This Is Us Season 4, Episode 14
Posted by Shannon
For all my cynicism and only child solitude, there’s a simple reason I always connect with This Is Us. I’m a sap. I’m the kind of person who always wishes I’d had the opportunity to bury a time capsule and dig up again at the perfect moment, who saves absolutely every picture I’ve ever taken and hoards memories and tokens from loved ones. Maybe it’s because I moved around a ton as a kid. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a tiny family enclave, hundreds of miles away from my ten (yes, ten) aunts and uncles. Whatever the reason, when This Is Us nails it the way they did in “The Cabin,” it absolutely breaks me. It also helps that this was, for all intents and purposes, a sneak-attack four parter. This most recent Big Three trilogy was all leading up to this moment: time for the siblings to come back together, to be there for each other, to have each other’s backs and to help each other heal. It’s been way too long since we’ve had solid, focused time with Kevin, Kate and Randall all together. I missed them, and I missed this, and for all my mixed feelings about last week’s episode, I couldn’t be happier with how this installment stuck the landing.
I love this cabin. I love the stories that take place here, I love the way it acts as a neutral location, I love the scenery and the Maine woods vibe. However, this thing has been the subject of so many changes in origin that my head is spinning. (Remember the time Rebecca was going to sell it, and then we never spoke of it again? Or how the first time we saw it, it was owned by some guy Jack worked with? No? Neither do the writers!) This episode is as close as we get to clearly stated cabin canon, so I suppose these are the time checks we’re going with from now on: Jack and Rebecca bought the place when the kids were thirteen (an age absolutely none of us are anxious to revisit), and only had four years in it before the fire. The place was Jack’s baby, his escape, his dream come true. Rebecca loves it too, but from the start I got the feeling that she was about as connected to the cabin as she was to his newly purchased, waterproof, dirtproof time capsule, ready and waiting to be buried in the backyard. (“This matters a lot to your dad. And to me! To both of us.”)
All five Pearsons are set to leave something in the time capsule with the intention of digging it up five years later when the kids turn 18. For all my whining about inconsistent timelines, I was grateful that the episode didn’t linger any more than it needed to on the emotional upheaval that comes from knowing Jack only has four years left; framing it so precisely in time was bad enough. How the kids react to their selections mirror the issues we’ve just spent three episodes outlining; Randall is frozen with anxiety, Kevin immediately goes for a photo of him and Sophie, and Kate – well, the line drawn between where she is now and what she does with her time capsule is shaky at best, illuminating just how faulty the writing around her character has been and continues to be.
Which brings us ahead a few years, to Kate’s escape with Marc, up to the cabin right before an early spring storm hits with a vengeance. This guy has already abandoned Kate out on the side of the road, leaving her without a coat or a way to get home. At this point, as far as she knows, she’s stuck. The one out Kate had was to ask her mom to come get her when she made the call earlier that night; she had no way of suspecting that Rebecca’s maternal instincts kicked in so clearly and that she was already headed up to get her daughter. And Kate is still trying. Either because she feels trapped or because she truly wants to stick it out (or, more realistically, both), Kate assures Marc she still loves him and makes them a pot of coffee as they settle in for the night.
It’s crystal clear (and I’ve said it in my last recap) that Marc is emotionally abusive. It’s also clear that he could very easily move into physical abuse. There is no excuse for his behavior, for the danger he puts Kate in, or for the way he responds when she asks him not to use the mug her father always had for himself. It’s notable, too, that we don’t see for sure if he drops the mug by accident or on purpose. (His careless joking about it is absolutely bad enough, and I’m not inclined to give this guy an inch.) But I have wondered about the way the actor – or the writing – has portrayed that abuse. I am not a doctor, I don’t even play one on TV, but I do wonder if Marc is intentionally being shown as a person living with a mood disorder. The absolutely manic swings in his reactions, the cavalier way he locks her out of the cabin in the beginnings of a serious storm, without a coat or any form of shelter – it’s beyond disturbing.
