This Is Us Season 4, Episode 1
Posted by Shannon
Welcome to the halfway point of This Is Us, fam!
With the three (THREE!) season renewal the show landed earlier this summer, it was all but confirmed that Dan Fogelman and friends have always planned for the show to be a six-season arc complete with a known ending. Which, in turn, makes the opening episode of season four especially notable. Last season’s premier felt like a reset, but this feels more like a relaunch. Everything is clicking into place to establish the second half of the show – the universe has been expanded, we’re stretching out more into the future, and we brought in a whole crop of new faces along the way. But lest we be distracted by season stretches and seemingly unknown naked dudes, the storytelling focus will always, always lead back to the Pearson clan. The fun is in finding out how.
Jack and Rebecca
And so the spine of this week’s episode is Jack and Rebecca in the midst of their young love timeline, immediately after they return from the road trip to LA that also served as their third date. These two, honestly.
This meta exchange was the launching point for season four’s promos and even found its way into the episode’s title. It’s a little heavy handed but Mandy Moore makes the whole thing work far better than it should, especially when pivoting into their charming and playful side. It’s so delicate, watching Jack and Rebecca this early in their relationship. The bones of their dynamic are absolutely there. The banter about who’s calling who first, the natural, unassuming purity of spirit with which they both clearly love each other. But they’re not perfect, now or ever, and Rebecca is still pretty naive about how this whole thing is going to go down in the long term. So when they do finally connect on the phone (with Jack calling mere seconds before Rebecca picked up the phone to do the same, because of course) Rebecca is so anxious to see Jack again that she invites him to join for a previously arranged dinner. With her parents. At. Their. Country. Club.
MY GIRL. There are about a million things wrong here and she absolutely should have known better. This is the kind of thing I might have railed against as recently as last season, but whether it’s the cross country road trip of it all or sheer exhaustion in the face of these two’s insistence on moving at a breakneck speed, I’m willing to throw my hands in the air and just accept that it’s a natural course for their relationship origin story. That said, I don’t know what Rebecca thought would happen when she told Jack that he’d need a sport coat but that he could borrow one at the club – of COURSE he would be too proud and too insistent to do that at her parent’s club the first time he meets them. It’s a disaster waiting to happen which also happens to double as the ultimate meet cute.
Miguel is Jack’s fairy godfriend just when he’s needed most. Remember, Jack’s social support after coming home from Vietnam is non-existent. His family was never a source for that, and with Nicky gone it’s even worse. His only other friend (that we know of) was the guy he ran around robbing bars with. So it goes without saying that he could really use a new friend right about now. Miguel’s off to a great start, offering Jack a tailor-free sport coat that, while it’s tagged at $98, can be returned easily the next week by tucking the tag up the sleeve. This plan is a little problematic from the get (these things NEVER work out the way they’re supposed to) but it’s certainly well intentioned.
Speaking of problematic but well intentioned, Jack shows up looking dapper as hell in time for Rebecca to give him the headlines on her family a few moments before walking to the table. We know going in that her mother is going to be a Problem, and wow does she live up to those expectations from the start. (That whole bit about switching to “happier topics” was condescending, dismissive, and all around disgusting, not to mention her assumption turned dig at Jack’s family’s wealth.) Rebecca’s dad, however, was a question mark up until now. Rebecca clearly adores him and insists to Jack that he’ll be on their side. He has his moments; he’s welcoming at the very top of the conversation and he doesn’t let Jack cary through dinner with food on his lapel. But truth be told, my hackles were up the moment he first asked Jack about Vietnam despite Rebecca’s request that everyone do precisely the opposite.
Even Jack Pearson needs a Jack Pearson pep talk once and awhile, and pushing through the emotional minefield that is this dinner absolutely calls for one. When Jack comes back to the table after collecting himself, he’s every inch the Jack Pearson we know and love. In a single, sweeping monologue, he speaks to every jab that was thrown at him with eloquence and grace, silencing and shaming what I can only assume is a table full of Nixon voters. (Rebecca aside, obviously.) By the time he wraps, saying quietly but firmly that “people died, people that I love. So do respect – it may not seem like a real war back here, but I promise you that war was very real to those of us who were there” Rebecca is entirely in love with him. It’s written all across her face, clear as day, for both her parents to see. Her father certainly registers it – and he registers the tag sliding out of Jack’s sleeve, catching Jack’s eye before gesturing to it silently. This could have been seen as a kindness, a show of respect, but I took it more as a power play. Rebecca’s father doesn’t shame Jack in that moment because he knows the table is entirely Jack’s – not to mention Rebecca herself. But he makes sure Jack knows that he’s been found out.
