This Is Us Season 4, Episode 9
“So Long, Marianne”
Posted by Shannon
When I first saw the title for this episode and realized it was likely going to be the fall finale, I knew someone in production was out to get me. Anyone following along with these recaps knows how much I care about the music in This Is Us and how vital I believe it to be, even when it’s not remarked upon in the story. And anyone who knows me knows I’m a second generation Leonard Cohen fanatic who saw him in concert three times (four if you count the time my mother was pregnant with me) and who always visits his poems (yes I also call them that) at the most quiet, pensive, transitional moments in my life. Add in my newly solidified Nicky Pearson thing, plus the traditional Thanksgiving cryfest This Is Us always provides and… yeah. This one was a lot.
It feels trite to say that “So Long, Marianne” the song is the perfect choice for “So Long, Marianne” the episode. It’s all way more intentional than that. The whole hour is built on the song’s central theme: a relationship fading, changing, even dying, paired with the eternal optimism that things might still, somehow, work out okay – even if that doesn’t mean a rejoining of the connection that was lost. It’s mournful, sad, but never bitter, never pessimistic. Ultimately the song is looking to the light. Honoring the connection that was there, no matter what becomes of it, and facing forward with hope. And what better way is there to describe not just the evolution of the relationships we’re faced with this week, but This Is Us writ large?
The interconnectedness in “So Long, Marianne” the episode bucks the usual format. It’s essentially vignettes that all slot into each other and overlap with a few significant time jumps for good measure. But – of course – the same is true of “So Long, Marianne” the song, which is structured in short bursts of memory hinging on the spine of a simple repeating chorus. As much as I’d like to spend my last recap of 2019 breaking down “So Long, Marianne” the song line by line, our dear Pearsons have a part in this too. So without further ado: it’s time that we begin to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.
Beth and Deja
Let’s start off with our host for the day – Beth Pearson, who is keeping it moving and holding Thanksgiving despite several last minute invitees who’ve brought the guest list higher than her table can accommodate. Even without taking into account that this is their first major holiday in a new home, the pressure is on. It’s Beth’s first time meeting Nicky, Randall and his mother are barely speaking after their blow up the night before, and guests are leaving as quickly as they arrive; but all that is pretty low on the priority list compared to Deja’s anxiety surrounding Shauna’s imminent arrival.
The last time we saw or heard from Shauna, it was in court, while she transferred all legal parental rights over to Randall and Beth. Meanwhile, Deja has adjusted to a new home, met a boy she really likes, and has already started to come into herself in a way she never really did in New Jersey. But her mom hasn’t seen any of that, and for all Beth – or the audience – knows, Shauna is still in dire straights.
Except she’s not. She’s doing well – exceptionally well. Shauna shows up early, sits with Deja, connects with her, and pulls up old home videos from nine years prior. Deja seems over the moon, while Beth is still tense. At first it could have been any number of things bothering her; general anxiety over the visit, concern that a shoe would still drop, or a real discomfort caused by Shauna’s presence. Miguel picks up on her mood immediately, quietly checking in on Beth, but she won’t budge. It’s only after Shauna suddenly declares herself a football fanatic who “bleeds green and white” that things start to really click in. Beth doesn’t go there with Miguel, but she does take a beat with Kate, even sharing her “evil feelings” around Shauna’s stability. Yes, obviously, it’s not great for Beth to hate that Shauna’s doing so well. But Beth is a person, and people are complicated and contain multitudes. She wants the best for Shauna as a human and a mother (“I was praying for her, on my knees!”) and she wants the best for Deja too, but Beth also wants to feel like Deja needs her. And while Randall is filling a paternal gap that Deja never had as a kid, she does already have a maternal connection. So it’s natural for Beth to not quite know where she fits in when said maternal connection is suddenly, seemingly, killing it.