That storm is bad enough that it downs a tree twenty miles south of the cabin, closing the roads and keeping Rebecca, Kevin and Randall from getting to Kate that very night. The mood in the car was already tense as hell. Kevin’s ready to fight Marc before he even knows the half of it, Randall was ready to scream at his brother for not sticking it out in Pittsburgh, and Rebecca had to demand peace and quiet while she tried to drive in that storm. I love Rebecca Pearson on her worst days, but I especially love her when she takes no shit. Both in the car and at the arrival in the cabin, Rebecca is not here for male teenage mood swings. And she’s not here to make anything harder on Kate than it already is. (“We are not here to embarrass your sister or to make a scene. We are here because we were worried about the storm.”)
All things considered, it’s a relatively slow burn until the rest of the Pearsons find out exactly how bad it’s gotten at the cabin. Kate and Marc are seemingly settled in, and even though Marc was less than thrilled to see the family arrive at the front door unannounced, he rolls with it and gets them in for breakfast. (“I hope you like pancakes, Pearsons.”) But Randall and Kevin are on high alert, and between the two of them they clock just how cold it is in the cabin. They clock the broken window, and the lack of broken glass, even if Randall doesn’t visibly react to the blood that clings to whatever’s left of the windowpane. These kids know. They just know. Despite Kate’s efforts to hang tight and protect Marc, that kid knows it’s impossible to get out of this situation without coming clean. And when he does, he’s STILL trying to gaslight Kate, telling her family that she “freaked out” and that she was only outside for a minute – as if that’s less abusive, as if that’s less terrifying, as if that’s less of a violation of their home and her safety.
Once the dam breaks, it breaks completely. After ensuring that her sons won’t do any physical harm to Marc (he truly is not worth the trouble it would cause), Rebecca kicks him out of the house. It’s pitiful to watch Marc trying to size up the three Pearsons in his way before he finally relents. And it’s a relief that Kate, after both the abuses of the previous night, has no illusions about the damage he’d continue to leave in his wake. Her family walks her out of that cabin together, surrounding her with protection, love, security, and understanding.
Our modern Pearsons are deep in the midst of their Sad Three-dom, ready for a sibling getaway to lick their wounds. Randall’s anxiety is on high alert and manifesting itself as a fixation on his security systems. Kevin is desperate for Madison to agree to keep their tryst a secret from Kate. And as for Kate herself…
I dunno, gang. I’m going to continue to harp on this. I can’t believe Kate was thisclose to not letting Toby spend the weekend with Jack. It’s not that she was anxious to spend the night away from her son; at least, that’s not how this was framed. It’s that she doesn’t seem to trust that Toby can care for him, and doesn’t recognize that for Toby to bond with this kid, he needs to spend actual time with Jack. Alone. And yes, they had a close call with Jack choking on a piece of egg. But that didn’t come from neglect or from Toby not knowing what Jack could or couldn’t eat. It could have happened with Kate just as easily. He handles it perfectly, and it leads to the boys talking Star Wars sound design. This is exactly the kind of thing Toby needed to enable his connection to Jack, and the sweetness of him making all the character noises will stick with me for a long time.
By the time Kate and Kevin have flown in, Randall has set the place up and is hard at work on a family puzzle. His nesting is idyllic as hell (“welcome to the Pearson family cabin, where the fire is roaring, the herbal tea is a-brewing, and the puzzle is a-piecing”) but it’s mostly an illusion. None of them particularly want to engage and all three are anxious for a distraction. The wifi going down at the cabin was inevitable, what with Kate insisting that Toby call her all the time and Randall’s compulsive need to check his security system at the empty house. Randall’s facade falls the moment he doesn’t get a signal, and he insists they go to town that very moment for “supplies.”
As much as I love the rest of the supporting characters, and as much as I will defend Kevin Pearson to the end of time, there was something so beautifully old school about these three and their priorities; Kate called Toby the second she could, Randall nearly melts down when Beth doesn’t answer the phone immediately, and Kevin… is annoyed that Elijah Wood made a list of 100 Hottest Hollywood Hunks over him. (God fucking bless.) It sets them up perfectly for an equally old school twin fight, with Kevin asking “why is your face doing that?” as he watches Kate listen to her voice mails. Both Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley played the HELL out of this scene, and it’s pitched just right. Kate isn’t pissed at Madison for the “violation of lady code,” she’s pissed at her brother for taking advantage of the situation. (I’m hard pressed to pick a favorite moment – Kevin’s panicked “oh god there’s a THIRD one” or Kate’s face when Madison finally rips the bandaid off. Masterful, both.) This whole thing is a mess, but its a minor mess, especially compared to the twins immediately clocking Randall’s impending anxiety attack when he says he might need to go home because Beth hasn’t answered the phone in an hour.
