This Is Us Season 3, Episode 16
“Don’t Take My Sunshine Away”
Posted by Shannon
To be perfectly honest, I’m still recovering from last week’s episode. I think the show is too; after all, it’s standard practice to get a bit of a breather episode after the kind of hour we all endured last week. Which is not to say that “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” is a throw away episode. It’s got some heavy lifting to do, what with the season three finale just two weeks away. The groundwork laid is significant, and I’m on board for the season finale events that are coming into focus. (With one notable and obvious caveat, but more on that later.) Still, I suspect this is the last bit of stand alone Pearson action we’ll get in season three, so let’s all enjoy it while we can.
Jack and Rebecca
It’s been a minute since we’ve hung out in the early 90’s, and a school dance is as good an excuse as any. Rebecca has offered herself and Jack up as chaperones so they won’t miss any of the Big Three’s Big Moments. So far, said moments include Kevin refusing to put on his pants to avoid wrinkles, Randall refusing to get his head out of his science flashcards long enough to make direct eye contact with anyone, and Kate leaning the hell into a proper grunge phase. (Honestly it’s days like this that Kate is my favorite.)
The dance itself is a vision of 1992. The whole thing brought me right back to the balloons, weird snack tables, gym room vibes and general middle school awfulness that made up this awkward part of our lives. And you can be damn sure that if both of my parents (not one, but BOTH) decided to chaperone a dance when I was that age, I’d have lost my tiny nerdy mind. Kevin and Kate follow suit with a choir if “don’t embarrass us” and “I can’t believe you guys are here” before taking off to see Sophie and friends. Randall starts out okay, making it a whole 40 seconds before he starts asking Kate’s friend Jessica about mitochondria.
The back half of season three hasn’t spent much time with Jack and Rebecca. I didn’t notice it while it was happening, but after sitting with this episode for a while, I realized just how little these two have been together this season. And while yes, this storyline was a little hokey, a little sentimental, a little disconnected, it was just a relief to have these two spending time together. Talking about Frankie Avalon and how Jack missed out on dances as a kid (one especially close call for a homecoming was foiled after his dad was… well, his dad, taking off with the car after a fight. “No car, no dance.”). Relaxing together and swaying a little to soft 90’s pop hits. Running out on the dance to make out in the library and getting caught by their overly studious son.
So yes, it’s hokey for Rebecca to make a Frankie Avalon request and channel her inner 11 year old as she asks Jack to dance with her. Yes, this scene is really just an elaborate setup to talk about what they want for their kids in their adulthood and juxtapose the modern storyline. Yes, it’s a little tiresome to watch Rebecca continue to be mystified by Jack’s “troubled” youth. But these two are charming and in love and in this moment they’re happy. So while yes, as Jack says, “this is ridiculous,” Rebecca’s pitch-perfect “maybe” reminds him – and us – that while it may be ridiculous, sometimes it’s nice to just take a moment and enjoy being happy.
Randall and Beth
After spending another two days by the sides of Kate, Toby, and little Jack, Randall and Beth’s time away from the whiteboard has run out. They’re dragged back to reality which is, franky, pretty grim. Before leaving for LA their schedules hadn’t really kicked in yet and still, it barely takes a week for Beth and Randall’s tempers to sit barely under a boiling point. They’re both trying. Admirably. Randall’s jaw is set with visible evidence of just how exhausting it will be to keep this all up. It’s all committee books and permission slips and tenuous alarms ready to fall apart at the slightest bit of traffic.
They’re making it work. Beth picks the girls up from school, makes dinner, goes to teach. Randall taps in after a full day and a long drive to do the dishes, manage bedtime, help with science homework. But they’re barely seeing each other. A relationship this ready to break needs time, focus, attention. All things Randall and Beth are incapable of giving each other right now. The attempts to keep everything together feel almost desperate. The sign of hope here is just how much they both still need each other; as Beth waits for Randall to show up to her recital, she clutches her phone, anxious, practically willing him to make it through the door and only relaxing when he takes his seat. Randall knows he can’t make it through a big important dinner with the City Council President without Beth, not with all his potential committee assignments riding on a good impression. Neither of them WANTS to be without the other. But it’s painfully clear that a snap is just one wrong turn away.
