beg of Jack. To see her reach out, ask for help. Talk to someone. It’s vital work and I’m so proud of her.
Randall, Beth, and Deja
Beth Pearson has waited long enough, and with the school from the last episode appropriately impressed, she’s ready to dive into her class schedule. It’ll be ballet classes in the morning and modern dance at night – but at this point, no color coding in the world can make sense of the family schedule. Randall throws off a plan to hire someone to help out, and while Beth knows it’s not quite so simple, she doesn’t push beyond her husband’s assurance that “we will figure out a way to make this work.” At this point, things are already about to fall apart. Beth’s pointed aside, that Randall was expecting her to get a higher paying job, put me on edge immediately. What about HIS career choices impacting the family budget? City councilmen aren’t exactly rolling in money, and certainly not those who have a three hour commute to pay for on top of it. But at this point, the dirty details haven’t quite made themselves clear yet, and Beth heads off to class.
Randall has a few weeks before he’s sworn in, so for now, he’s still holding down stay at home dad duties. Regardless, though, he would have been the one to get Deja’s call. She’s been pretty calm for most of this season, but the phenomenally bad judgement of one Ms. Cunningham is about to change all that. Deja has to take off from school even though she knows Randall is on the way; she just can’t bear to be there another moment. This teacher – this presumably qualified professional educator – decided to publish a personal essay Deja wrote about sleeping in her mother’s car without her permission.
I ABSOLUTELY CANNOT COMPREHEND how this is appropriate. Randall’s response is exactly right; he storms back to the school to read Ms. Cunningham the riot act. This teacher has even less to say for herself than I could have imagined, and immediately breaks down in tears at Randall’s reminder that personal means private and consent about sharing the details of one’s life experience is important. She pivots after apologizing and taking down the essay (which does NOT make any of this okay but I guess it’s something?) to let Randall know that Deja’s been doing exceptionally well in school. She had been held back for 7th grade, at the social worker’s recommendations, but she’s since caught up and is ready to make a leap to high school. Ms. Cunningham had, apparently, taken all the time she needed to rethink her publishing decisions and instead used it to talk to Deja’s teachers. Everyone agrees that, if she’s comfortable, Deja is ready for ninth grade.
Deja is visibly touched by Randall’s display of paternalistic defensiveness, but as he broaches the subject of skipping a grade, she’s clearly uncomfortable. This girl suffers no fools, and I don’t blame her a bit for being suspicious of a teacher who so blatantly breached their educational contract. But it’s more than that. She’s convinced that it’s not her skill that’s prompting this jump; it’s that “I’m only getting special treatment because I used to live in a car.” It says so much about how deeply she trusts Randall that she doesn’t shy away from the differences between how they interact with their pasts. Randall, in Deja’s eyes, is fine with his history being used to paint a picture. But sees it as special treatment, and it sets her hackles up. He’s understanding, even if he doesn’t quite get it, and leaves things be for the afternoon. Later in the evening, though, after she speeds through her homework (“Oh, do I have to start pretending things are harder for me now?”) they sit down again to continue the conversation. While Deja is entitled to her reactions, Randall reiterates that those reactions are the only things she can control – not the ways people treat her. At which point, a second layer of Deja’s refusal to skip a grade comes out. It’s not just that she doesn’t want special treatment (although she makes a point to say that’s still true). It’s that she has a routine for the first time in her young life. And she feels good in that routine, and comfortable, and safe. So for it all to change now, just as she’s getting settled, feels wrong.