Sure enough, on their way out, Rebecca’s father goes full scale patriarch in the worst sense of the word. His read on Jack is painfully accurate. (“I can also see a man who is carrying things with him and I can see a man who is far more haunted than he wants to let on.”) He knows precisely what kind of man Jack is, and he’s seen the best of him. Which makes it even more egregious when he smoothly states that “I want more for her than you can offer.” Rebecca’s father swears to fight their relationship with all he has. Jack has the wherewithal not to say anything to Rebecca, not now and probably not for a good long time, but the battle lines have been drawn. It’s no wonder Rebecca never spoke about her father in any of the future timelines; I have a feeling this is gonna get brutal. But for now, at least, they end the evening in a safe haven: the burger bar where Rebecca sang open mics, now complete with Jack watching from their table.
Cassidy, Malik and Jack
Which brings us to the new kids. The introduction for these three doesn’t give a thing away until the end, so much so that it wasn’t even clear which character from each vignette would have a connection back to the Pearsons. However, it’s clear enough from the start that these are the three people we’re sitting with, regardless of how they track back to the greater plot. We meet Cassidy somewhere in the middle east, serving in the army. We meet Malik watching his phone and talking to his friends, looking like your standard issue 16 year old. And we meet an unnamed man who’s a little hung over and looking for some breakfast.
Let’s start with Cassidy Sharp. In her barracks in a far away war, cradling a child’s toy car, trying to skype home in time to see her kid and not quite making it before bedtime. Jennifer Morrison is so, so good from the start. She gets vital information about Cassidy as a person across instantaneously; this is a woman stuck in a deeply flawed situation, serving her country as best as she can, trying to be respectful and conscientious while also holding the line. She’s conflicted, but not quite tortured, frustrated but distant. Her time in the army is coming to a close and she’s released home shortly after the connection she made in a nearby village also leads to its destruction. Cassidy is wary, disconnected, disassociated. It’s visible during her car ride home that she’s struggling, and when her kid’s ketchup triggers an emotional shut down at dinner, it’s obvious that she’s in the throws of serious PTSD.
Cassidy’s timeline in these first few scenes is fuzzy. We don’t know how long she was serving, or where. We don’t know how long she’s home before she starts drinking, frustrated and abandoned by a civilian society that has all but turned its back on her. We don’t know if she had a drinking problem before she left, or if she and her husband were already on the outs. But we do know that a broken water heater and $1,200 is what leads her to completely dissociate from her family, hitting her kid for yelling for her attention without even looking at him. It’s all so deeply sad, and her husband’s reaction implies that this is the last straw in a long line of emotional offenses.
Which leads her, again after an unspecified amount of time, to seek treatment at her local VA. Her mental health intake form is a wreck but she’s willing to speak honestly in group; “My life’s at a standstill – actually that’s a lie, it’s moving in reverse … I can’t feel anything. I can’t feel sadness, I certainly can’t feel joy.” And she’s willing to explain exactly what about that water heater’s replacement rate caused her to respond so severely: it was precisely the amount of money given to the surviving villagers for each death. It’s unspeakable. And it’s exactly the moment that Nicky Pearson throws a chair through a window (at the VA OFFICE FOR A PTSD GROUP, Jesus, Nicky), shattering the glass and landing himself in handcuffs – with a call into Kevin to foot the bill.
Off in an unknown town at an unknown time, an unknown man wakes up from a hangover to make himself and his adorably fluffy puppy some eggs. Both the puppy and the man are cute as hell, and everything seems picturesque and mundane until the plate gets knocked over and it becomes clear that this stranger is blind.