Beth has missed a key part of the narrative: how this all fits in for Deja herself, who excuses herself almost immediately after Shauna starts talking about her work friends and her great new life. It barely takes any prodding from Beth before Deja shares exactly why she’s so upset. It’s all well and good for Shauna to be doing so well. But now? Maybe under a year after she gave up parental rights to Deja? Of course the kid breaks, asking “Why couldn’t she be like this for me?” It’s absolutely heartbreaking, and Lyric Ross gives a spectacular performance as usual. Beth snaps out of her head almost immediately, realizing that not only is she far from redundant – Deja’s maybe never needed her more. And, true to Beth Pearson form, she adjusts in real time and pulls through, asking Deja to share the story from the video that gave her and Shauna so much joy and insisting that she try to remember “all the times you had with her when she was absolutely perfect.”
Kate and Toby
Of all the relationships in flux this hour, Kate and Toby are the most concerning. Absolutely none of this is going well for either of them, and despite an initial save on the plane when Kate comes clean about Jack’s first solid food, they remain steadfast in their refusal to actually talk to each other. The thing that’s breaking my heart the most about Kate and Toby (other than the fact that we haven’t actually explored their fears in any real way until now) is that both of them are so legitimately feeling their feelings, and that both of them are handling said feelings so very badly. I had half a mind to say that Kate should have just bit the bullet and let Toby believe that Jack’s first solid food was with him – but she makes a fair point when she argues that Toby will continue to miss firsts because she’s home with Jack while he’s at work and at the gym. It’s just the way things go, and both of them need to be comfortable with that for any of this to work. Kate needs to not lie about it from the start, and Toby needs to stop guilt tripping her for things that are entirely out of her control. Still, Toby does make a good save, initiating the apology and coming around by reminding them both that “there will be plenty of firsts, right? Like his first Thanksgiving.” But honestly, the more time we spend with them the more hopeless I feel about the state of their marriage.
It only gets worse when they arrive in Philly. Both of them are on edge, both of them are making snide comments – Kate audibly rolls her eyes while declaring that they “travel with tempeh now” while Toby stares her down at the first mention of avocado. When Beth snaps and goes outside with Kate for the aforementioned sharing of evil feelings, “I hate crossfit Toby” comes flying out of Kate’s mouth. And it’s fair! It’s all fair. Toby’s talking incessantly about making cheese out of cashews, which would frankly annoy anyone, and that doesn’t even speak to the significant relationship baggage both of them carry around weight in general. It’s not that Toby is changing physically, or even that he’s become one of Those People about his whole regime, it’s that he did it so separately from Kate. She’s not involved in that part of his life at all, and he’s not welcoming her in or doing his part to be sure they keep a connection through his personal evolution. Beth calls it right out of the gate; it’s extremely troubling that Kate won’t talk to Toby about any of this herself. Continuing to avoid this conversation will only drive a wedge further and further between the two of them. And while Beth makes a solid argument in the moment, one Kate seems to listen to, she ultimately just can’t make the move. Kate wants to see the best in Toby, always. She doesn’t want to risk their Thanksgiving, doesn’t want to mar the afternoon with something quite so fragile and honest. So she doesn’t say anything at all.
Just as much as I believe that Kate wants to see the best in Toby, I believe he wants to see the best in her. I believe in him and in his love and support for Kate. (I know, I know – how times change.) But he won’t let her in either. And no, it’s not his fault that the mystery crossfit person was so heinous and cruel in their group text. It is, however, yet another symptom of the disease; these two aren’t talking to each other, much less sharing anything real about their lives. And between baby Jack, Toby’s personal changes, and Kate’s reaction to all of the above, it’ll be real hard to spell anything but doom for their marriage.
Kevin and Tess
Kevin has been through a lot since last Thanksgiving, when he was flying to Vietnam with Zoe, exploring his father’s footsteps and completely unaware that his long lost uncle was alive and well. He continues to work through his sobriety, and despite my previous misconceptions he did do the thing I always wanted him to do – he took a beat in between relationships, didn’t jump in, and is trying to decide what it is he really wants. (And remember where Kevin was Thanksgiving before last? Driving drunk after his rock bottom speech at his old high school, unaware that Tess was tucked in the backseat. Yeah. He’s been through a lot.)
