This Is Us Season 4, Episode 18
“Strangers: Part Two”
Posted by Shannon
Welcome back to This Is Us, friends! It’s been much longer than usual since we’ve sat down to spend an hour with the Pearsons, and it’s certainly the longest stretch I’ve ever gone in between an episode and its recap. Things got away from me, what with the global pandemic and all. And let me take a moment to say, to any and all of you reading this: I hope you’re okay. I hope your loved ones are okay. I hope you’re finding joy and respite where you can. For me, much of that joy and respite has been in art, and so I’m genuinely happy to be back, talking about the Pearson clan with all of you.
On Tuesday, we’ll see the fifth season open with a two-hour special. We know a few things already. It’ll be set firmly in the now (Kevin’s got a mask on in the season five promo). Sterling K. Brown has gone on record to say the scripts are incorporating Black Lives Matter, as well they should. And after a bit of a scheduling shuffle, Dan Fogelman has said he intentionally wanted the premiere to air before the election for… reasons. So basically, whatever happens next week, it’ll be a rollercoaster, and I’ll be here to work through it all. But for now, let’s take it back to April.
Season four ends where it began: with the introduction of people we don’t recognize who are sure to be connected to our beloved Pearson clan, one way or another. It’s a trope that I somehow never get tired of, no matter how often they revisit and rework the same basic principle. I delighted in meeting these new folks, wondering who meant what to whom, how they would click in, what timeline and generation they belong to. At the same time, we got the standard issue season marker of a Pearson birthday celebration, tracking Jack Damon’s first birthday in tandem with The Big Three – and with the backdrop of the birth of Jack’s own child. This finale set out to cover a whole lot of ground, resolving more questions than it asked and, naturally, setting the groundwork for season five. But the basics are this: “Strangers: Part Two” is all about first birthdays, new starts, and the wrenching sadness that so often accompanies joyful beginnings.
Jack and Rebecca
I have missed these crazy kids. It feels like a lifetime since we’ve seen Jack and Rebecca in this phase of life, bleary eyed from newborns and toddlers and falling over each other in love. Their delightfully sexy birthday tradition looks a little different this year, and for most years to come, but it’s still theirs. And it’s still just as sweet as it is hot. Things in this plotline stay pretty light for a while. I’m a sucker for a montage, and the Big Three’s first birthday party is a great one. It’s a small, quiet affair, and it’s the baseline for a whole other generation of traditions to follow. Still, when Rebecca suddenly broke down crying, overcome with grief, it didn’t feel out of place. It’s a testament to Mandy Moore, but also to the consistent depth of writing This Is Us has delivered for four years, that her mood shift was so natural and in character.
In the grand list of themes that This Is Us will ultimately be known for, management of grief is close to the top. While the loss of Kyle hasn’t flown under the radar, per se, Jack and Rebecca have not really processed their trauma during a time of chaos and triplets. They suffered a loss, and surrounding it with the joy of bringing their kids home doesn’t just make that go away. The thing that got to me the most in this sequence was just how lonely both of them must have been in their grief. Both Jack and Rebecca admit that they can’t revisit home videos of Rebecca’s pregnancy, that they don’t know how to engage with each other about this one devastating factor in the last year of their life. (“I didn’t know if there was something we’re supposed to do, I just knew that thinking about him made me feel sad and I didn’t know what to do with that.”) Maybe for fear of upsetting the other, or seeming ungrateful for the life they have, or a million other reasons, they just never talked about it. Until now.
Mentors are funny things. They come and go and change in our lives, but sometimes they arrive to fill a void. It’s especially notable now, after learning so much more about Jack and Rebecca’s home lives, that Dr. K is the one they call; not a blood relative, but a trusted soul, one who knows and respects them and can speak with authority on the subject without judgement or bias.
He nails it. Of course he does. The last time we saw Dr. K was Jack’s funeral; that he comes back now, to speak to a very different death with a very different tone, is apt. And lest we forget, Dr. K lost a child, too – and he comes to the topic using a language Rebecca (and the show writ large) understands better than anyone. Music. For decades, Dr. K has sung the Irving Berlin standard “Blue Skies;” first to his wife during her pregnancy, then during their mourning, and then to their daughter through her childhood and into her wedding. With a gentle head tilt, he ponders “that song, it made us happy, then it made us sad, then it made us happy – the whole human experience wrapped up in one song.”