And what a wrong turn. It’s impossible to say if Beth was out of line by asking Randall if she could skip out on dinner for drinks with her studio owner. On one hand, it does feel kind of inconsequential, considering how clear Randall was about his request. He was direct and honest and made no bones about how important this was to him. On the other, those kinds of impromptu moments with your boss can make or break a relationship, especially that early on. The certainty here, though, is that Randall was WAY out of line with that voicemail. He went so hard I was half convinced it would be revealed that something really dire had happened – a car accident, or something with one of the girls. Thankfully Beth was only detained by traffic and a dead cell battery, and she shows up to dinner very late but ready with her game face, fully prepared to be a partner in every sense of the way. All while a voicemail which includes the sentence “I hope you’re off having fun talking about how to teach bored housewives how to twirl better” waits like a time bomb.
The moment Beth showed up, Randall looked like he was going to sink through the floor in humiliation. With the kind of anxiety brain this guy has (I know because I share it) I’m sure he spent the entire dinner wondering if she’d already listened, trying to convince himself that she was being cold because she was bitter about missing drinks. Because then, at least, he could still be a little teeny bit not in the wrong. The moment the door properly closes on the City Council president, Randall makes a pitch for Beth to just delete the voicemail without listening to it. But Beth Pearson is not petty. She was cold because she heard it, and she’s mad as hell.
The signals here are pretty clear. Next week’s episode is focused on Randall and Beth, probably exclusively. This fight is gonna be bad. There’s a significant chance these two are headed for a separation, if not a divorce. Listen, obviously I don’t want this. No one wants this. I’ll reserve judgement until I see what happens, and I will admit that if that’s where we’re going, it’s at least been set up in a way that’s true to the characters. But man do I not want this.
Kevin and Zoe
A lot’s happened since we last saw Kevin and Zoe. The audience is spared Zoe confronting Kevin about the water bottle filled with vodka, spared any hand wringing and negotiation that preceded them landing in couples counseling, with Kevin four days sober. They are, as Kevin says, doing everything right. He’s trying out meetings, being honest, listening to Zoe as she explains that it was the “sneaking around, and the lying” that she could not abide. Zoe has always been clear about who she is and what she wants, and she is equally open in therapy. She knows Kevin is very capable of banking on his charisma to get him out of any situation, even accidentally; she notes to the therapist that “I see you trying not to smile at him and it’s okay, he’s very charming. He makes me want to smile at him too. I just don’t want to be a sucker.” Zoe’s fear tracks back to her question to Beth from the last episode; she’s concerned that she’ll be in the wrong not if she leaves, but if she stays. That she’ll be seen as a fool, trapping herself in a toxic relationship because she loves him. Kevin does want to be a good partner, for all his faults, and he has meant every word he’s said to Zoe. He wants the whole picture with her – marriage, kids, and for a half a second, even the suburbs.
Except these two have never had those real, future-oriented conversations. Zoe assumed, fairly, that Kevin didn’t want a family, so she never broached the subject. But the second he mentions kids, she knows this has to be discussed. She doesn’t waste a moment, letting Kevin know – gently, with consideration – that kids are not a part of her plan and never will be. Kevin’s thrown, but HE never mentioned it either. He’s never given ANY sign he’d want kids, not with Deja, Tess and Annie, not with Kate’s pregnancy. I have the feeling Kevin never really thought about it in those terms, never really asked himself what he wanted, before having this discussion with Zoe. I hesitate to call what she does an ultimatum, because it’s said so gently and with such honesty. But Zoe has no doubts on this, and she’s crystal clear that they shouldn’t continue down this road unless he’s on the same page.
Sophie has been on my mind lately – even before this week’s preview gave us a flash of her and Kevin standing outside her apartment. It’s only natural, after Kevin’s relapse, to think back to the last time we saw him like this. And remember that back in season two, Kevin left Sophie BECAUSE – in his booze addled mind – he suspected he didn’t want the same life that she did. Because he thought he could never give that to her, couldn’t be a father, that it would destroy him. That was the only time in all three seasons that Kevin has truly broached the subject of having kids before now, and it resulted directly in him blowing up his life. It’s poetic and apt, then, for an AA meeting in Park Slope to lead him directly back to her front door. Which Sophie, conveniently, just arrived at herself.
