This Is Us Season 4, Episode 17
“After the Fire”
Posted by Shannon
There’s been something about season four. Maybe it’s the expanded world of characters. (I’m looking at you, “Strangers.”) Maybe it’s the fact that, after season two’s mourning and season three’s focus on Vietnam, this has been the first season to let us breathe and think about the future. Maybe it’s the steady stream of personal attacks on my psyche! Whatever the reason, (and barring a total disaster at the finale this week) in this recapper’s humble opinion, it’s been the strongest, most reliably moving season the show’s had so far. It’s also the first moment we could even possibly stomach a “what if” episode. Anywhere earlier in the timeline, and this would have been a misstep. But Randall’s therapy session gives both him and the viewers a safe space to explore. To ponder just what might have come of Randall had his father lived. I’m sure Kevin, Kate and Rebecca all have their own versions of what might have happened after the fire. I’m sure they all have their own regrets, their own visions of possibilities. But this hour is Randall’s.
Dr. Leigh did not come to play. She wastes no time digging into Randall’s opening prompt for their session: ever since talking to Kevin, he hasn’t stopped thinking about what his life would be like if Jack had lived. Randall’s first fantasy is nothing short of a fairy tale. And still, even before things got over the top, I was fascinated that Randall assumed Rebecca would immediately tell Jack the truth about William. Maybe it’s the fact that this particular plot point hasn’t been top of mind lately, but I was taken aback right from the start. I just… don’t know that this reaction would have been true to Rebecca’s character. It’s possible, sure. But it could have been just as feasible for her to react to the loss of Jack with the same admission to her son, so who’s to say that she would have behaved that differently had Jack lived?
Still, let’s stay with this fantasy for a little. Jack takes the news with grace and love for Rebecca, and they go to tell Randall the truth together. (Before his parents start talking, Randall’s looking up fire insurance on Miguel’s computer. Naturally.) A few smaller moments in this scene struck me. First, that Randall immediately turned to Jack for validation and justification of this revelation, leaving Rebecca to need to jump in and assure Randall that Jack “only found out five minutes ago, okay?” And secondly, that Jack is immediately fine with going along with his son to see William. At no part in either fantasy does Jack drag his heels with that initial meeting. And given all of Jack’s reticence with Randall’s teacher, I just don’t know that he would have been as unquestionably on board as Randall thinks he would have been. All of this just reiterates Dr. Leigh’s point from later on in the episode – that none of this is actually about Jack.
It’s all about Rebecca.
When they do find William, he’s still using, but he’s still himself. He’s not a wreck, not unkind. The William of this fantasy marks off every single item in the good-reaction to do list. He asks Randall about music, gives Randall his poetry book, assures him that his biological mother was “a warm drink straight to your soul” and that he was “never not wanted.” He’s every inch the William we all know and live and miss desperately. So of COURSE Jack is then able to take William straight to group with him, and of COURSE neither of them continue to struggle with addiction. By the time Randall decides to stay at home and attend Carnegie Mellon instead of Howard (which, as William knows, was his first choice) – which then means he still meets Beth – I was starting to raise an eyebrow.
Before the eyebrows totally arch, I do want to talk about Beth’s influence. Like everyone else outside his parents in this scenario, she’s every inch the same person she has always been. She IMMEDIATELY twigs to Randall’s deep, lingering resentment towards Rebecca for not telling him about William. No matter that William is getting sober, no matter that the two are able to have a solid relationship with zero impact on his own relationship with Jack. Randall is just not able to forgive his mom. Until, of course, Beth snaps him out of it in the kitchen with a patented “quit being such a dick to your mom head nod.” This is why Beth is his person. She can – and has always been able to – see right through him, and see straight to the heart of what’s upsetting him. And she knows how to get him to pay the hell attention and snap out of it. With her emotional shove, Randall throws his mom a bone, and their relationship is back on the mend.
From there, the fantasy of it all gets a little overwhelming. Jack and William are both at Randall’s wedding – a moment in his life that would have been devoid of any father figures, including from Beth – and Jack gives a beautiful speech. Randall notices that William’s stomach hurts, and is immediately able to get him into care and recovery, beating the cancer that takes his life. And, in what’s a real twist in the knife to Miguel, Jack and Randall both notice Rebecca’s memory issues during Thanksgiving. (However, you might notice that William takes the place of Nicky on the couch – only one seat for a long lost relative, apparently.) This is about the time that Dr. Leigh pulls the emergency brake, deadpanning “I suspect that you and your father are about to band together to save your mother, so I’m just gonna step back here.”
Dr. Leigh lets this whole thing go on for as long as she can before stepping in, but once she does, she’s blatant with Randall about all the ways his control issues have made themselves known in his fantasy. Some part deep in his soul, Randall truly thinks that he has the power to craft the lives of his loved ones to match his hopes and dreams – even when he’s asked to explore what frightens him the most in the same scenario.