Before we continue I’m going to drop the whole unknown man thing because 1) I already blew it in the title and 2) I am OVERCOME by how similar the young Jack Damon is to basically everyone he’s related to. Upon rewatch, everything about Jack’s trip to the diner SCREAMED Toby – with a dash of his namesake Jack Pearson. The way his flirtation is just a little more exhausting than it should be (if screaming when Lucy touched his arm wasn’t enough, creepily listening for her name was straight up old Toby). The way he carries himself with confidence and humour; hell, his momentary lack of faith in his own art could have come right from Kevin’s days on The Manny. It’s all straight out of the Pearson-Damon playbook. Lucy and Jack’s fast-forwarded courtship rivals that of his elders; getting the dog in on the proposal, hanging the broken plate on the wall, supporting Lucy while she starts her dream restaurant and bantering “I’m sorry my brain just short circuited” upon hearing that she’s pregnant. I can’t say I guessed who Jack Damon was upon first watch. But upon rewatch, it’s glaring in all the best ways. Being a supportive partner with wisecracks at the ready is in his blood. (I snorted at “Look at me. Are you looking at me? I’m blind.”) And if all of that wasn’t enough – one of the Pearson clan finally made it big in music. Jack Damon is a rock star, everyone. I can’t wait to learn more about how he got there.
Which leaves us with Malik, a kid going into his junior year in high school who’s barely able to tear himself away from his phone. His home life is supportive, active and even a little crazed; Malik’s parents both work long hours and there’s a tiny baby who needs watching. Said tiny baby was the girl Malik was checking on constantly through his phone: he’s a very young father, and while the mother is an unknown entity at this point it’s clear that the responsibility for raising this baby lies squarely with Malik and his parents.
Said parents are extremely endearing and I love them both from the start – and not just because his father Darnell is played by Omar Epps. They’re completely in love (“Grandma and Grandpa are cheesy as hell”), adore their son (“Promise to shine that beautiful light of yours into the world today!”) and operate at the highest level of responsibility. It’s quickly established that Malik works with his father as a mechanic, working on custom cars in the back and rolling his eyes when his dad gives an older woman rocking a Randall Pearson bumper sticker a break on the bill. Malik has heard his mother’s lectures about responsibility, but he’s taken them to mean that he needs to make money above all else. As such he does a little digging with the shady character he saw making deals out of his car earlier in the day, asking for an illegal side hustle to help put his kid in a private pre-k.
Darnell is an observant man and he’s seen some shit of his own. He immediately clocks Malik’s conversation and doesn’t waste any time bringing it up in the car. Darnell doesn’t even give voice to what it was Malik was doing; he doesn’t have to. All he says, after delivering a Very Good Speech is “don’t even think about it.” (Welcome to This Is Us, Omar Epps. You’ll fit right in here.) With that, and an offer to watch his granddaughter to give Malik a night off, the table is set for the last puzzle piece to snap into place. Malik’s corner of the world is Philadelphia: precisely the school district Deja and Sky attend. The young love jumps out over a grill in .02 seconds and Deja cannot contain her chill when she gets home later that night.
I am a sucker for a good montage. Doubly so when said montage is masterfully laying out plot connections and jumping around in time the way only This Is Us can. The leaps forward and backwards in time that started last season had me checking out phone technology and trying to trace links at every possible spot, but I can honestly say that the way this episode wraps is the reason I could never quit this show. Everything snaps together perfectly. It’s magic, and it’s mundane, and it’s true to life. So let’s go, season four. Let’s go.
Colors of the Painting
- Now, dearest readers. If you only know me from my writing over here on Head Over Feels, you are aware of some pieces of media that I truly love. Hannibal, Frasier, every single solitary inch of Tony Stark – all high on the list. But I’ve not yet written about one of the shows of my heart. My ride or die procedural forever favorite, House, M.D. AND IT IS A HOUSE REUNION UP IN HERE. Welcome back to my television screens, Omar Epps and Jennifer Morrison. (Foreman and Cameron, respectively.) I will never shut up about how wonderful you both are and if these writers hurt a single hair on your character’s heads, there will be hell to pay. (I KNOW I KNOW, IT’S THIS IS US WE’RE TALKING ABOUT.)
- One of our leads spent the hiatus recording her first new album in a decade and the first single from said album is fucking GREAT. Welcome back, girl. We missed you.
- Lest you think that Mandy Moore and Chrissy Metz are the only cast members with musical performance in their hearts, may I present Chris Sullivan, also known as Hermes from Hadestown’s off-broadway run?
- $98 for a sport coat in 1975 is NO JOKE. If google is to be trusted, inflation from the late 70’s puts that thing at over $400. I kiiiind of can’t believe that Jack wouldn’t at least have gone to a better discount store.
- I mean…
What did you think of “Strangers”? Let us know in the comments.