Honestly, this whole exchange was lovely. The casual intimacy of Kevin calling her Soph as he promises he’ll leave and strike this AA meeting off his list, the willingness with which she said she wanted to know if he was okay, even if she spent the last year holding steady at 70% wanting to kill him and 30% wondering if he was alright. The fact that she answers his invitation for coffee with “I’m engaged,” and that Kevin knows that means it’s safer for both of them to have a real conversation.
The only person who could call Kevin on any of this is Sophie. She knows it’s not that he’s bad at making choices, it’s that “you’re not used to doing it.” No one else could get away with telling Kevin he’s always had exactly what he wanted. He just wouldn’t listen; there’s too much baggage with anyone else. And she doesn’t say any of it with hatred or malice. Sophie has the kind of honesty that comes in knowing someone their whole life, and loving them in whatever way you can, and knowing that truth telling won’t change any of that. It’s exactly what he needs.
I’m proud of Kevin for this call. I’m proud of Zoe for making sure he’s taken all the time he really needs. And those front row tickets to Billy Joel for Sophie and her fiance? They’re a perfect goodbye.
Kate and Toby
Jack Pearson Damon is holding steady under the watchful eye of both his parents and a team of medical professionals. I know this is such a cliche but honestly, Chrissy Metz imbues Kate with a real glow this week. She’s practically bursting with love for her son, singing to him and watching over him as the nurses do their necessary tests. Toby’s not doing quite so great. He visibly tries to keep it together while his anxiety burns just under the surface, wincing every time a nurse goes in for a test and painfully reminding Kate that “we can’t know if he’s doing good, he can’t cry.” It looked like Toby was one bad move away from a panic attack, and he finally retreats back into the waiting room after snapping at a nurse.
I’m not a parent. I don’t know first hand how any of this would feel, and it’s all pretty horrifying even within the setting of a relatively safe family drama. So I’m at a bit of a loss to talk about Toby sitting out in those bacteria printed waiting room chairs, filling out Highlights magazines and cautiously bonding with another dad from the hospital by comparing traumas. I do know that Toby looks like he’s out of his own body. That it’s good for him to connect with another person in a similar situation. And I also know that it made me really uncomfortable to hear his new friend telling Toby that their wives are just better at this than they are. I think it made Toby uncomfortable, too. Every parent has a duty of care, regardless of gender. Not to mention they have a duty to not leave their partner in the dust, assuming she can handle the emotional weight of this all by herself just because she’s playing it off easier.
It’s moments like this that Toby’s character salvation really hits me over the head. He not only takes exactly the right lesson out of the waiting room, but he insists that Kate own up to his own failings. It was all so necessary. When Toby tells Kate that “I’ve been letting you down and I need you to admit that it sucks,” it opens the floodgates for her. This emotional labor is overwhelming, and she has been doing it all on her own. Kate never dismisses Toby’s fear (“when I look at him, all I can see is tubes and tape and needles and pain”) but she doesn’t let him get away with thinking this is all unique to his own experience. Kate’s scared, too. But she sees how Jack’s eyes look like Toby’s, and how his chin matches hers, and she centers herself. She has faith in Toby, and as soon as he realizes what he’s been doing wrong, she knows he has to go all in. So she leaves Toby to take over guard duty, complete with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg doll, while she goes to take a shower. And he does great. He’s still scared. They both are. But they’re in it together.
Colors of the Painting
- Beth’s clothes always, but ESPECIALLY Beth’s clothes at that dance recital.
- I am Jack’s face when he finds out the dance is four hours long.
- “I’m more of a tear open a bag of oreos kind of gal.” Hard same, Beth, hard same.
- It’s cute, in theory, to watch young Randall obsess about his science test. In reality, though, it’s distressing to watch him fixate on a .2 difference between him and the top of his science class.
- The image of Kate dancing with all her girlfriends at the dance gave me my whole life.
- That haunting track that bookends the episode? It’s Jake Houlsby’s “Howl,” and I’ll be listening to it for days.
What did you think of “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away”? Let us know in the comments.