This Is Us Season 4, Episode 16
“New York, New York, New York”
Posted by Shannon
I guess I tempted fate last week when I begged This Is Us to lay off the late-60’s folk musicians. This week they came for something I never could have seen coming, and then, in very short order, the city I live in changed overnight. It feels bizarre to talk about this episode, which is all about a woman who just wants to get to the Met, barely a week after the museum closed its doors until further notice in the interest of public health. Because from the first shot of “New York, New York, New York,” I recognized my home. My very favorite place. My beating heart and my safest space, wrapped up in marble, protecting some of the greatest art and antiquity the world has ever seen.
It may seem superficial in this unsettling, frightening moment we all find ourselves in to mourn the loss of art, and access to it. Obviously, we as a people have bigger concerns to address over the coming weeks and months. However. For so, so many of us, art is what keeps us going. It’s a privilege and an honor to spend all day staring at a John Singer Sargeant, or at a Pollock, or at the Temple of Dendur, to settle our minds with the warmth of history and creativity that has been collected for 150 years over on Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. Art offers our damaged souls more than a distraction. It offers us hope. It offers us space, and quiet, and solitude, and a center. It’s in Madame X and it’s in one of the few forms of arts and entertainment that doesn’t require the gathering of many people in one space. So, as much as it hurts, I’m grateful for This Is Us this week. Not just for offering us something else to think about, but for giving me a few moving images of my very favorite place to keep me going until I, and countless others, can climb up those stairs and stare at a painting and find some peace.
The first Pearson trip to the island of Manhattan happened in middle school, when the whole family piled in the car to drive Randall to his debate tournament in upstate New York. (Naturally.) A single day in New York to play tourist is, in the best of circumstances, pushing it. Jack tried to make the best of it by asking every member of the family to pick a single thing to do, but scheduling events out hour by hour was just asking for disaster. Kevin settled for a single toy store visit, Kate for a fancy hotel tea time, Randall for AMNH, and Rebecca – for the Met. Listen, we all knew what was going to happen here. From the moment Jack reminded everyone that the museum closed early, I knew Rebecca wasn’t going to make it to her desired location. I want to say the Pearson trip is still a success, and it is, but I’ll never really forgive any of them for letting her miss out on her hour wandering the second floor galleries.
One thing I wasn’t expecting, though, was a late stage recurrence of Jack’s inferiority complex around Rebecca’s father. And I certainly wasn’t expecting Rebecca to still be quite so clueless about all the ways her father would be a trigger for Jack. She’s got a right to her memories, and to her own complex feelings around her family. But it did grate on me that Rebecca was so flippant about “dad’s city” and simultaneously so confused as to why Jack would bristle. And I was deeply frustrated that Rebecca just… let Jack fuck up their subway ride on a hectic day.
But not nearly as frustrated as I was at Jack himself, who could have shown a modicum of humility and trusted that his wife might actually know a thing or two about subway schedules. Basically, they both annoyed me, and I’m not sure if it was slapdash writing or performances that didn’t allow for nuance, for a bit of both. This timeline is the C plot, and honestly, it shows.
With the B train running on the Queens line, the Pearsons wander the sidelines of the East River, leaving Jack and Rebecca to have a quick heart to heart about all of the above. It’s resolved with relative ease. I’m still just not totally clear on how much Rebecca knows – or doesn’t know – about her father’s emotional impact on Jack. She clearly has an idea, and she’s not naive to all the ways her father steamrolled her own childhood. (“He also knew how to throw a screaming fit when he couldn’t find a parking spot.”) But it just doesn’t quite track, given all of that, for her to not have seen exactly what the issue was to begin with.
Of course, the family collects themselves sooner rather than later – as Kevin knew they would. But still, Rebecca misses her shot at the museum, running up the stairs only to be turned away by a guard. (My fucking HEART.) For all the tea times and exhibitions at AMNH, the trip would have been lacking without something for all five of them. Of course Jack is the one to pull it all together, on his first and presumably only visit to New York City, and to take a beat for the family as a unit. The Central Park horse and carriage rides are “cheesy as hell” and complicated and, for some, upsetting. But look. I’m a sap, and I love this city, and I love a horse drawn carriage. I’m sorry, I just do. And so does Rebecca.
It’s in the second trip that things really start to build. Kevin and Sophie are a year or so into their time in New York, and Kevin has stumbled into a Meisner school. Their acting showcase is the motivating factor that brings Rebecca, Beth, and Randall up to Manhattan, leaving Kate at home for a quiet weekend with her friends.
It’s notably terrible that from the jump, Randall was dismissive of his brother’s work. It could feel like this was just a buildup to what’s coming in the modern timeline, and it is, but honestly it works perfectly. Randall has never explicitly said he’s dismissive of his brother’s life in entertainment, but he’s never really been on board. Hell, remember when he could barely sit through the final taping of The Manny? Yes, he and Beth were filling out adoption papers, but still – he could not put his own shit on pause for a monumental moment in his brother’s life. Time and time again, Randall has made snide comments about his brother’s acting career – and from Randall’s perspective, it’s a career that came out of nowhere anyway. This was never Kevin’s childhood dream. And Randall and Kevin certainly didn’t have the kind of relationship as teenagers that would have made it clear to Randall exactly why the arts were such a great fit. So when they pile in the car and drive up to the city, for Randall, it’s under duress, without any inkling of understanding about why this passion has helped Kevin push through his last 18 months without Jack.