And isn’t that another entry in the grand themes list? Music throughout time, changing with you, growing with you, pushing you and comforting you and coming back when you least expect it? The duality of joy and heartache has its ultimate expression in music. With that, Jack and Rebecca are able to go home, watch their home videos again, and move forward with gratitude and sadness, all at once.
Kate and Toby spend Jack’s birthday blissfully unaware of the oncoming familial storm. Even after Rebecca’s announcement (more on that later), the vibe at Jack’s birthday is pretty light hearted. It’s a lot of cake and adorable costume changes and Kate and Toby being lowkey annoyed that no one cares about their secret outing.
It’s a beautiful secret outing, too; all three of them drive out to the NICU to place Jack’s photo on a wall, along with other kids’ photos of happier days out of the hospital. The scene is a perfect encapsulation of Dr. K’s speech. It’s joy and sadness all wrapped up together, as they both cuddle Jack and remember the terrifying first few weeks of his time on earth. Kate’s recollection of those first few days is hazy, but Toby’s is crystal clear, and it kicks him into his most sincere, quiet apology yet. On top of that, it prompts him to ask Kate something I suspect he’d been thinking about for a while. Toby is consistently surrounded by beautiful sibling relationships; not just the Big Three themselves, but Tess, Annie and Deja. Even Nicky is a symbol of sibling relationships remaining pivotal for decades, despite estrangement and loss. Speaking as the only child here, it’s natural to watch these kinds of relationships and romanticize them, so I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that Toby wants to have another child, someone for Jack to “lean on long after you and I are gone.” Another physical pregnancy is out of the question for Kate, but as Toby says, “The Pearsons have a pretty good track record with adoption, don’t they?”
The second Toby uttered that line, I knew this was happening. Their doubts in the parking lot couldn’t even begin to chip away at something so obviously right – for them, and for the practicalities of the story itself. Which brings us thirty years in the future, with Jack Damon and his very pregnant wife, about to give birth to their first kid. It’s all very sweet and lovely and pretty par for the course, until the mysterious woman from the introduction barrels into the hospital room demanding to meet her niece. Hi, Hailey Damon. It’s so good to meet you.
Kevin and Randall
Through most of the fourth season, I was grumbling about how unrealistic it was for Kevin and Randall to not be speaking during their 40th birthday. They’ve overcome so much together, pushed through so much emotional trauma, that I couldn’t fathom something that would trigger a believable rift. Even once it became clear that Randall would be manipulating Rebecca into attending the medical trial, I didn’t really see it as a convincing cause for estrangement.
I should not have doubted that the writers would pull this off. This one hurts, fam. This one really hurts.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the top, with Kevin’s sobriety anniversary – which, lest we forget, is also the same day as Jack’s birthday. (And if you don’t think I lost my mind at the mere thought of Nicky Pearson sending a toddler “dopey white sneakers… but, you know, in baby size” then you must be new around here.) I’ll admit I was anxious that Nicky refusing to congratulate Kevin on one year of sobriety would mean that Kevin relapsed, and THAT was a part of the oncoming estrangement, but thankfully we’re all spared that particular plotline. Kevin just goes calmly through his meeting, and on the other side of the country, Randall and the crew pack up to fly to the west coast for the birthday… and to be there for Rebecca when she makes her announcement.
Randall should know by now that when Beth thinks something is a bad idea, that’s because it’s is. She can see this disaster coming a mile away and is not on board for the methods her husband used against her mother-in-law. Still, she respects that the call is ultimately Rebecca’s to make, so Beth doesn’t push too hard – instead she just avoids the topic of St. Louis whenever it’s brought up, and when asked directly, she can only really handle making “mmmmmm” noises. (As in, “I think that your mom made her decision, and I think the tactics that you used to get her to change her mind are mmmmmm.” Beth Pearson, I love you so much.)
