This Is Us Season 4, Episode 15
Posted by Shannon
Season four is really out to get me. I keep thinking they can’t possibly sneak in another episode which settles its spine on the life and love of a sad folk singer, and yet, the hits keep on coming. “Clouds” gets its title from the 1969 Joni Mitchell album of same name, and just like Leonard Cohen in “So Long, Marianne,” Joni’s own life comes in and out of the hour. (However, in this episode, she’s not the author of the musical focal point. That honor goes to Graham Nash – but more on him later.) I always connect Joni and Leonard in my mind, heart, and listening habits. It’s not just because I grew up with both of my beloved sad Canadians rattling around my childhood home, and it’s not just because, out of all the late 60’s and 70’s singer/songwriters, they’re the most frequent touchpoint for my own life journey. It’s because there’s a specific texture and sadness that comes in listening to their personal evolutions. (They’re both visual artists, too; the cover of Joni’s “Clouds” album is a self portrait.) Their voices change over decades of cigarettes and overuse and aging, but their poetry does not. Neither of them were shy about revisiting their earliest songs in later recordings, and those years bring with them layers of depth and understanding and mourning and acceptance. It’s painfully, beautifully audible. And because Rebecca Pearson is who she is, and grew up when she grew up, and is played by the woman she’s played by, and is shared with us in both her younger and older years, the same can be said of her.
I often wonder how much of Rebecca Pearson’s love of Joni Mitchell came from Mandy Moore herself, who frequently lists Joni as an influence and whose album Amanda Leigh was in direct conversation with Joni’s music. Whether it was always in Rebecca’s DNA or whether it came with Mandy, Joni’s journey through the years is written on Rebecca’s face. In Mandy Moore, we have a performer whose musical identity is shaped by a legendary folk singer’s journey through womanhood – one filled with love, loss, tragedy, sorrow, and poetry. We have the same in Rebecca Pearson. Watching her listen to Joni, watching her sing and speak of Joni and Graham Nash in her 20’s and her 60’s alike – it all merges into something uniquely touching.
But there’s more happening in this episode than a deep dive on the way musical identity travels and grows through the decades. There’s a resolution to Kate and Toby (which, honestly, also relies on music traveling through decades), and Randall’s first formal therapy session, and the beginning of the ramp up to the end of the season. Is it too much for me to ask for a respite from beloved folk singers for these last three episodes?
This week’s framing device comes in the form of report card day. Randall, ever the straight A student, is annoyed by his A- in Geometry, which he’s certain has come from his over-dedication to the math league, and he’s equally irritated by his brother’s claim that he got two A’s himself. (PE and Art apparently don’t count.) Jack and Rebecca tease Randall for his standard issue overachieving, but Rebecca is especially concerned that he seems to be “getting worse.” Jack doesn’t disagree, but his solution is simple: take the kid running.
The way he goes about it is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Jack; he’s basically superdad, insisting that Randall race him with a laughable head start. And the payoff is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Randall; he sees a potential solution and digs in, creating a coping mechanism that he’ll turn into a crutch for decades to come. If that sounds dismissive, I don’t mean it to be – anxiety is often calmed by physical activity, and running has been a great tool for Randall through the years. But it’s not a full scale replacement for mental health practices, and as we all know, I’m a firm believer in professional mental health solutions. Especially in one particular vein.
Folks, my time has come. A Pearson has gone to therapy.
And not the required outpatient sessions Randall had to attend after a hospitalization – standard issue talk therapy. It took more than I’d like to get him there, and ultimately the only reason he goes is because Beth set it up and is lightly insisting. Randall tells his therapist that he’s also there because he’s seen what good it does for Tess, but I don’t really buy that. I think Randall knows he’s out of options, and that at the end of the day, his loved ones will no longer abide him not at least TRYING a session. But still – this is a momentous occasion.
Technically speaking, this session couldn’t have been portrayed better. Every single artistic choice is genius: not showing the therapist’s face allows the session to essentially be performed in monologue by Sterling K. Brown, which is never a bad call. The hour is tense and claustrophobic, as if Randall was stuck under a microscope, squirming to escape. Trying, at every juncture, to control his narrative. Snapping at anything that will make it more of a challenge for him to keep his grasp – the coffee pot, the painting behind him, the therapist knowing his origin story before he gets the chance to explain it himself.
Which brings me to the things that felt lacking. Old magazines and finicky coffee makers aside, it IS WEIRD that the therapist didn’t flag her awareness of Randall’s status in the community before their session. In the scene itself, it plays well – it’s a moment for Randall’s facade to crack, adjust his behavior in real time. Before her admission, he was basically on autopilot, explaining the facts as he would to a constituent asking about his medical records. And even then, he was crawling out of his skin. After she comes clean, he turns into a living, breathing time bomb, despite his half hearted attempt to claim he can pull it together. (“Not your fault, I’m a public figure, I shouldn’t have been surprised.”)