It’s all exacerbated when Kevin clearly plans to set Rebecca up with his teacher, played by absolute silver fox Dave Annable. Kirby and Rebecca hit it off from the jump, and even though the flirtation has a few stops and starts before ultimately imploding, it shows just how keyed in Kevin’s instincts are. He knows the kind of guy Rebecca might like to spend time with, he knows her style and her interests far more than Randall wants to give him credit for. She’s okay with the occasional pizza and wings order, and sure, she’s uncomfortable with this whole thing happening in front of two of her kids, but Kirby is still exactly the kind of guy she’d go for before she met Jack. Ultimately, he’s too pretentious, too dismissive and obnoxious – the kind of New Yorker who’s lost his sense of romance around the city itself. And Rebecca (just like yours truly) doesn’t have any time for that. So, after a failed taxi hailing and half a walk through the park, her efforts to get to the museum are foiled. Again.
At the tail end of last week’s episode, in the immediate aftermath of her formal diagnosis, Rebecca asked to tag along to Kevin’s M. Night Shyamalan movie premier. For her, the main motivating factor is a desire to just have fun – to enjoy every day she has with her family, to take advantage of opportunities she never could have imagined having. And Kevin can see that for what it is and appreciate it appropriately. He knows it’s amazing that he has the means and the opportunity to provide Rebecca with a gorgeous, purple sparkly dress and a weekend at the Plaza and a red carpet walk. There’s no way he wouldn’t take full advantage of that opportunity to give his mom something fun and special to experience right now. His instinct is just as strong as it was when he was a teenager; he knows his mom better than it seems. Certainly, better than Randall thinks he does.
With Rebecca living on the west coast and Randall’s anxiety inching towards the breaking point, I suppose this kind of a meltdown from him was unavoidable. But I was still taken aback by just how out of touch Randall became in this episode, and how unwilling he is to see any other points of view. On paper, his plan makes sense enough. He wants to join Kevin and Rebecca at the premiere not to support his brother (and don’t miss that little jab from Kevin – he’s STILL upset that Randall is so dismissive of his career!) but to sit them all down ahead of time and present his mother with the plan for a nine month clinical trial. In St. Louis.
Obviously Randall’s heart is in the right place. He wants to help, he wants to provide a solution, he wants to jump in with a rescue plan. But, while it’s all well and good for him to agree with Kate when she reminds him that this is their mother’s call and no one else’s, everyone knows he won’t just go along with her decision if it’s not the one he wants.
It’s equally obvious that this isn’t the kind of thing Rebecca would be on board for. It goes against every ounce of her reaction to the diagnosis, and Randall is completely blind to that emotional fact. He can’t even see that it’s callous to sit her down before the premiere, on what should be a fun, lighthearted day of Helen Mirren-inspired antics. Kevin puts a stop to the whole lunch plan once he gets there, but that disruption alone sets Randall off. He’s living his life on a knife’s edge right now and every single change to the plan is an upset.
Randall takes things even further by suggesting the trial to his mom, not the next morning as planned, but DURING the party. Randall. My man. This is not the way.
As much as I complained about mediocre character work in the beginning of the episode, I have to hand it to the nuance and subtlety radiating off this particular storyline. Kevin and Randall’s fight makes absolute sense, and Kevin’s character has been seeded with enough thought and care that him coming out in the right here doesn’t seem abrupt. And Randall’s fuckups are deeply understandable from his own character perspective, too. I still have trouble believing that these two would be stubborn and foolish enough to throw their 40th birthday celebration out the window because neither of them are willing to get out of their own way, but honestly, at least it’s understandable and – so far – well written.
Obviously, Rebecca turns the plan down. My girl takes off to the Met post haste, only telling her sons where she is after she’s good and settled in front of her beloved John Singer Sargeant. Once they catch up with her, she delivers a gorgeous, thoughtful monologue about the privilege of time. Of sitting with art, and letting your mind wander, and taking advantage of the beauty that surrounds her. That surrounds all of us, even now. Now that she’s finally where she wanted to be, she’s not moving a muscle: “For as long as they’ll let us, I wanna try and be like that woman. That woman who had all the time in the world to just stare at a painting.”
Randall’s spiral has just begun, and I’ve never been more grateful that he’s started therapy. None of this is really about Rebecca or her diagnosis. It’s all about his deep, horrible guilt surrounding Jack’s death – that somehow, if he’d tried harder, yelled louder, Jack would never have gone back into the house. Buckle up, folks – we’re getting the “what if” episode.
Colors of the Painting
- I just. All of this.
- “Last time he called a code red he wanted to discuss if he could pull off an earring.”
- I’m very curious which production of Anything Goes involved Rebecca’s mom pushing an usher, because while the 1962 revival seems about right time wise, it would also have been off-broadway, which just doesn’t seem to suit her family’s whole vibe.
- “Is it me or is Kevin weirdly comfortable in a fancy hotel?”
- As the Big Three drove into Manhattan, Kevin and Rebecca shared that wistful look in their eyes that any New Yorker would recognize. Never forget that Rebecca wanted, in her bones, to be a city girl.
- In 2016, the Met changed their logo from the intricate woodcut style that hung above the museum since 1971 to the big, block letters you see in the modern day. It was not without controversy, and at the time I kind of hated it, but now I love the thing. Still, I squealed and cried when I noticed that the museum had (or could at least made up) an old school banner they could break out for the 90’s front entrance shots.
- Paul Simon has a history of singing through the city’s hardest moments, so his inclusion in this episode was more apt than anyone could have imagined. Stay well and take care, everyone.
What are your thoughts on “New York, New York, New York”? Let us know in the comments!