This Is Us Season 4, Episode 2
“The Pool: Part Two”
Posted by Shannon
I’ve been revisiting my all-time favorite novel recently (A Prayer for Owen Meany, which, for the record, leaves the crying ratio for This Is Us out in the cold). Within said all-time favorite novel sits one of my all-time favorite lines: “You think you have a memory; but it has you.” (What can I say, I’m a woman of repeating themes. And yes I did learn my love of the semicolon from John Irving so take it up with him directly.) That line haunted me even more than usual during this hour because when I saw this week’s episode title, I thought I knew what we would be getting into. Some new part of the first season story we thought was complete, or a sequence added on later from that same day that shaped the family in some notable way.
What I got instead was a delicate exploration of memory. Time in “The Pool: Part Two” doesn’t jump so much as slip. The entire hour centers on our main characters remembering, implicitly or explicitly, times in their lives which have both repeated and evolved in ever-changing context. It’s graceful and dense all at once.
Jack and Rebecca
The thing about casting the kids in different age groups is that they’re consistently moving the story forward, just as much as the birthday markers are in the modern timeline. The same actors credited as The Big Three: Age 8 back in the first season are now credited The Big Three: Age 12. (TWELVE. ALREADY.) With that in mind, it’s obvious that “The Pool: Part Two” would take place a few years later than its first installation. The kids are going into 7th grade, with all the agita and unease that age brings along with it. They’re equal parts ornery and indualistic; each of them would rather spend a late summer day doing precisely what they want instead of trekking to the pool they used to love with their parents. For Kate it’s a 90210 marathon, for Kevin it’s his walkman, for Randall it’s knocking two more books out of the local library’s summer readathon. (Boy after my own heart, truly.) The time slips start right at the top of the hour. Rebecca loses herself in thought, the way so many of us do when fading into a different part of our own personal timelines; she’s remembering the same three kids begging to head out to the pool just a few short years and a lifetime ago.
The kid’s problems mirror that from the first season episode, too. Kate again finds herself confronted by the popular girls under the guise of playing nice. Randall has yet another poolside confrontation with his racial identity. And Kevin feels emotionally abandoned, leading him to recklessly taunt his brother in front of his black friends by successfully rapping Wreckx-n-Effect and prompting one of them to ask “how your brother blacker than you, Randall?” when he can’t pick up the next verse.
This whole scene was tough. Randall retaliates against his brother’s cruelty by destroying his cassette tape, launching a massive fight. It’s hard to say if Randall and Kevin’s unified front against Jack (neither of them tell him the real cause of their fight, both out of embarrassment but from two very different roots) is a positive or not. Ultimately, I lean toward it being a positive. I don’t trust that Jack would know how to handle something as sensitive and subtle as the kind of measured attack Kevin lobbied against his brother’s sense of identity. Randall also might not have been able to put it into words. There’s loyalty to Kevin within Randall’s decision, too; he doesn’t want Kevin to be found out and he can’t bear to admit how upset he is. But ultimately Randall has all the self awareness and understanding of his own pain that he needs to be able to wrap up the crux of the issue in a neat line: “You embarrassed me in front of my friends and you liked doing it. You’re supposed to be my brother.”
There is some deeper analysis to be made about how This Is Us argues for and against the capacity for personal growth. Maybe one day I’ll write it, when all the chips are down and the final episode has aired. Because as much as this is an optimistic show, focused on regeneration and love and humankind’s capacity for growth, it also returns time and time again to the core of an unchanging personality. Kevin is Kevin is Kevin. Randall is Randall is Randall. It’s just as easy to see those boys arguing in the present timeline about Kevin’s tendency to dismiss or mistreat his brother’s emotional wellbeing, with Randall responding in precisely the same way – an astute comment on the core of the fight, and a genuine explanation of the pain it caused. As much as the complicated men narrative is occasionally exhausting and often problematic (especially when framed around salvation in external relationships, as it is here) Jack isn’t wrong. These Pearson men have generations of trauma behind them.
It’s not all sunshine and poolside hangs with the women of the family, either. Rebecca is hovering, insistent that the popular girls who invited Kate over must be up to something. She’s right in the end, but Kate deserves to be left in peace to make her own decisions too. It’s crystal clear that she can handle herself in this moment. Sure, the girls were playing a trick. But she handles it with agency and a clear head. There are two lingering moments in these final scenes that twig to different timeframes; Rebecca worrying about her daughter looks precisely the same whether it’s by the pool or in her grown kid’s home decades later. And Randall’s simmering turmoil looks precisely the same whether it’s wrecking his brother’s tape or projecting his worries onto his own kids.
