This Is Us Season 3, Episode 15
“The Waiting Room”
Posted by Shannon
A well timed, well executed bottle episode is a thing of beauty. They can’t be overused, and you shouldn’t necessarily see one coming, but if a bottle episode hits it out of the park it immediately becomes one of the most memorable, affecting episodes of any show’s run. “The Waiting Room” shot to the top of my list of favorites (right under Breaking Bad’s “Fly” and MAYBE EVEN ABOVE House MD’s “Last Resort”) before it even ended. The entire adult Pearson family is self-confined to a hospital waiting room while Kate, Toby and team of medical professionals handle the physical ramifications of her water breaking at just 28 weeks. The result is just as harrowing as “Super Bowl Sunday” with the added, overwhelming tension of so many interconnected emotional throughlines all coming to a head at once.
Ten hours after Kate was admitted, Randall arrived, ready to sit with his siblings through anything and everything. Rebecca, Toby, and Zoe were already there, which leaves Miguel and Beth to complete the set. Those two arrive at some point in the middle of the night, and by 4am, the whole family has been there for give or take 26 hours. A waiting room is one of those weird, symbiotic social spaces where, depending on the hospital and depending on the day, it might contain any combination of humanity. On this particular day, the room has been left to the devices of the Pearsons. An environmental show is on the TV, looking eerily neon, and no one is speaking.
This whole episode unfolds like a tight one act play, with the added benefit of over 50 hours of context. So before shit really kicks off, I want to pause to take the temperature of everyone in the room. Kevin is hungover after breaking his sobriety, and because he had to confess to Toby, everyone (including Zoe) knows it. Randall and Beth are in the middle of the most potentially damaging chasms of their relationship and no one knows it. Kevin and Randall are at odds from the word go, due to the vicious ways both men have chosen to act out against their aforementioned situations. Rebecca is at sea, only breaking her silences to make increasingly disturbing observations about the space around her. (“They look like little surprised faces, little faces frozen in a scream.”) And Miguel is just trying to keep everyone together.
Frankly, it’s all pretty fucking dire.
By the time the doctor finally makes an appearance, everyone has locked into their energies for the hour. Most notably, the hypermasculine headbutting of Randall and Kevin is in full swing, and with an intensity we haven’t seen for years. They’re taking more care with each other than when they were literally rolling around on the street, but the emotional blows are ready to hit at the smallest provocation and Kevin starts off at a breaking point. He’s acting out the most against this physical confinement. His energy is claustrophobic, trapped, panicked. (“You gotta let me breathe, man.”) The weight of Kevin’s relapse is so palpable that it’s almost easy to forget that his twin is the reason all of this is happening. Kate is stable, and the doctor assures them that 28 weeks is a significant milestone, but a teeny bit of ill-advised googling can throw everyone into a spiral at a moment’s notice.
The intricate relationship builds aren’t the only reason this episode was so draining. They’re a big part of it, sure, but the other major piece of this episode’s puzzle is the intimate way every Pearson responds privately to the chaos swirling around them. Response to a crisis may not always be the best a person has to offer. But even if your reaction to a crisis isn’t great, it still offers a deep truth about how you engage with the world. Personally, I’m extremely level-headed in a crisis — until the second it’s over, and then I promptly spin out and lose my shit. Kevin throws his weight around, refusing to take no for an answer from anyone in authority, offering to pay as much as it takes to get Kate transferred if this hospital doesn’t have the very best money can buy. (“I realize how awful that sounds but I’m way past the point of self consciousness.”) Randall checks authority, plays peacekeeper with the doctor, thanks everyone for their service, acts like he’s keeping to himself but simultaneously provokes everyone around him. (When he actually gave Beth permission to answer her own phone, I physically recoiled.) Miguel tries to create a vision of authority himself, desperate to keep the family mentally distracted by making everyone try to come up with a food that isn’t improved by ranch or chocolate.
