This Is Us Season 4, Episode 13
“A Hell of a Week: Part Three”
Posted by Shannon
Of all the entries to the Sad Three trilogy, this is the one I was the most anxious about. Kate’s storyline is so often the one that doesn’t quite work, doesn’t quite get the attention that it deserves, and frequently lacks the specificity of writing and emotional exploration that the rest of the Pearsons enjoy. This episode was a mixed bag for me; parts of it were perfectly done and well pitched (and, obviously, very upsetting) while some really left something to be desired. Most of those frustrations center around character development rather than sheer mishandling. But that said, it was fitting for Kate’s entry to be the one that relies the most clearly on the framing device of Jack putting the kids to bed all by his lonesome while Rebecca sleeps off a cold. As Jack tucks baby Kate into bed, she tells him a story; one that focuses on her own psyche and childlike exploration of the world around her.
Kate and Rebecca’s relationship from tween years to her late 30’s was, to put it mildly, a challenge. But the two still had a pure hearted bond in her younger years. It’s when Kate is old enough to clue into the societal expectations of femininity – and the ways her mom meets them without even noticing, while Kate is pushed outside the lines – that the bond fractures. Jack’s death was the final emotional shove away from her mom. Jack was the parental figure that signified safety and encouragement with none of the reminders of the outside world’s misogynistic and physical requirements. So it’s especially heartrending to see childhood Kate, in her youngest years, demanding “a mommy story” and disappearing her princely father in favor of her mom. This is the relationship they could have had for all those years.
Instead, as is so often the case with mothers and daughters, they can’t seem to get out of their own way. Over and over again this hour, I noted just how steady Rebecca managed to hold during Kate’s teenage outbursts of mourning and misery. Rebecca isn’t perfect, but goddamn if she didn’t try. And time and time again, 18 year old Kate couldn’t let herself hear it, throwing herself into the arms of Marc and spinning out in all her grief. It’s been clear from the start that Marc was far from a healthy partner for Kate. He’s significantly older (at least 21), judgemental, cold, moody, and up until this point has been gaslighting at best and emotionally abusive at worst.
Marc is the kind of partner many of us know too well. He revels in her insecurities, enjoying a Kit-Kat while questioning Kate when she reaches for the same. He can’t stand the fact that Kate knows just as much about music as he does – if not more. Marc’s retaliation against Kate’s curiosity goes way beyond his own anxieties. He uses that moment, when she dares to know that Urge Overkill’s “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon” from Pulp Fiction was actually a Neil Diamond cover, to hold her emotionally hostage. Marc stands her up, refuses to call her back, and finally tells Kate that she embarrassed him with her “desperation.” It was real hard for me – and, I’m sure, for a whole lot of people – to watch this kind of insidious emotional abuse. Kate daring to know something – daring to be excited by something she thinks is interesting, daring to share that information with someone in the presence of her boyfriend – is the impetus for the nightmare that starts to develop from here. Marc insists that she’s the only good thing in his life, so of course he’ll “forgive” her this mistake. But forgiveness from an emotional abuser is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. It never will. Because of this one moment of expertise, Marc quits his job at the record store. He demands she do the same. And when she doesn’t, he nearly runs his car off the road.
It takes a few steps for us to get there, but ultimately, that’s what leads Kate to make the call to her mom, abandoned on the side of the road in the early hours of a snowstorm moments before Marc shows up with a blanket and another meaningless apology. Rebecca had wanted to hope for the best here. She went above and beyond for her daughter, asking to spend some one on one time with Mark and keeping everything casual – even after he stormed in late, whistling at waitresses and inviting himself to the family cabin so they can write songs during his new found “freedom” from the record store. Rebecca tried to put her foot down about the actual departure for the cabin, but for all her brutal jabs at Rebecca, Kate did have the upper hand. With both her brothers of the same age partnered (“Kevin is LITERALLY married”), Rebecca needed to have a firm leg to stand on against Marc. She didn’t – not yet. So there’s no legitimate way out when Kate demands that she and Marc are headed to the cabin right then and there; Rebecca’s birthday dinner be damned.
I can’t tell if the show is intentionally drawing a comparison between Kate’s behavior in her teen years with Marc and her relationship with Toby in adulthood. I sure as hell hope they aren’t, but the partnering of stories here makes me second guess the whole operation. It did bring me back to Season One Toby, who wasn’t as outright in his emotional abuse as Marc, but still did some serious damage before the writers successfully executed a very welcome about-face on his character. But that’s not Toby now. And it’s not how Kate reacts in her marriage. The residual impact of emotional abuse and trauma is prolonged and sneaky, and scars she developed with Marc are very probably part of why Kate won’t assert herself or her real feelings with Toby. All that said, the episode didn’t do as good a job as I’d like clarifying that Kate’s responses to Toby’s own emotional turmoil is faulty, too.
I’m sorry, but I will not let this go: what Toby said about struggling to connect with Jack is not awful. It’s not great – it’s hard, and complicated, and imperfect, and a clear signifier that he (say it with me now) needs to go to therapy to work through his feelings – but it’s not the death knell to his humanity or his connection to his child that both characters seem to think it is. Bonding with infants is a known mental health challenge in the best of circumstances and I cannot believe that no one’s articulating that throughout this whole plot.