Okay. Here we go. Frankly, Randall needed to have this conversation with his daughter WELL BEFORE running for public office. There will be no more dramatic change to her routine than Randall, who’s been at home the ENTIRE time Deja has lived under their roof, suddenly serving the city council for a town he doesn’t even live in. That’s the routine changer. Not skipping a grade, not Beth starting to teach dance. The fact that Randall never even considered this, never considered how important it would be for Deja to have stability and consistency, is upsetting. And that’s before he really goes off the rails. Later that night, after Beth has slayed her very first day at dance class and returns radiating happiness, Randall sits on the couch looking at the budget. (Again. This is a thing he needed to do BEFORE, oh I don’t know, buying a building and running for office.) They just can’t swing the cost of a professional coming into their house. Not someone who’s experienced with adopted and queer teens. The moment Randall said “money aside, do we really want some stranger picking up the slack?” I knew this man was about to really disappoint me for the first time in three seasons. The gall he has to tell his wife, after years of following fiscally questionable dream after fiscally questionable dream, that now that she has one of her own they need to “put a pin in it” is astounding and pathetic. And what about leaning on Rebecca more instead? Or Miguel, who is RETIRED and loves those kids? The least he could do is ask. But no. Randall is cautious about his wording, but he’s distressingly steadfast. He wants Beth to stay at home, with a pin in her dream (A. PIN.) while he follows his own.
Kevin and Kate
Over on the west coast, Toby is living his best celebratory life. Kate has finished the eight credits she needed to get her college degree, and while she’s ready to let the moment pass unacknowledged, that just will not fly with her husband. (“I don’t want this to be a whole thing.” “It’s me! It’s gonna be a whole thing!”) The sight of him marching into their bedroom in a cap and gown, playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on a little teeny trumpet and insisting that they celebrate with “whoopie pies or a Whoopi Goldberg marathon”, will sustain my faith in humanity for weeks to come. He’s practically begging for the opportunity to celebrate her and it’s beautiful. Toby even flew out Rebecca, who for the record, is just as invested in Kate having a proper celebration as her son in law. Kate’s touched in spite of herself (“It’s wildly over the top, but it’s sweet”) and is especially glad to hear that Kevin has come out to celebrate.
Kevin, who’s been hiding out in his hotel room, avoiding Kate and drinking himself into oblivion for days. It’s so painful to see him slide so completely back to where he started. It’s not just the visual of the bottles surrounding him, or the way his eyes are out of focus, or the return of his nervous, cocky energy that never really builds the same way when he’s sober. It’s the familiarity of seeing him in a sunlit hotel room in LA, lying to the woman in his life about work meetings and panicking to cover up the evidence.
While Zoe heads over to surprise Kevin and Kate, Toby is hard at work putting the final touches on his masterful graduation party. It’s not just for Kate; he’s included the other three students who are also graduating this semester, one of which is a dear sweet man upwards of 90 who has reclaimed his education after fleeing persecution and building a life in the states. He’s made programs with a gorgeous photo of Kate and a Yoda quote to set the stage, he’s set up a whole stage and taken it upon himself to hand out the diplomas. It’s all so lovely, so tender, so thoughtful. Which makes it even more jarring when Kevin rolls in, drunk, a mess, and acting like he’s got everything under control.
Kate can tell something is up with her twin, even before Zoe shows up and makes it crystal clear that Kevin has been lying to both of them by blowing up the spot of a fake spa day. (And how perfect a moment that would have been for Kevin and Kate to actually have. It’s all so upsetting.) He jumps into a toast to distract from his lies, rattling off platitudes that should have been heartfelt. The sound of a cocktail shaker sends him into a spiral and he can’t even stand to be there anymore, faking a call from Soderberg’s “people” and making a break back to his hotel room. One of the most upsetting things about this for me was how trusting Zoe is of him. Without the history, without ever having seen Kevin drunk, there’s nothing to tip her off. So she just stands there, assuming the best, trusting his lies. She’s not a fool, and the show (thankfully) doesn’t make her out to be. It’s that she has no reason not to trust him, and that she’s put so much faith in him and their relationship that it doesn’t occur to her this late in the game that she shouldn’t. Not right now.