And Madison, my dear, weird, sweet, awkward, blonde favorite, just wants to be there for her friend. She steps in it every time she opens her mouth, asking Kevin about Vietnam practically seconds after Zoe tries to trace the timeline of Kevin’s relapse and offering toothpaste as a food that can’t be improved by chocolate or ranch. (“It’s…not a food? It doesn’t count.”) Madison is a well of pure human decency – frankly, she’s very similar to Kevin in that way. Both of them can easily be written off for their supposed superficialities. But both of them are extremely loyal and extremely loving. It’s what gets them there in the first place. So it’s no wonder Kate is so connected to both of them. Maybe that’s why, when Kevin snaps at Madison with a biting, dismissive “I’m sorry, what exactly are you doing here?” it cuts so deep. He apologizes, eventually leaving to take a walk (yeah… more on that later) but Madison can’t bear to ACTUALLY leave. Instead, later in the hour, Miguel finds her waiting in the hallway.
Madison was the keeper of Kate’s birth plan. She knew the playlist, she was designated photographer. Weeks ago she had demanded Kate go into a baby store to “show the universe you believe this is going to happen” where the friends had picked out a knit Ruth Bader Ginsberg doll to give to Kate’s son as soon as he was born. But now “the baby’s coming too early. The doll’s locked in her apartment, the plan is falling apart — but I was supposed to be here the whole time.” And yes, I’m going to climb on to my very familiar soap box here because I just have to say this. It’s a REAL shame that none of the Pearsons value Madison’s friendship. This goes beyond a family in crisis acting out. No one, save Rebecca’s polite and genuine thank you at the donut box, really stopped to think that Madison might have something to offer this vigil. But she has a right to be there for her friend. Miguel, patron saint of Pearson misfits, is the only person capable of making himself available to Madison. He’s been on the outside for so long, and he knows he always will be. Miguel has found peace in that, comfortable finding his place “without sitting in someone else’s seat.” As much as I loved this scene for the comradery of Miguel and Madison, it was an uneasy reminder of how ingracious the Pearsons can be to anyone they don’t include in their little family circle.
Aside from the obvious concern about Kate, I felt the most tension this hour watching Beth and Randall tiptoe around each other. It’s hard to tell if the simmering pressure Randall directs at Beth and Kevin is kept in check by the fact that his entire family is around or exacerbated by it; either way, Randall spends a good portion of the episode subtly picking fights. Beth tries, multiple times, to keep their current situation out of the waiting room. But he eggs her on, prompting “you just gonna keep on being weird to me till Kate and Toby’s kid is in college?” She tries to keep his eyes on Kate and the family, but Randall won’t let it go, and before long Beth is reminding him that every single argument he’s now throwing in her face about dance is identical to the ones she was using when she begged him to drop out of the race. Every time a fight really breaks out, like it does here after Beth insists that if they’re going to talk about it they include the entire family – which results in Kevin immediately taking Beth’s side – Rebecca is the one to shut it down. It’s that she’s so SILENT for most of the hour: when she does speak up, everyone shakes into reality and behaves. After this particular fight, Kevin snaps, leaving for his walk and refusing to let anyone come with him.
Randall knows his brother. And Zoe knows her partner. Neither of them wanted to let Kevin leave the room alone. But he insists, and off he goes, leaving Randall to ask Zoe the moment the door closes if she knew Kevin was drinking again. This whole hour, Randall reminded me of a badly tempered chihuahua, picking fights with other dogs and never quite catching the blame when they snap. He’s already triggered Beth and Kevin into acting out and earned a talking to from his mother. This time, as he turns an interrogation on Zoe, Rebecca interjects with another distressing observation, noticing that the circles on the chair look like bacteria. It’s still not enough to get Randall to completely stop. He’s so desperate to solve a problem he believes he can be controlled that he searches for ways to “get ahead of” his brother’s relapse. But that’s not how this works – and again, it’s not the time. It’s Miguel’s turn to take a stab at shutting him down, and while Randall (publically) cedes the floor, he can’t help an aside to Beth about Miguel dad-voicing him.