It breaks my heart a little not to pair up Kevin and Nicky here, but while there’s still a lot to say about them, that’s not the relationship that’s at focus for Kevin in this hour. It’s his niece, Tess. To be honest, this is becoming one of my favorite familial relationships in the entire show. There’s something about this kid that brings out the best in Kevin. Sometimes This Is Us falls into the unfortunate habit of having their teen characters open up to whichever adult is conveniently located there in the moment. (cough cough Tess coming out to Kate cough cough.) But it’s always different with Tess and Kevin. Maybe it’s that she’s got the same kind of search for identity that Kevin sees in himself, or that she reminds him so much of Randall – a version of his brother he can support without the baggage of sibling rivalry and with the benefit of a few decades of life experience. For Tess, maybe it’s that Kevin is so dramatically far away from her that he represents a safe, totally neutral opinion, or that he’s an adult in her life who’s been around a little more often but who still doesn’t quite have it all together. Whatever the reason, both of them are effortlessly comfortable around each other, and since beginning the process of coming out, Tess needs all the support she can get.
Honestly just looking at that gifset makes me want to cry. Kevin is SO THERE for his niece, from going up to see her when she doesn’t come down to him, to insisting she “Tess-tify” about whatever is bothering her, to hearing her anxiety around responding to the celebrity crush meme sweeping her school, to immediately deciding that the best course of action was to get that kid out of the house and out of her own mind for a minute. Kevin’s suggestion that Tess take coming out one step at a time, and start with someone totally benign and separate from her life, is genius. And he would NEVER insist, NEVER put her in a situation that made her uncomfortable. He just drives her up, orders some takeout, and gives her the space to make the call herself. Please, do me a favor and scroll back up to that gifset and look at his face in the last gif. Her Uncle Kevin is SO proud of her he could burst. Kevin just keeps showing up for his niece in every possible way when they’re back at home, visibly checking in with her before announcing to Randall that “your daughter came out on instagram today.” He’s so good, so thoughtful, so consistent, that it’s no wonder he’s able to finally grow into the realization he has at the end of the hour.
Kevin’s ready. He has never been before – hell, remember when he couldn’t even stomach the thought of children for fear of his addiction when he and Sophie were together? But now he’s put in the work, he’s had the space to realize that it’s truly what he wants, and he’s ready to make it happen. And, somehow, he’s about to. In nine months time, Kevin turns 40, complete with a fiance (!!!) who has morning sickness (!!!!!).
Nicky and Randall
Thanksgiving was fraught for Nicky and Jack back in the day. I’m sure all holidays were, but it’s especially painful to think of Thanksgiving, which became such a special holiday for Jack, as an occasion to hide in the basement while their father yelled at a game, their mother, the kids, or any combination of the four. When that’s stuck right up against the modern Pearson Thanksgiving, with traditions abound and family everywhere and years of missed opportunities so real Nicky can practically taste them, the cognitive dissonance must be overwhelming. It’s masterful, too, that the writers never have Nicky speak to this in detail except in the broadest of strokes. Griffin Dunne can project the subtle, specific pain of it all with the sadness in his eyes, dialogue be damned.
All things considered, it’s remarkable that Kevin was able to convince Nicky to show up to this holiday to begin with. And as soon as the reality of the situation kicks in, Nicky’s practically coming out of his skin. He’s worried about his clothes (“I look like I’m in a viagra commercial”), he’s worried about the rest of the family even wanting him there, he’s taking every occasion to call his nephew a nitwit. (Which, honestly, is the most perfect term of endearment possible for Kevin.)