Even with Kevin hiding out in his hotel room, Toby is still able to give Kate the graduation party she’s always deserved but never felt comfortable with. He’s practiced how to hand out diplomas and shake hands, he gives a speech, passes out cake to all the graduate’s families. It’s so, so lovely. And for Rebecca, it closes a loop she hadn’t dreamed of closing. The vision of her going up to her daughter, asking for a selfie and then gently crying (“I always wanted a picture of you in your cap and gown…”) was so moving. Rebecca’s got the pulse on all of her kids (and if she’d spent more than a few moments with Kevin, I think she’d have sussed him out just like Kate does) and she knows that her daughter shared one trait of her own mourning. Neither woman ever wanted time to move forward. Clocks, calendars, significant life events – they didn’t want any of it to remind them of the loss of Jack. But Kate has put in the work, making huge strides in the last few years alone. I especially loved Rebecca praising her daughter for making these moves “not because time told you to, but because you were really ready for it.” Rebecca and Kate have had a tough relationship, but one thing Rebecca has never done is push her kids into marriage. Just that little throwaway line underscores how admirable it is that she’s never pushed them in that direction.
When Kevin won’t return her texts, Kate knows without a shadow of a doubt that something is wrong. She goes straight to his hotel room and finds him exactly as she imagined. They’d barely spoken about Nicky before now and Kevin admits that it triggered his “whatever.” Now of course I’m not blaming Kate and Randall for this relapse. Alcoholism is a disease, and relapses during recovery are sadly very normal. But again. I’m struck by how completely Kate and Randall dropped the follow up about Kevin’s discovery of Nicky. Especially considering how much they both were aware of the impact this was having on their brother. Kate’s insistent that Kevin tell Zoe, and that’s the first time Kevin truly loses it. He knows that breaking her trust is massive. Zoe isn’t Sophie, she hasn’t been there through his illness, and she’s not going to forgive him easily. If at all. Kate bends on Zoe, but only if Kevin promises to get a sponsor – and goes with her, then and there, to a meeting. Which is when shit really hits the fan.
Through all of this episode, Kate has been stoic. She’s been focused on the people around her, and almost, weirdly, emotionless. Maybe the crux of it is in what Rebecca said. That this has all just brought her back to her dad’s death, and her brother’s drinking, and all the ceremonies she’d rather ignore. Maybe that’s what causes her water to break in the car on the way to an AA meeting. Or maybe there is no reason at all, and this is just the way of things. But no matter the cause, Kate is only 28 weeks, and Kevin has to call her an ambulance because he’s too drunk to drive. And here we have my last, although much more tentative, character I need to yell about. I did not, one bit, care for Toby shunning Kevin out of the way at the hospital. Or the way he set his jaw at the sight of his brother in law, or the way he yelled over the phone. This is not Kevin’s fault. And he behaved as best he could, getting his sister help immediately, not hiding from the reality of his situation. So while Toby has, for the last two years, made a real turnaround, I’m very very concerned that he’s going to snap and say something he shouldn’t.
But for now, Kate is in the hospital, settled in with both of her brothers by her side.
Colors of the Painting
- I know the visual of Randall showing up for his sister in a crisis was important, but him dropping hundreds of dollars on a flight to LA moments after telling Beth she can’t be a dance teacher because they don’t have enough money stung. My dude best be using points.
- Justin Hartley needs to be a bigger part of the conversation around the exceptional acting on This Is Us. The subtlety of his performance when Kevin is drunk, versus when he’s ten hours sober at the hospital, was exceptional. He is so so good.
- “He looks like Chris Hemsworth had a baby with the other Hemsworth.”
- Radio Shack Jack > Pilgrim Rick. Fight me.
- Again, we all know that the casting department is without fault, but I have to point out that EVEN THE BABIES LOOK LIKE THE ADULT BIG THREE. Honestly, it’s shockingly on point.
- Madison created her own cocktails for Kate’s graduation party, something called the “Commence-Mint” – which is suspiciously similar to a mojito. She continues to be my favorite.
What are your thoughts on “The Graduates”? Let us know in the comments!