It’s mere moments until he’s back at Beth again, insisting that he just has some “practical questions” about how they can make the numbers work. And honestly, a round of applause this ENTIRE scene for Beth Pearson. She shuts her husband down again and again, trying to make it clear to him just how patronizing, condescending and flat out selfish it is for him to tell her that the whole thing is her choice, that “I just want you to be happy. If you’re not happy I’m not happy.” (What he’s really saying is that since he couldn’t make this sacrifice he’s counting on her to, and that if she doesn’t, they family will just have to suffer together. Have I mentioned lately how hard I think it’s going to be for them to come back from this, because truly, Randall digs himself in deeper every time he opens his mouth and it’s painful.) Beth is the one to jump to Rebecca’s side when she stands and falters, lightheaded, barely having eaten anything in 26 hours. I lived for her politely and firmly telling Miguel not to speak for Rebecca. Her practically force-feeding Rebecca a donut (“there was one year that Annie refused to eat anything that wasn’t orange, so I got mad skills”) was a shining moment. The love that these women share, and the gratitude that comes over Rebecca’s face when she finally does eat and realizes how much she needed it – it was overwhelming.
The Pearson men are a brooding, thoughtful, occasionally difficult bunch. But they’re rarely as infuriatingly masculine as they were in “The Waiting Room.” I was struck, over and over and over again, by the men spinning out while women kept the focus. And for better or worse, no one keeps the focus quite like Zoe. The moment Kevin comes back holding a water bottle, she eyes it with suspicion. But she deflects, distracts. Asks if he wants a table at the Michelin starred vending machine down the hallway before asking again when this all started, why he didn’t share it with him. Kevin says all the right things. “We’ll talk about it, I know I owe you that.” He promises this was a slip, that he’s done, that he won’t lie to her, that he knows that lying was the thing she was the most heartbroken over. All while clinging to a bottle of vodka.
Not that she knows that yet.
When Beth and Zoe steal a moment at the vending machine, desperate to get away to a place where “these crazy ass brothers can’t find us” (“What about the girls?” “Oh, I’ll send for them.”) they don’t waste a moment of privacy. It’s the lie, again and again, Zoe says. The lie is what upsets her. Not that he relapsed in the first place, or that he needed space after everything with NIcky. (“I invented needing space.”) It’s the lie. For all that Beth is there for Zoe, she still doesn’t quite get the level to which Zoe has let Kevin in. Beth assumes (with reason) that Zoe wants to bounce, and assures her sistercousin that she won’t judge. Beth’s assurance means something tangible to Zoe, but it’s not that she needs permission to leave. She needs permission to stay. Zoe doesn’t suffer fools. But Kevin isn’t a fool, he’s an addict. And if he held to his promise, if he truly stopped lying, I think Zoe would stick with him. But all of that is yet to be seen.
For now, they’re all still locked in the waiting room with those crazy ass brothers who, at least for the moment, are actually focused on thoughts of their sister. What she’s planned to name the baby (“It’s a boy, right, so we just assume”) and remembering how she named all her stuffed animals and said goodnight to each one. “She wanted each one to hear its name before she fell asleep. It took forever.” It prompts Rebecca into a spiral as she counts the chairs in the room and comes ever so slightly unhinged. Still, Randall is fixated, this time referencing my bright idea of asking Miguel to step in and help out with the girls. Except, in a move I truly should have seen coming but never even considered, Rebecca and Miguel have other plans. And those plans involve moving to California to be there for Kate, Toby, and the little one.
This is where everyone really starts to come unglued. Randall snaps once and for all, demanding to know how long this had been in the works and when exactly they were going to tell anyone. Kevin snaps too, yelling at Randall (who yells right back) and even unplugging the hospital’s TV, ridding the family of those unsettlingly neon bird videos. Once Kevin starts he can’t stop. The walls are closing in on him again and with no updates for hours, he’s in a full-on panic about Kate. (“And yes, I googled it, okay? I know the half assed doctor told me not to google it but I googled it.”) He rattles off illness after illness, nightmare after nightmare, working himself up and (FINALLY) prompting the pretzel woman to move on down the road. He’s just generally out of his mind, and as he storms the nurse’s desk to get an update, he leaves his water unattended – which is when Zoe takes a sip and finds vodka in his bottle. She doesn’t say a word, and the camera pulls back to focus on Randall fixing the TV, but upon rewatch (or if you’re Kim, who has eyes like a hawk and figured this all out AGES before I did, upon first watch), it’s clear that Zoe is physically shaken. She doesn’t say a word; not in the middle of this madness. Because as soon as Kevin talks to the nurse, Randall is right behind, insisting that he’ll get more – or different – information. The brotherly pissing contest is exhausting, and it starts to grate on Miguel, who tries and fails to distract the room. They build and build and build – Kevin finally giving voice to what I’ve been yelling about for episodes, asking Randall why he left him alone with Nicky, insisting that Randall explain what exactly being “best equipt” has to do with anything. Miguel jumps in again, this time yelling at Randall and Kevin, trying to assert his own failing vision of patriarchy onto the scene until all three men are yelling at and over each other, with all three women waiting for one of them to come to their damn senses.