Kevin and Kate know Randall’s anxieties inside and out. They know when to push him and when to leave him alone, and even though Kevin’s push comes out clumsily, it’s well timed. Still, the dynamics of concern between the Big Three are just as symbolic of Kate’s character neglect as the items chosen for the time capsule. Kevin and Kate know they need to be there for Randall, they know they have to be the ones to back up Beth and ensure their brother gets the help he needs. Kate and Randall are finally able to connect about Rebecca’s condition, immediately jumping to the topic whenever Kevin is out of earshot. But the brothers don’t have the same kind of focus on their sister, and the lack of eyes on Kate continues to be palpable.
Still, I breathed a sigh of relief when Randall and Kate told Kevin about Rebecca’s condition. Kevin’s reaction to once again being the only person his mother didn’t trust could have gone a whole lot worse (especially considering the pissing contest Kevin and Randall got into when Kate was in the hospital). It would have been different, maybe, if Randall and Rebecca were still the only ones on the east coast. But for Randall to fly into Kevin’s town and do this under his nose? It’s a tough pill to swallow.
Everything in the hour led up to Randall being reminded of that time capsule. When the Big Three dig it up, twenty years later than intended, the best things they find are the things that bring them closer together. Randall’s entry, the puzzle piece of Jack’s eye, was a signifier of all the ways Kevin has always had his back. The look of pride and love on Randall’s face when Kate asks how he thought of it and he declares “I didn’t” was that of a brother positively drowning in adoration for his sibling. Kevin’s instincts have always been just as good as his heart. And it allows Randall to tell Kevin and Kate that he doesn’t feel like he’s ever had a moment’s respite from anxiety (“I don’t get better, not really”), and to tell them a truth he couldn’t even tell Beth – that he knew he didn’t have to hit that mugger, that it was all his pent up rage and tension coming out in a physical attack.
Of course, when they were kids, it never occurred to them that Rebecca and Jack would have hidden something away in the time capsule, too. When they find Jack’s sketch, all three assume that it was his entry, and that their mom, ever the music nerd, included a mix tape. (To be fair it would be VERY on brand for her.) But that tape wasn’t Rebecca. It was Jack. And thanks to the cabin’s advanced cassette playing technology, they can pop the tape in and hear exactly what their father wanted to say to them.
Listen, we all know this is manipulative. We all know the chances of a cassette player still being in that house – and still WORKING – are slim. But I honestly don’t even care, because the opportunity for these three to hear their father’s voice again, and the opportunity for these three actors to get these moments of subtlety and emotional range is all worth it. By the end of it, all three of them are in tears, and every time I watched it, I was too.
Colors of the Painting
- It’s always weird to watch child actors grow up on a long running series, but because of the way This Is Us works, we are literally watching the eight year old cast turn thirteen, and the thirteen year old cast turn eighteen, and it’s a LOT.
- Siddhartha Khosla is just as skilled at knowing when not to score as he is everything else; the title card playing over the sound of the windshield wipers, after the image of Rebecca setting her teeth, was one of the most impactful moments of the episode.
- Only Randall Pearson could turn a sexy role play into a work joke in .2 seconds.
- I really, REALLY hope Kate doesn’t have any lingering anger towards Madison. This show has enough issues with friendship without risking the best one it has. Also, Madison’s delivering “I think we just tell her that we’re falling in love” with the straightest of faces killed me. I love that girl.
- It was a genius, cyclical move to bring this song back – the last time we heard The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build a Home,” it was set over a montague of the last night Jack and Rebecca spent in their house before the fire. Bringing it back now, with Kevin building his father’s vision, closes a loop we didn’t even know was open.
- “This over here’s Princess Leia. Pretty much the coolest lady in the history of ladies. Well, no, that’s your mom.”
- “The 90’s had real thing for white boy befriends exotic animal movies.”
- “Oh em gee did you sleep with Madison??”
- “I swear to god if I’m not watching a troubled youth fall in love with an orca in 15 minutes!”
What are your thoughts on “The Cabin”? Let us know in the comments!