When it became clear that the holiday box of memorabilia got left at Randall and Beth’s old house in Jersey, I knew Nicky would jump at the chance to get the hell out of dodge. Remember, this is a man who felt unspeakably uncomfortable in a hotel, away from his trailer for a single night when the Big Three first came to find him. Nicky’s come so far but he’s still not used to any of this, and the opportunity to spend a few hours of a chaotic day in a comparatively quiet car with only two long lost relatives instead of a house packed with 11 of them was a no-brainer. Not to mention he clearly needs the excuse to get to know “Russel.” “Randall.” “See??” (Have I mentioned yet that I fucking love Nicky Pearson because I fucking love Nicky Pearson.)
Annie is no stranger to weird, long lost relatives herself, and I love the ease with which she chatters away at her new great Uncle. But a soon-to-be-tween rattling of holiday traditions that have absolutely nothing to do with you or anything you know – especially when they’re based on your own brother – is a lot to handle in the best of circumstances. I was frankly shocked Nicky didn’t snap before they pull into the old house. He’s able to pull it together in the moment, despite Randall’s legitimate concern that Nicky’s going to go off the rails. He hangs through Randall and Annie’s old house, keeping quiet while Randall is handed his beloved holiday box – and a surprise collection of old CD’s Rebecca gifted him and Beth when they moved in.
And this, dear reader, is where shit gets real.
Music is time travel. The right track at the right time can bring the listener out of our bodies and right back into a moment decades prior, to a scene long since forgotten. It can overwhelm our senses with memory, lighten the weight on our backs, or break our hearts without a moment’s notice. The right track at the right time can push us to a revelation. At least it can for me. And so, it seems, for Nicky Pearson.
Kids don’t always realize their parents’ contradictions. Their little oddities of character, the tells that hint at something hidden deeper hiding under the surface. When they do recognize those wrinkles of unexpected interest, they’re often left unremarked upon, some strange mystery that reminds you that your parents had a whole life before you came around and you can’t possibly have all the answers anyway. As far as I’m concerned that’s the only explanation for Randall, who, as a kid, would tease his father about hating poetry, missing the little twinge of strangeness that would have been Jack Pearson adoring Leonard Cohen. He probably assumed it was Rebecca’s influence, or some generational interest, that gave Jack such distinct interpretations of “So Long, Marianne.”
It was Nicky.
Nicky, who refused to let Jack turn the radio off after their one, singular shared Thanksgiving where a lucky bet with a miserable motivation (“thank you to Dad for loving the Cowboys and thank you to me for hating Dad”) landed the brothers in a fancy restaurant with more money than either of them had ever seen before. In between verse and chorus, Nicky Pearson the younger reframed something for Jack on a molecular level. He spoke about loss and love and grace and peace and all of it seeped into Jack’s consciousness and wouldn’t let go. Not after years of distance and change. Jack carried the interpretation of “So Long, Marianne” with him for all of his days. Somewhere in his spirit, Jack hoped that he and his brother would come back to each other. That they would laugh together again, just as Leonard allowed himself to hope – without expectation – that he’d laugh with Marianne again.
When Nicky picked that CD, I’m confident he was just picking something he recognized and knew he liked. I know, too, that he and Rebecca would have had the same taste in music, and that, had they been able to meet when they were kids, they’d have teased Jack about misunderstanding Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell songs. They’re kindred music spirits, and that’s stuff of magic. So of course he loved a CD she had in her collection and of course he would never have given its selection a moment’s thought. But then Randall launched into Nicky’s very own monologue, one he probably forgot he even gave. A dam breaks. Nicky forgives Jack instantly, as his brother’s son sings along to a chorus over fifty years old, with his grand niece gently rolling her eyes in the backseat.
Forgiving Jack means Nicky can let go of Kevin, too. He knows Kevin doesn’t have any need to return to Branford, that the two of them don’t need to live in neighboring trailers to stay close. I’ve no doubt that either of them will act on their promise to call one another if – and when – they need each other. It’s not just that we’ve seen Nicky by their side in the ultimate flash forward that opened the season. It’s because, finally, Kevin’s someone’s favorite.