Rebecca, of course it’s Rebecca, finally screams for silence and schools each and every one of them. “None of this matters,” she starts, before going in for a quiet, devastating monologue, remembering every single detail of the waiting room she and Jack sat in all those years ago. The number of people, the number of outlets, the fake potted plant, the green cushions with plastic over them. All of it, precise, vivid, exacting. And perhaps, maybe even probably, the first time anyone had heard her speak of that night. No one moves, and neither does the camera, as Rebecca recounts all those details, finally silencing them once and for all with “I’m sorry but anything that’s bothering you right now that doesn’t have to do with Kate or my grandson, it doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t matter. And I need you to put it away right now.”
Everyone gets a moment to collect themselves (the audience included) before we see Toby, for the first time this hour, looking exactly like a man who hasn’t slept in what must now be over 30 hours. But their frighteningly small baby has been born as safely as possible, he’s being cared for, and Kate is doing wonderfully. Which is, as Rebecca said just moments ago, the only thing that matters right now.
Without the hour that had come before, without Miguel trying so desperately to assert himself and without him proving just how impossible it is to be an outsider in this family, I might have laughed at Toby saying that Kate wanted to see Miguel first. But in the moment, I believed him too, and I was so thrilled and touched at the possibility of one of the Big Three embracing Miguel so completely. (And yes, in hindsight I know it wouldn’t have made any sense, but I’m a sap so just go with it.) It doesn’t break Miguel away from his duties; the man has saved Toby’s parent’s phone numbers for just this occasion and he rushes to call them when Toby makes the ask. They all clean up, pull themselves together, and return the waiting room to its original antiseptic form, readying themselves for the long road ahead.
The relationships are all still in tact, but even as Randall and Beth assure themselves they’ll be fine, giving Miguel and Rebecca their blessing, and even as Kevin and Zoe joke about “twunkles,” there’s a fragility that wasn’t there at the start of the hour. Zoe’s ragged nails, her gel manicure ripped off through the hours spent in the waiting room chairs, are clearly visible as Kevin hugs her, putting her in an impossible and frankly emotionally abusive position, insisting that the lies have stopped and that he can’t do this without her. While she KNOWS he’s been nursing a bottle of vodka. And while she never broadcasts the fact, never breaks the scene for anyone else, she does – thankfully – tell Beth the truth before finally putting the waiting room behind them.
Which brings us to our final scene, the only one in the hour to take place elsewhere in the hospital. Toby was right; Kate is doing wonderfully. She’s steady and calm even as she announces the felonies she’d commit for this tiny child. Toby looks almost split in half, overwhelmed with the same love Kate feels and weighted down with panic over how tiny their son is, how strangely his little chest rises and falls as he breathes. This sequence, and everything about it, is completely, perfectly beautiful. How Kate holds Toby’s hand. How he never even blinks when she says “I’m gonna do something weird but just go with it.” How she speaks to Jack, and introduces their son to his grandfather. How, thanks to Madison, she gets to keep one small part of her birth plan and presents little Jack with his very own Ruth Bader Ginsberg. (“She’s tough. You’re tough.”) How they hold Jack’s hand.
Colors of the Painting
- Let’s talk about how the entirety of “The Waiting Room” is done without music. It’s a masterful decision and one I could go on about all day long, but I’ll hold myself back and just say that opening with babies crying and then inserting that woman with her HIDEOUSLY grating pretzel noises half way through were both strokes of genius.
- “I know everything I need to know about birds, Randall.”
- “Your mom loves succulents!” “SINCE WHEN?!”
- I spent a lot of this episode being various levels of disappointed with Kevin and Randall, but bless both of them for that entire Meghan Markle exchange.
- This kind of nitpick isn’t usually my style, but considering how much of this episode was focused on child care: who in the hell is staying with Tess, Deja and Annie?
What did you think of “The Waiting Room”? Let us know in the comments!