Randall’s therapist could use better intake skills, but at the end of the day, she asks all the right questions in all the right ways. She barely scratches the surface of his relationship with Rebecca before Randall asks if her whole practice is set up to “agitate your patients into having a breakdown.” She doesn’t even tug at the thread Randall might as well have dangled in her face: the awareness that Rebecca asked him to hide her illness from Kate and Kevin because “they have enough on their plate – as if I don’t.” And the thing that drives him out of the office is extremely tame – she lightly questions his insistence that “if it wasn’t for me, this whole family would have fallen apart.” By storming out after that question, and after delivering a lecture about how well he knows himself and his flaws, Randall outlines exactly why he needs this practice to begin with. Yes, therapy could have been about knowing his flaws, or coming up with coping mechanisms. Either one of those focuses could be appropriate. But what he really needs is a neutral party to question his perceptions in a controlled environment. To give him the space to throw a temper tantrum or move through what those flaws actually physically mean to him for better and for worse. There’s countless moments in that session that show, in bold, italics, and underlines, exactly why Randall needs to stick with this. And still, none of that would be enough for him to try again.
But Beth is. And thank god for that. Before he left for therapy, Beth was proud, excited, a little nervous, and happy to put on the chill face needed to get Randall out the door. After he comes home and declares he won’t be returning, she’s something else. It’s not that she’s disappointed in her husband. It’s that she needs him to finally understand just how much his mental health is impacting her own. If he’s incapable of doing this for himself, he will at least do it for his wife, who’s taken to carrying pepper spray in her bag when she locks up alone at night, who’s had to get a prescription from her doctor to try to get some sleep, who’s desperate for her youngest child to get an iPhone so she always knows where she is. It’s not just that Beth knows Randall needs this. It’s that SHE needs it. Her house was broken into too, and right now, she can’t even talk to her husband about it for fear of setting off one of his many anxieties.
And so, when he goes back, it’s not with the same trapped claustrophobic fears – it’s on equal footing with Dr. Leigh. Now they can get to work.
Kate and Toby
While the weekend at the cabin didn’t change much for Randall, it kicked in a massive reset for his siblings. And the time away from Kate was nothing short of revolutionary for Toby, who finally bonded with Jack and has, for all intents and purposes, snapped out of it. For Kate, though, it’s going to take more than a perfect apology (“I said what I said out of fear and worry and exhaustion and if I could take it all back I would … This weekend was a real godsend”) and the beginnings of a grand gesture to sweep away the months of insecurity and fear she’s been feeling in her marriage.
I’ve frequently called out Rebecca – and, frankly, anyone Jack Pearson set eyes on – for allowing a grand gesture to be the end-all-be-all of an apology. I get it, grand gestures are called that for a reason. And in early days, it made me crazy when Kate was willing to move past anything if Toby made the tiniest show of goodwill. So while it hurt for Kate to pump the breaks on Toby when he was in the middle of unveiling her new studio garage, I was pretty proud of her for knowing herself and for recognizing just how far down the road she’d gone. A single weekend and some sketched out cardboard boxes won’t erase a serious erosion of trust and self esteem. It just won’t. At least, not without some new context and a second pair of eyes. Which is why a girl needs her friends.
Honestly, this could not have gone better. Madison and Kate’s reconciliation is quick and honest and as clean as it could possibly be. And just when I think I can’t love this girl more, she does two things that left me cheering on my couch in two very different ways: first, while she absolutely 100% means every word of her apology, she’s still gonna brag a little about just how “hot and vulnerable” Kevin was and just how much fun they had in bed. (I SCREAMED at “I was literally upside down at one point. Just use your imagination.” MY GIRL.) And second, Madison basically outlined for Kate exactly what I’ve been yelling about in my recaps week after week – that while it’s understandable for her to react this way, it’s also a betrayal of the vulnerability and honesty Kate and Toby have always shared. (“Isn’t that what marriage is about? Letting people see the worst part of you without being scared? … And I am just going to say this and duck, but shouldn’t Toby be allowed to express his deepest fears without punishment?”)
This kind of conversation is exactly why I’m always yelling about the importance of friendship for each and every one of these characters. Kate might not have been able to get here on her own, and while she kind of heard it from Beth, there wasn’t the same resonance. (Kevin and Randall couldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise on the subject.) But with Madison, she can take a beat and acknowledge that it’s okay for Toby to have heard her out and changed his behavior – it’s not a manipulation or a dishonest display. It’s personal growth. On both their sides.