Randall and Beth
To be fair, he has plenty to worry about with those three. This is the first week we’ve really dug into the Philadelphia move, and while everything is still exceptionally fluid it’s clear that the girls are taking full advantage of the opportunity to reinvent themselves. In his own time slip of sorts, Randall repeats the same framework his mother set up for pool day take two: a Classic Pearson Family Fun day to get everyone settled in their new city. Except Beth has paint colors for her studio to pick out, Deja was promised a test run on the bus line, and Tess was promised a trip the salon after growing her hair out for a new style all summer. (Annie, bless her, has no plans in mind.)
With all the tumult of Randall’s election and the marital struggles between him and Beth, it feels like an eternity since these five had such a lovely storyline. They’re all in fine form this week and it just felt great to watch them all settle in together, with their growing pains and their mutual love and respect. It’s not all fluff, and I don’t mean to dismiss the storyline here, but nothing’s all that bad either. Beth is anxious about Tess’s haircut, especially once she sneaks a look at the photo her daughter has been eyeing all summer. It’s a physical representation of Tess’s individuality; she’s starting at a new high school, with new friends, and a recently solidified identity around her sexuality – it’s a LOT for her to process, much less for Beth to watch from a distance, knowing she can’t get too involved. And Tess is nervous, for sure. There’s a whole lot at stake, and things might not go quite as smoothly for her as it does for the other girls. But she’s got her mother’s confidence and grace, regardless of what her hair looks like. And damn is that cut great.
Meanwhile, things on the bus line are going at about the same temperature. That said, of all the parent child relationships on the show regardless of timeline, it’s very possible that Deja and Randall are my favorite – and this whole sequence is a perfect display of why that is. Deja consistently challenges Randall on his values and assumptions, reminding him of their vastly different life experiences. (“I also had a whole life before I met you… something that makes you uncomfortable reminds me of where I’m from.”) And Randall just as consistently looks out for her while adjusting his behavior if he knows she’s in the right. They’re so similar and so different and they’re both deeply conscientious of those facts. The way these two respect each other, the way they can speak honestly and clearly while ALSO maintaining a true parental relationship – it’s magic.
Continuing on this whole character love fest, it’s very possible that I have never loved Randall Pearson more than I did when he brought his kids in on Worst Case Scenario. It’s not just that that game speaks to me on a molecular level, or that it allowed for exactly the right space for the kids to vocalize their fears about the move. Well, okay, it is both of those things. But it’s also that it displays clear as day how much respect both Beth and Randall have for their kids as people. Changing schools and states at their age HARD. (Trust me, I speak from experience.) And the best thing Beth and Randall can do for their daughters is to give them the space to feel their feelings, even moreso than usual. Worst Case Scenario meets all those needs and more.
So is it any wonder that these five standing on the Rocky steps and cheering together was my first proper cry of season four? Nope. It’s no wonder at all.
Kevin, Kate and Toby
The west coast contingent certainly kept busy during the summer. Kate and Toby bought a house, Kevin is filming a new movie with M. Night Shyamalan, and Rebecca and Miguel subscribed to the Hollywood Reporter. Most of it is a bustle of activity surrounding baby Jack, but the issues we left them with back in the spring haven’t vanished. Far from it. Kevin’s sobriety is at 187 days and he’s holding firm, if not always steady. While he’s on set he can focus on crying perfect single tears – but when he’s not at work he’s at a loss for what to do with himself and his time. He attends doctors appointments with Kate and Toby, but he’s visibly going through the motions, and I suspect those appointments make him feel even more helpless and out of control. At least there’s his ficus benjamina, purchased after his sponsor had the thoughtful insight that narrowing his vision to the care of something simple would help him keep his feet steady. And, of course, there’s the constant worry about his Uncle Nicky, who is refusing to return Kevin’s calls after that substantial bail money wire.
Kevin’s twin, though, seems to be holding both firm AND steady after baby Jack’s diagnosis. Kate has barely blinked in the face of this life changing circumstance. She narrates everything for Jack as if she’s been doing it all her life, and though Toby keeps up with her (“All you have to remember is that I am the hairy one”) it’s clear that he’s a little more in his feelings about the whole thing than his wife. A specialist coming to the house to help them optimize their home for Jack adds to the emotional chaos that’s already bubbling just under the surface. It’s visible in every exchange, even from Madison, whose party starting personae falls away into tears the moment the specialist starts talking. You can practically see Rebecca’s shoulders slump under the weight of balancing constant concern for her daughter with (to her credit) the knowledge that she must proceed with caution lest she trigger Kate and send her down a worse spiral. So instead, she speaks to Toby alone and asks about his own emotional state. (“Honestly? Hanging on by a thread.”)