This shit gets dark, folks. While the beginnings of the fantasy are the same – up to and including Rebecca immediately coming clean to Jack – it goes off the rails fast. Jack reacts terribly to Rebecca’s admission, yelling that the Rebecca he knows “is not capable of something this cruel, she is not capable of keeping our son away from his birth father” – which Randall overhears. Without the benefit of both his parents coming to him together, and with Jack’s horrific reaction lodged in his brain, Randall can never forgive Rebecca. The betrayal joins forces with William dismissing his paternity in a drug haze, prompting Randall to start at Howard that very summer.
There’s something to be said for the ways Randall connects to his blackness in this scenario. And I’m loathe to dismiss things like his Howard fraternity march and his position in academia, especially given Dr. Leigh’s pointed comments about Randall’s decision – subconscious or otherwise – not to see a therapist of color. I can’t speak to this other than to point it out, and to say that I do wish his more visible connection to his race didn’t also come along with a habit of sleeping with all his teaching assistants. Alas – without Beth in his life, Randall never marries. And he never forgives his mother.
It’s extraordinarily painful to watch this version of Randall, so cold and calculated, never speaking about his family and certainly not committing to weekends away with his siblings. And it’s painful to watch his father survive the fire only to slowly turn into a version of his own father; a resentful alcoholic, blaming his wife for the misfortunes of his entire family. Still, nothing hurt quite like Randall tossing the box of William’s possessions and poetry into the hallway garbage can with barely a second thought.
The last time we had a serious therapy session on This Is Us, it came out of Kevin’s rehab. It was deep and intense and phenomenally well acted and entirely unscored. I’m happy to say the same is true of this scene, on each and every point. And while “The Fifth Wheel” acted as a fascinating psycho drama for every single member of the Pearson family, some work just can’t be done in a group. Some work needs to be done with one patient and one therapist, hashing shit out through a healthy mix of observations and questions. There are several things I loved about this scene – aside from Sterling K. Brown’s gold standard performance and the absolutely whip smart writing. I love Dr. Leigh’s quick wit. I love that she doesn’t let Randall get away with anything, when so many in his life do (for good reasons, but still). I love that Randall goes there with her, but I especially love that he draws a line for his own mental exploration. He’ll come in, he’ll do the work, he’ll explore what it’s meant to live his life surrounded by loss and pain and lies. He’ll confront his control issues (or at least allow himself to truly look at them) and he’ll process all the ways he continues to torture himself. But he won’t relitigate Rebecca’s lie about William with Rebecca herself. And because Dr. Leigh is clearly every inch the exceptional therapist she was promised to be, she doesn’t push him across that line. It’s his life and his relationship with his mother, and exploring its implications in therapy does not need to mean blowing it all up outside her office.
Which is not to say that the session – and presumably their future work together – won’t have any ramifications in the outside world. Quite the opposite. Now that Randall has finally accepted his lingering resentments towards Rebecca, it gives him a new voice to make his case for the clinical trial. Of course, Rebecca is living in vision of every argument she’s made against it. She’s surrounded by her loved ones, she’s enjoying her time and feeling comfortable and happy. What Randall does here is emotionally manipulative. I don’t know how it will shake out next week. But it’s so human. It’s so understandable. And while it will be extremely difficult for Kevin to acknowledge all the ways Randall has subsumed his own needs for the needs of his mother and his family, that does not make it any less real. Randall’s right. He’s never asked her for anything. But he’s asking for this.
Colors of the Painting
- Give it the hell up for Niles Fitch this episode, y’all. His portrayal of Randall goes toe to toe with Sterling K. Brown’s and that is no joke.
- While the first scenario showed no significant changes in Kevin and Kate’s life, the second did. Kevin never becomes an actor; instead, he joins his father at Big Three Homes. And Kate, for SOME REASON, is married to a random man and has twins. I don’t care for any of the implications that has on Kate’s fertility, but I’m going to chalk it up to a writer trying to make the scenarios vastly different without really thinking things through. Still – not a great move.
- The “overpriced therapist in cheap shoes” jab indeed was uncalled for, but I still giggled at Randall’s speedy apology. He can be a dick, but he rarely lets it linger.
- It’s an extremely tiny moment, but after Toby finishes drawing two straight lines as a representation of the Mission to Mars (somehow!), Kevin mutters “There’s no mission! There’s no mars!” and I swear to god, Justin Hartley’s delivery of that slayed me every time.
- For posterity, Beth Pearson’s Watchmen take: “It took six episodes, but it finally makes sense.”
- We do have to talk about how hot middle aged Jack is. We just do. The glasses? The salt and pepper? Come on.
What are your thought on “After the Fire”? Let us know in the comments.