And, as if she needed any more proof, when Kate comes home she finds Jack and Toby cuddling on the couch, with Toby scared to move lest he wake up the baby. It’s the final push for Kate, who can finally let her guard down. (“I’m tired of the me versus you. We’re at our best when it’s me and you versus everyone.”) She’s ready for the grand gesture – and damn does he knock it out of the park. The garage-turned-music-studio isn’t just for Kate. It’s for Jumping Jack Damon and the Bugs, too. This garage is where Jack learns to play the piano, it’s where he hones his skills, and it’s where he finds his safety and himself. It’s perfect. Toby was right – this is the grand gesture to end all grand gestures.
Kevin and Rebecca
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we haven’t exactly spent a lot of time with childhood Kevin and Rebecca. But as this episode kicked off and it became clear that the main pull would be those two, I was a little shocked at just how few scenes we’ve had with the two of them at this age. All Kevin wanted all day was to use his $10 reward money to buy out all the ‘91 baseball cards at the local shop in an effort to find John Candaleria and complete his annual collection. Kevin and Sophie are already dating at 12, which means Kevin can dig at Rebecca with the flip “I wish you were more like Sophie’s mom” comment. But I did wonder how much of it he meant as a manipulation and how much of it he just…. meant. Which is probably why it got to her as quickly as it did. And considering the way Rebecca muttered “just do Kevin quickly” during the morning’s report card review, and how focused the errands are on the other two kids, he’s not totally off base.
Once they get to the card shop, both of them relax into a beautiful, comfortable relationship. It was so charming to watch 12-year-old Kevin shove bad gum in his mouth and ask his mom to blow on a pack for luck. And once Rebecca was in, she was in 110%, chomping on gum and blowing bubbles and cheering her son on as he opened pack after pack in an effort to find his dream card.
It’s remarkable how little either of them have changed. Carpe Diem Rebecca is all about that baseball card hunting energy, and Kevin’s sting at being the last one to know about her illness wears off remarkably quickly. After all, he’s had years of practice. And not only does he want to be there for his mom, and he CAN be. For all her concern about Kevin being able to handle the reality of the situation, he’s probably the best equipped at the moment; he doesn’t have the obligation of a baby or a city council seat, and with his most recent film wrapped, he’s got plenty of free time to drive around with Rebecca and listen to records before her doctor’s appointment.
Rebecca Pearson standing in a record store, closing her eyes and listening to a young Joni Mitchell sing “Both Sides Now” hits close to the bone in a whole lot of ways. But what I really want to say is this: that scene is the physical manifestation of all the emotionally metatextual layering I was talking about earlier. It’s so deep and so affecting and so powerful. Kevin gets lost in it, too, even as he teases her for comparing her record collection to his baseball cards. And while she doesn’t tell Kevin the context of that first trip to LA, she does share one story about her and Jack’s road trip – their meandering, unsuccessful hunt for Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash’s house in Laurel Canyon. All it takes is a quick check in with Siri for Kevin to whisk her off on her pilgrimage.
I don’t know what I thought was going to happen here, but Kevin and Rebecca straight up trespassing was not on my bingo card. (“If I end up on TMZ for breaking into Joni Mitchell’s old house with my mom …. Actually, that could play.”) The context of this scene is hilarious and weird but it has to be to keep me from falling into sobs, tbh. I cry even THINKING about it. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most beautiful things This Is Us has ever given us, and rather than say anything more about it, let’s all just look at the gifset together.
Each of the Big Three has their moments with a wisecrack. They can all adjust the mood perfectly, with great timing and a quick line. It’s a skill they get from Jack, or from adjusting to life without him, or both. But Kevin is always just a little bit faster, just a little bit lighter, just a little more willing to play. And that’s the quality Rebecca is counting on keeping her mood up during an impossibly hard time. It’s something he can always deliver, and happily – but it doesn’t mean he can’t be responsible. It doesn’t mean he can’t push against the “family narrative that I’m not dependable.” So when she asks him to take her off to a fancy sushi place and skip out on her appointment, he holds firm. He does exactly what Randall thinks he can’t do. He gets her home, picks up Miguel, and takes both of them to hear the diagnosis they’ve all feared was coming.
Colors of the Painting
- My whole heart for Rebecca Pearson whispering “I did say that” to Jack when Kevin claims his $10 reward for two A’s.
- Toby’s response to the news that Madison and Kevin had sex could not have been more perfect. I have cackled every time.
- Tag yourself, I’m teen Kate moaning “I go, I stay, what does it matter?” while Blind Melon’s “No Rain” plays on MTV.
- Beth Pearson, fashion icon, is rocking two red statement nails in addition to a dark blue or black. QUEEN.
- The story Rebecca tells about “Our House” is exactly true. And Graham Nash is, for all intents and purposes, still in love with Joni Mitchell after all these years. For evidence may I submit her 75th birthday celebration:
- “You know she’s so cute when she begs. The force is strong in that one.”
- If the promo is to be believed, the rift between Randall and Kevin comes from the two fighting over Rebecca’s care. This …. is tacky and I hate it.
What are your thoughts on “Clouds”? Let us know in the comments!