It wouldn’t be a notable This Is Us episode without some sort of substantial time jump. And while this one isn’t as lengthy as other flash forwards, it carries all the heft and sadness of the major flash forward. Rebecca, fresh off her fight with Randall, is refusing to discuss her symptoms and insisting that Randall keep quiet. (“I would appreciate it if you kept this little argument of ours between us.”) Rather than spend the day avoiding her son, Rebecca decides to head out for the afternoon, heading to a movie and promising to picking a pie up on the way home.
Over the course of the hour, we see Rebecca, confused, meandering around an unfamiliar city that could so easily have been Philly. She wanders through space and time with the sort of disconnected uncertainty that’s all too familiar to those who have seen a family member or loved one fall to dementia or Alzheimers. And, indeed, her short term memory continues to betray her. She thinks she’s seen William, following a stranger through a park for at least a block before realizing her mistake. She goes to a grocery store, asks for the bakery, and forgets what she was looking for. She leaves her phone at the counter after taking it out of her bag to buy flowers. She finally ends up at a Chinese spot for lunch, where she realizes she’s lost her phone and completely melts down, landing her with a polite police escort tasked with bringing her home.
Which, in this case, is not the Thanksgiving meal at Randall’s Philadelphia home. It’s the family cabin where Kevin and Kate are having their 40th birthday party. The Big Three’s 40th birthday should be cause for an ultimate family celebration; except they’re missing Randall. Who is, apparently, not speaking to his brother. Or more specifically, his brother isn’t speaking to him.
Colors of the Painting
- I’ve gone back and forth on the Kevin/Randall rift so many times in the last few weeks. I’m frustrated by character issues (how could they get through the whole Tess-car-fiasco and still somehow be felled by this?), I don’t think anything will be “bad” enough to make Randall not showing to his 40th birthday party believable, and on the whole I’m just a little exhausted by the whole thing. But. The potential reasons for this rift are still to come, and we know the brothers will come back together at some point because of that ultimate flash forward. So for now, I’m willing to settle into the winter break and see what’s what in January.
- Not to be That Pedantic Fan, but I need to know which CD Nicky put in that had “So Long, Marianne” as the first track since Songs of Leonard Cohen, his debut album which introduced “So Long, Marianne” and which Rebecca Pearson would absolutely know and love, opens with “Suzanne.” Okay I’m done now I promise.
- Miguel’s instagram name is BigMigs45. How did we ever decide to dislike this man???
- Whenever Kevin is asked about his black eye, he gives a different answer: for Beth, he walked into a wall, but for Randall it was a flyball to the face. Interestingly, no one challenges him on either point, even when they hear him contradict himself.
- Full disclosure, my breath caught in my chest when we saw the old Jersey house again. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.
- Randall’s tradition of breaking out his most excellent hot Dad sweaters for Thanksgiving continues. Damn.
- I am endlessly charmed by Beth and Miguel’s relationship on the regular but now she’s out here calling him Migs and I cannot take it.
- Speaking of being endlessly charmed by Beth’s relationship with people she doesn’t always interact with a ton – I so missed her and Kevin’s whole vibe. Susan Kelechi Watson’s delivery of “don’t test me, brother in law” sent me.
- My heart burst into a million pieces watching Nicky pick up baby Jack and wear his brother’s Pilgrim Rick hat.
- These two…
- I made reference earlier to Marianne as a real person, and to the speaker of “So Long, Marianne” as the writer. I’m not just being a romantic here; Marianne was real, and Leonard Cohen loved her in his youth, and sent her a letter in their final days.
- There is no wrong version of “So Long, Marianne,” but since we spent so much time with the 1967 recording I’ve decided to highlight the 2008 concert video from Leonard Cohen: Live in London. Watch it with a box of tissues, especially once you realize that Leonard at 74 mirrors modern Nicky while Leonard at 33 mirrors the younger.
What did you think of “So Long, Marianne”? Let us know in the comments.