This Is Us Season 5, Episode 1
“Forty: Part One”
Posted by Shannon
We will be wrestling with the best ways to represent the pandemic in television and film for years. But if I may offer up a general rule of thumb for television shows? If you’re grounded in reality, and if your plot so much as breezes past a current event, you’re going to have to figure out a way to fold it into your story. I heard some grumblings around the internet from fans who wished This Is Us just pretended none of this was happening, that we never see a mask or hear the word virus. And while I get the need for escapism, you might as well ask that the Pearsons launch into an alternative universe. This Is Us has always been grounded in reality. There have been Obama ‘08 signs in past episodes, not to mention frequent conversations around politics and race. One of the main characters is now an elected official, for fuck’s sake. To ignore the last seven months would be an impossibility – and frankly, it would be irresponsible.
That said, some of this worked very well, and some of it felt a bit clunky. Season five starts right up where it left off, but the context is completely different now. The story negotiates itself around masks and quarantines. Some editing around old episodes, normally something that the show does masterfully, came off a little dodgy. But we still have birthdays. And we still have a new point of view on the origin story for the Big Three.
Jack, Rebecca and William
There isn’t much to say about Jack and Rebecca this episode. They’re as adorable as ever, what with Jack checking off all the relevant boxes on the packing list and Rebecca making him promise he’ll never have a goatee (lols). The main thrust of their plotline came after they were settled into the hospital, when Jack runs out of the room to try to find Rebecca a radio – the one thing he forgot on his aforementioned checklist. What follows is a real mixed bag of a monologue from our matriarch.
Rebecca’s right to say that the weight placed upon men to never express a real emotion is serious, and does serious damage. I’ve yelled about toxic masculinity in these recaps more times than I can count, and both Pearson boys show strength in their vulnerability time and time again. But honestly, I found her monologue all about the tragedy of men trying to Feel Things exhausting at best. It’s not charming or sweet or endearing when men are incapable of expressing their emotions. It’s horrific, and it’s a curse, and it actively hurts all of our humanity.
I think my patience for that monologue ran particularly short because of our other key figure in this timeline: William. Our dear, darling William. It’s been far too long since we’ve seen him, and his days in 1980 were painfully bittersweet.
Randall’s entry into this world is told through William’s eyes. It makes sense, since he’s the one we know and love, and the one we’ve met before so many times, but most of this was really Laurel’s story. Laurel, who celebrated her pregnancy by applying to an assistant manager position. Laurel, who was planning a move two floors up to a larger apartment so her baby could have a window. Laurel, who lost a brother and didn’t want to remember a life before she met William and found her family.
The thing I loved most about their story in this hour – and yet another reason why that monologue from Rebecca felt tiresome – was the window into the life of William and Laurel’s friends. (And again I say, PLEASE give all these people more friends!) The community William and Laurel had around them was fighting the same fight forty years ago that the Black community is fighting now. They were having real conversations, with vulnerability and honesty, every day. They were all fighting for their rights, out in the streets of a very different version of the same city Rebecca and Jack lived in. And ultimately, they end up in jail after a protest, without anyone to make bail because – of course – Laurel got overlooked for the promotion for “Ashley, who doesn’t need the money and who couldn’t give a crap.”
From there, it just gets worse. William relents when Laurel asks for a way to ease the pain after giving birth to Randall in their apartment, without any professional care or medication, which leads to her passing out from a presumed overdose and sets William off on his long bus ride to deliver Randall to the fire station. Later, he’ll go back to the hospital to make sure his baby is safe and – maybe – to try to take it all back, passing Jack in the hall along the way.
Randall and Beth’s first few scenes do most of the narrative legwork to bring the show up to speed from the last seven months. It’s their kitchen table that focuses on the pandemic, which Deja immediately declares to be “no joke.” Randall reports that the clinical trial which caused everyone so much strife is canceled, and that Rebecca and Miguel are stuck isolating in the family cabin, since they stopped there en route to the trial. His position on the city council means he’s out in the streets day in and day out, passing out PPE and supporting his community. By the time Randall sends Kevin a painfully edited text to congratulate him on the pregnancy, Randall’s already exhausted. And then, on May 26, George Floyd’s murder is reported.
This Is Us earned its keep as a network drama in that first scene alone. The viewership for the show is large and mixed, and plenty of its white viewers would rather not have to think about – much less, get a window into – the living room of a Black family during those days. The exhaustion, the trauma, the weary responses to well meaning but ignorant white family members and friends. I can’t speak for the Black viewing experience, and their stories are not owed to the white audience, but I trust in Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson to tell a story that felt true to their daily lives – and I certainly trust Kay Oyegun, who has a writing credit on the episode, to write it properly.
As it did for so many of us in the spring and summer, the public health crisis piled on top of a civil rights crisis which piled on top of day to day crises, and still, Randall Pearson kept it together. He’s bone tired, working constantly, and at one of his heaviest emotional distances from his family. While Randall is still in remarkably decent mental shape, he’s also spending his days working through his history. He’s not interested in traveling the 90 minutes to see his entire family as they hunker down in the cabin; not when he’s thinking about his entry into this world. (“You know, for all I know today isn’t even my birthday.”)
All of it is building to this conversation. And it’s so fucking good. Again, I cannot and will not speak to this from the Black experience. I can only speak to it from a character assessment. And all of it is SO perfectly in character. Randall isn’t saying anything to Dr. Leigh about George Floyd despite her half hearted attempt to bring it up, and it’s not appropriate for him to lean on his staff or constituency. Beth can only do so much. Randall still does not have any Black male friends to lean on and work through shit with, and so he’s left with Malik. Who, bless his heart, is really fucking great! But he’s still a child, and Randall knows as soon as he opens up that this kid shouldn’t bear the brunt of his processing. No matter how wonderful he is. (My heart just about broke when Malik opened the convo with “They say check on your strong friends. I’m checkin’.”)