Kate’s reaction to Toby insinuating, ever so slightly, that he might not have it in him to go to the retreat is also high on my list of complaints. She should have dragged that man to that retreat kicking and screaming after all the googling he’d done the night before. And that kind of push from her would have been completely in character! It would have suited both of them, and fit right into their relationship style. He’s clearly desperate for an actual connection to this community; it’s just in a very different way than Kate. But instead, she jumps at the chance for Rebecca to take his place. In and of itself, that’s a beautiful plot development, but it comes at a character cost for both Kate and Toby. Neither of them dares to tell the other the truth about how they’re feeling; they’ve clearly learned nothing from Thanksgiving.
All that said… it was a huge relief for Kate and Rebecca to have this time together. I said earlier that it was tragic to see the kind of relationship these two had when Kate was a toddler, knowing how far apart they’d grow. And it’s true – but it’s also beautiful to watch them finally come back to that space within each other now. All of Rebecca’s focus and determination, which was so challenging for Kate when Jack was first born, is now a welcome exhalation. Rebecca has the agenda locked down, and she’s happy to adjust her plans according to suit Kate’s “fact finding mode.” She’s also relieved at the opportunity for some alone time with her only daughter – time Rebecca plans to use to tell Kate the truth about what’s been going on with her.
The timing of that revelation is tricky, but perfectly played out. Rebecca is so in tune with her daughter, while also being so clear headed, that she can see the fears Kate is holding herself hostage to. These two have been through hell and back – and they’ve done the WORK. It’s that dedication to each other, and their reforged relationship, that allows Kate to come clean about her emotional affair with Gregory. (Even if she and/or the show aren’t willing to call it that, make no mistake, that’s what’s happening.) And it’s the same dedication from Rebecca that lets her see right through Kate’s fear about jumping in the pool without Toby. I have a lot of thoughts about the deterioration of trust between Kate and Toby that have led them to this point. It feels a whole lot like an impending divorce, and I just don’t see how they come back from this without a serious intervention. But right now, for this moment and this episode, I just want to revel in Kate and Rebecca’s relationship – and in the way Rebecca is handling her diagnosis.
Rebecca is every inch the dream parent Jack is always touted as. She’s there for every fear and hesitation that Kate has, never doubting her reaction or calling into question her feelings. Rebecca’s speech about Kate “always empathizing with everyone and everything” was just as lovely, sensitive, and in tune as Jack’s many speeches. She calls Kate out on exactly what she needs to do – tell Toby what she needs, clearly, honestly, directly, and with faith that he can find his way home. She also needs to be secure in the knowledge that, if she needs to go it without him, she can. Kate’s not on her own here. Her family has proven that time and time again they’ll get on a plane, train, or automobile and be there for her in a second. She has an inspired and inspiring safety net, and she needs to take advantage of it.
Rebecca has that safety net, too. She has faith in her kids and she knows that Kate can take the truth about her current health struggles. I loved that Rebecca still spoke her reality, still admitted to Kate what was going on, knowing that her daughter needs to know – and that she can handle it. (Her other son deserves the same faith, but we’ll get to that in the next episode.) It feels true to her character to find peace in this diagnosis, to finally relax into her life as it stands, without second guessing herself or her choices. It all leads up to the thing we’ve been yelling for since season one – a proper Mandy Moore and Chrissy Metz duet.
I love that this was such an unexpected moment. I love that it was so casual, not a formal performance or a big fancy night. I love that it was a song Kate loved when she was a kid, rather than one of her mom’s stalwart folk songs. I loved absolutely everything about this and I’m so glad it happened when it did.
The next day, Kate and Rebecca head back to the city and their daily lives – with Kate prepped to finally have her conversation with Toby. Which leads us into the Sad Three conference call, and the impending trip to the cabin. Y’all, we were misled. This is, for all intents and purposes, a four parter.
Colors of the Painting
- Folks, in case you missed it, I am contractually obligated to alert you to the fact that our very own Justin Hartley directed this episode. And a wonderful job he did, too.
- “You’re fat, I’m ancient, we’re gorgeous. Let’s go swimming!”
- This has cracked me up for DAYS. Three cheers for Chrissy Metz’s delivery.
- “Audio keeps trying to get me to throw a rager while you’re gone, but I’m like, you’re a dog and I gotta work.”
- I need footage of Miguel singing Mariah Carey in the car. I need it, and I deserve it, and so do all of you.
- Helloooo, 80’s Jack.
- There was lots of notable music in this hour; Elliot Smith graces the music store’s soundtrack, Ben Folds comes along on that awful car ride, Alanis Morrisette inspires our familial duet, and Patti Smith’s book Babel is an episode fixture. I can’t pick just one, so do yourself a favor and check out any one of those four artists’ work. It’s all great, I promise.
What are your thoughts on “A Hell of a Week: Part Three”? Were you expecting the surprise quadrilogy? Let us know in the comments.