For the second time this episode, Rebecca spends a child’s first birthday party alternating between quiet, genuine joy and an even quieter sense of broiling devastation. She spends Jack’s birthday with her teeth set, as if she’s determined to soak up every bit of it while she still can. Beth clocks it, just as Kevin clocks that Randall keeps glancing over at him by accident. In hindsight it’s painful to watch just how hard Kevin tries to build a bridge with Randall at this point, desperately trying to clear the air and get him to understand where he was coming from. Randall’s sense of unease must be just as high as Rebecca’s by now, and he can barely bring himself to say anything to his brother – except to congratulate him for his one year. With the candles blown out, but the party still underway, Rebecca finally rips off the bandaid. She and Miguel will be moving in three weeks time.
At first, it goes over well enough. Kate and Kevin are visibly distressed, but they’re willing to go along with their mother’s decision if that’s what she really wants. Except…well, Rebecca and Randall really needed to think up separate talking points. Both of them use precisely the same phrase when Kevin pushes them one on one about her change of heart, claiming that she “just saw it as an investment in my future,” and that’s all Kevin needs to hear to fully comprehend what’s happened. Beth is maybe the only person who really knows how ugly this is going to get (and I’m including Kevin and Randall in that), so she wisely rushes everyone else out of the house to spare them all the friendly fire. (“Let’s get Miguel and the girls and just clear out, okay?”)
It’s fucking brutal, folks. This was like watching an emotional boxing match. Randall tries to duck and cover at first while Kevin goes at him – and then, just when Kevin might leave well enough alone, Madison rings the doorbell to tell him she’s pregnant. And honestly, three cheers for underrated MVP Justin Hartley in this scene. He plays it all SO perfectly. Everything is running across his face at once, but it’s still subtle. Kevin’s in shock. Full stop. He’s done so much work and fought so hard against so many demons, and every single one of them is swirling around his mind right now. And STILL he has the wherewithal to tell Madison that, when he goes out to the front lawn, he just needs to get some air and is completely clear that he’s “not walking away from this conversation.” This back and forth is what makes the scene (and the rift) work for me; the knowledge that Kevin Pearson has just had crisis after crisis piled on top of his psyche, watching him work SO hard to be a better man and stand his ground and stay consistent with the behavior he wants to hold, in his heart of hearts. He fights off Randall’s blows as long and hard as he can, until he snaps.
Kevin and Randall are at very different stages of therapy right now. Randall’s still in the middle of the mess, with trauma and heartbreak actively coming at him from unsuspecting angles, bubbling up in ways he can’t control. But because it’s Randall, he never SEEMS out of control. It seems like he means it, like he intends to say every single thing that comes out of his mouth. The escalation is unbearable. They’re both so right, and they’re both so wrong, and this is the kind of shit that you can never, ever take back.
Thank god for that flash forward, y’all. I don’t know if I could have stomached that fight without knowing that, at least a decade into the future, Kevin and Randall would be standing side by side at the foot of their mother’s bed. Complete with Kevin’s twins. And Nicky Pearson. Who’s… wearing a wedding ring.
Bring on season five.
Colors of the Painting
- The Billy Joel song that plays under Jack Damon’s first birthday party is in direct conversation with Dr. K’s pep talk. It’s either sadness or euphoria – and it’s both at the same time.
- I knew that the Big Three turn 40 in 2020, and I knew that Jack and Hailey Damon would have to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s when we’ve met them in adulthood, and still – reading that the farthest out timeline is set in 2050 broke my brain.
- “Is it ooo-gling or ogg-iling, by the way?”
- I just. This whole thing.
- Congratulations are in order for Mandy Moore, who’s expecting her first child in early 2021! Given the format of the show, production already had a great deal of flexibility to work around this, and what with modern Rebecca heading off to St. Louis, the timing couldn’t get much better.
- Shout out to our other stranger of the episode, Madison’s doctor, who convinces her to tell Kevin what’s going on and seems to be a very endearing dad in his own right.
- We barely know anything about Hailey Damon at this point, and yet she’s already one of my faves. Her gallery is gorgeous and she has impeccable taste in clothing and jewelry and she’s as charming as Toby and as quietly snarky as Kate and I can’t wait to learn more about her.
Are you ready for season five? Let us know in the comments!