I’ll say again that This Is Us did good work here. They didn’t cater to the white audience by lingering on the fucking tragedy that is a teenager who has a traditional walk with his dad every time someone who looks like him is murdered by police. They just let it stand. And again, speaking from the perspective of the characters, it makes perfect sense for Randall to have handled murders like that of Jonny Gommage alone. He has always been a person who handles a crisis in solitude.
But it’s also important to note that it fits into the weaknesses of Jack and Rebecca as parents. They let their Black son down every time they didn’t talk to him about police brutality. They let him down by not discussing the daily dangers that Randall had to face, of which their white son was blissfully unaware. And they let Kate and Kevin down by letting them get away with skipping those conversations. They created a home where it was easy for two of their kids to not have to think about the ways the world works against their third. This is why it was so upsetting for Jack to rail against Randall’s relationship with his teacher, and to bemoan Randall’s initial wish to go to a HBCU instead of a white Ivy League school. Randall was alone with his Blackness for most of his life, and it’s time for him (and the show) to address that part of his upbringing.
Kevin, Madison, Rebecca, Kate and Toby
After all the righteous trials and tribulations faced this hour, it was a relief to have this potential and very silly rift shut down immediately. I didn’t really expect Kate to be pissed at Madison and Kevin, but the show lingered on Kate’s reaction a little too long for comfort. That said, light of my life Toby Damon (STILL WEIRD TO SAY) was a joy for that whole sequence. The man had me cackling and even though it’s been years now, I will never be over the turnaround they managed on his character.
With that suspense out of the way, most of this grouping of characters was just about moving the chess pieces around for the second installment. Madison and Kevin decide to isolate together in her house, with Kevin staying in her questionably decorated guest room. Kate and Toby join them in a camper after a necessary test and quarantine period when Madison suggests they all drive out to the cabin to join Rebecca and Miguel for the Big Three’s birthday. Kate spends the time mourning the rift between her brothers and trying to keep some type of peace. Rebecca’s feeling well, cooking up a storm and staying independent. However, we know from “So Long, Marianne” that this is the birthday she ends up wandering downtown, alone, distraught, and having a horrible mental episode.
That’s the bit where the editing just didn’t quite click in as well as it normally did. The placement of those interconnected and revisited scenes is usually spotless: not a single body is out of place, no matter the angle or time difference. But the flow of Rebecca going missing, being located and the rest of the family waiting for her to arrive didn’t match up as well this time through. I’m willing to chalk it up to the rapid turnaround between filming and broadcast, not to mention pandemic production limitations, but still – it stood out to me.
All that said, the most substantive work in this plotline happened between Madison and Kevin. I’m still mourning the fact that Madison will inevitably join the Pearson family – not because I don’t love her! – but because it means the show has lost its only friend. It is a lesser examination of daily life for its singular insistence on the bond of blood and marriage. And yet, I find myself really rooting for Madison and Kevin. They’re sweet together, and they bring out a goofy, loving energy with each other. Turns out, they’re also wonderfully supportive in a crisis, which we discovered after Madison tripped over a suitcase and could no longer feel the babies kicking.
I didn’t love that Madison spent the entire sequence blaming herself for her tumble. (If something had happened to her pregnancy, it would NOT have been her fault.) And I’m of two minds about this plot in general. It felt like Kevin’s whole monologue, which hinged on asking Madison if she believes in him, was built to buttress Rebecca’s monologue about men who don’t feel their feelings. The editing makes it pretty obvious. And yet, where Rebecca’s monologue fails, I think Kevin succeeds – in part, because we KNOW he’s willing to be vulnerable. He’s gone through too much to hide his emotions. It wouldn’t ring true to his character. Both his hasty, off the cuff proposal and his refusal to take it back are so very like him. And while Madison doesn’t formally accept, she doesn’t take it back either – leading to Kevin’s very casual use of the word “fiancé.”
Colors of the Painting
- Consider this a gift to our dear editor Kim, and really, to all of us:
- “Someone unpause this man!”
- “I know who Madison is, Beth, she’s literally the only friend in our entire family.” PEARSONS. I SAY AGAIN. MAKE. MORE. FRIENDS.
- That Hanks joke really brought me back, fam.
- If your therapist can’t say Black Lives Matter, no matter how good they are otherwise, it’s time for a new therapist.
- The music corner this hour was STRONG, and the use of this heartrending Warren Zevon track while all the babies were born was high on the list.
- I looooved that the writers took a beat to acknowledge how angry Tess was to be kept away from Kevin during his trip to the cabin. Kevin has been a mentor to Tess in so many unexpectedly beautiful ways, and she’s old enough to deserve an explanation. (“He’s my uncle, and I’m close with him and I have a right to know what’s going on.”) I really hope this doesn’t just get dropped. Not only does Tess deserve the information, but her relationship with her uncle is her own – and should not be dependent on her father’s.
- The trial and loss of life Randall mourns in this episode was a true story. Please take some time to learn about Jonny Gammage, a Black man murdered by police in Pennsylvania in 1995. This has been happening for generations.
- I’m leaving you all with the great Mahalia Jackson, American gospel legend and civil rights icon.
How did you feel about “Forty: Part One” and This Is Us integrating 2020 events? Let us know in the comments.