I love the way Toby opens up to Rebecca here, and I love her reactions in the moment. She gives him space, she lets him process, she offers support but doesn’t insist on offering guidance. And the result is a wonderful, subtle, careful monologue from Chris Sullivan as he recalls the day they received the first diagnosis: “My amazing wife just nodding her head as if someone is giving her a bad weather report. She has been that way every single day since. Just steady. To be honest I’m kind of in awe of her… and of all the things that I’m worried about right now, she’s at the top of my list.” I’m not willing to say unequivocally that Kate hasn’t processed her feelings about Jack’s sight. But it’s a quick turnaround for her to embrace all of this so cleanly. It’s only natural for her to freak out when she makes a quick aside about buying a fancy TV so she can get baby Jack to watch the Steelers. Toby makes a great, self-deprecating save about his need to be explained football his own self, but the damage is done and Kate needs a minute to herself.
There’s something about sitting alone with newborns or animals that inspire a soul searching monologue, even for those of us who don’t have such things in their blood. Given the person Kevin is, and the year that he has had, and the fact that baby Jack cries every time he goes to pick him up, I could see his speech coming a mile away. But how could I possibly be mad at a Kevin Pearson speech? Reader, I could never. Because his speeches are always inspired, and thoughtful, and devastating, and hopeless, and hopeful. Justin Hartley gives a command performance while he seemingly debates the pros and cons of going to Chicago for a Spike Jonze movie. At the heart of it, Kevin is exploring his own sense of self. What he’s cut out to do, and how, and who he is when he’s not performing. Maybe it’s overhearing this kind of bald faced honesty that gets Kate to open up to her twin. Or maybe it’s just the first quiet moment they’ve had to themselves while sitting in their emotions the right way. But regardless, both open up. Kate seems to be fighting against her worst instincts, but she can’t silence the voice that insists Jack’s lack of vision is her fault. It’s not, of course, and no one would think it was – but that doesn’t stop the monster in her mind.
Kevin has always been able to see the truth of his twin, and this is no exception. After she assures Kevin that Jack doesn’t hate him, he just hasn’t been properly warned about his uncle’s movement, Kevin watches her in awe. He knows the same thing Toby knows; that she’s a remarkable woman and a remarkable mother, ready to do anything and everything in her power to give Jack the best possible life. Kevin should know; it’s the same thing she does for him. Kate insists, just like Rebecca, that Kevin take the gig out in Chicago. And Kevin gives her everything she needs to go back out into the living room and insist that the rest of the family get on board with an outlook of positivity and support, leaving their pity voices at the door for good and ensuring that the prevailing feeling in their home is hope, not fear.
Don’t sleep on a Kate Pearson speech, either.
Colors of the Painting
- We do have to take some time to discuss Miguel and Rebecca asking Toby about his weight loss. As a general rule, folks, just – don’t. Don’t ask about people’s dietary habits, or their appearance changing, or assume that losing weight is a positive for every body. It is no one’s business. Not ever. This is something Toby has been willing to engage with them both about in the past, but it doesn’t give them a pass to engage now. At the end of the episode we see Toby sneaking off to the gym rather than his previously declared grocery store run, so there is definitely something deeper going on here that he did not want to talk about. So again I say: just don’t do this thing.
- It’s unclear if Kevin takes the role in Chicago or not, but one thing is certain – him and his plant board a flight and end up at Nicky Pearson’s door.
- I know it was meant to be an obnoxious teen thing but Tess absolutely slayed me when she gave Randall a hard time for their morning nicknames. I love that kid even when she’s mean.
- “Thanks for being a good sport about all the ‘I see dead people’ jokes.”
- Deja has it bad for Malik. My girl is sneaking photos of him at work via her bus line. This can only end in tears.
- “I’m gonna give you to Uncle Kev, okay? You’re gonna love him and he always smells really expensive.”
- “There’s a specialist to help you raise a blind baby on Yelp?” “There’s everything on Yelp.”
- Bless you, Kevin Pearson.
- This week’s musical entry is from Alexi Murdoch with “Some Day Soon,” a fingerpicking folk masterpiece basically written for this show. I hope you enjoy this live version as much as I did.
What did you think of “The Pool: Part Two”? Let us know in the comments.