This Is Us Season 5, Episode 2
“Forty: Part Two”
Posted by Shannon
Well, now we know why Dan Fogleman wanted to air these back to back. The seam between “Forty: Part One” and “Forty: Part Two” is nearly invisible, only formally identified by a simple version of the title card after Randall opens the door to the cabin. And while Part One had some good stuff in it, Part Two is the heart of the opening. This is where shit gets real, folks. Let’s get to it.
Jack, William and Laurel
This plotline was running on a knife’s edge for me the whole hour. I was nervous that the show would force William and Jack together in some unlikely hospital room, worried that the lingering weirdness from Rebecca’s monologue would rub off on whatever it was we’d get from Jack. Thankfully, we got lucky on both fronts. I could have done without the first hallway passing of Jack and William, but their paths crossing in and out of the hospital chapel was so much more meaningful than I thought it would be.
It was all in the timing. William arrived at the hospital with a murky motivation. It might have been to try to get Randall back; it might have been just to say goodbye and be sure he landed safely. When he gets there, though, he’s certain Laurel has passed from an overdose in their shared apartment and he’s deep in mourning. William prays for his baby to be taken care of, prays that the spirits “be with him. Please take care of him.” And in a subtlety I missed the first time around, that’s the precise moment the door opens to Jack Pearson. Jack, who didn’t know what to do or where to go when Rebecca had to go into emergency surgery, and who listened to a nurse’s suggestion that he go pray.
It’s a complicated thing, prayer. Sterile hotel chapels aren’t exactly awe inspiring, but there’s a peacefulness to their determined non-denomination. It means that, no matter who you are or what your relationship to religion (organized or otherwise), you can bring whatever you need in with you and leave whatever you don’t. Jack comes in with a lot of bitterness towards the church of his youth, particularly to his father, who prayed out of one side of his mouth and screamed from the other. “I used to tell myself he was asking to be better. Better to us, a better man. And then I would pray, pray that it would work – when it never did, that’s when I gave up on all this.” It’s painful and relatable to far too many and all very “why have you forsaken me.” Where William found solace and comfort, Jack finds a figurehead to rail against, asking if his efforts to be a better man have gone unnoticed – or worse, mocked. (“Has that made you laugh, seeing me try?”)
Someone wiser than me could do a proper analysis on the differences between William and Jack’s experiences and relationships with God and prayer. The differences in their religious upbringings, probable or known. The differences in how they then direct their prayers. But I do know this: both men walk into that chapel wanting only the best for the generation that follows them. While Jack’s speech does start out with demands for his own soul, it ends in a challenge to keep Rebecca safe, and it leads him right back outside to call his father and finally ask what he was praying for all those Sundays over all those years. Jack doesn’t owe his father any forgiveness, and the scene doesn’t ask for it. But Jack is entitled to the answer to his question: “I prayed my kids would turn out better than I did.” That prayer, at least, is heard.
Randall, Kevin and Kate
The Pearson family cabin has seen some shit, but this is the most prolonged period of painful, awkward negotiation it has hosted in quite some time. From the moment Kevin and Madison return from the hospital, the air is thick. Kate’s frustrated at Kevin suddenly referring to Madison as his fiance with no notice or explanation, and everyone’s shaken by Rebecca’s sudden downturn, especially after she had been doing so well for so many weeks. When Randall arrives unannounced, you could practically feel the air close in. It’s all just so SAD.
The thing that got to me the most is the sudden irrelevance of serious disagreements. Kevin assumes Randall would blame him for Rebecca’s incident, and a few weeks or months before, he very well might have. But now it’s just not worth it. Not when Randall is navigating the response of his very white siblings to a Black crisis, and when everyone is safe. Suddenly, fighting over who’s to blame for a frightening but ultimately inconsequential mishap just isn’t worth the energy. If Kevin’s shaken by Randall’s shift in tone, he doesn’t really show it – he just reads it as another symptom of the growing rift.
Randall wants Rebecca to shift to his new level just as quickly, to brush past their histories and focus on the present. When he goes up to see her, though, she immediately starts telling him about the first thing she noticed during her episode: William. “Obviously not William, but I could have sworn it was him.” Rebecca has a huge amount of fear around her diagnosis. Of course she does. But she also has settled into the realities of what it will mean for her relationship with all three of her children. If there are serious conversations to be had – and aren’t there always? – then she wants to have them as soon as she’s able.
This time, though, her episode is a fluke. At first, I was wincing as Randall pushed his way into Miguel’s phone call with the doctor. The rest of the opening two parter had Randall feeling so far away from this version of himself; the guy who insists he knows the best doctors, the best hospital, the best prescriptions. Returning to that place of persistent intrusion felt off. But he clocked something the rest of the family missed – Rebecca had taken medication for her poison ivy, and it had a reaction with her existing meds, causing the memory break. It’s a relief narratively, too. It didn’t track for her deterioration to happen so dramatically, so quickly, and after a period of improvement. Obviously I’m not a doctor but I do have family experience with this particular hellscape, and that’s not how the disease works. But for now, they’ve all been granted a respite.
Which makes it doubly painful when the tension is still SO thick. Not even this happy news can truly lift spirits or launch the Big Three into their annual birthday chant. Kate has been desperate for Kevin to talk to Randall one on one, assuming that the reason Randall is being “weird” with her is that he sees Kate as taking Kevin’s side, and when he leaves without the opportunity for that conversation, she follows Randall out the door. At first, I alternated between finding her cluelessness depressing and endearing. The case she makes to Kevin is spot on, and it’s one that many of us said to ourselves or our loved ones over the last eight months. (“The world is on fire. This is enough. Fix it.”) And yet, the fact that she hasn’t even considered that something else could be happening, that the protests and her sudden, beginner level examination of race in America could be playing a part, is tough to take.
Which leads us to this.
I’m just going to speak to the white readers directly for a minute here. Folks. When we are told to do the work first, when we are asked to come to the table without ego and without centering ourselves, this is what we are being asked to do. The very first step to antiracism work is to take a beat and acknowledge the fact that this is something we have to learn, rather than something that we had to handle since we began consciousness. Step 1.2 is to look around at all the BIPOC people in your life and to recognize that you are just now beginning to catch up to something they have known for a lifetime – and that it is no one’s responsibility to get you up to speed.
From a character point of view, Kate’s reaction is perfectly pitched. I believe her as a well intentioned, intro-level anti-racist. Kate had not yet considered that she’s never – in forty years – approached Randall about the ways the country treats Black people. She’s never felt she “had” to before. The fear Kate has around saying the wrong thing is natural, but misplaced. From a structural point of view, again, I will say that this is the show doing the work. This is the writers showing the audience exactly how exhausting it is for people of color to be the recipients of white guilt, even from people they love. Randall is so tired. He’s moved through race alone in his bedroom, surrounded by people who stood up for him in the face of blatant, immediate racism, while letting smaller things go. Who let the news pass by without serious conversations. Obviously, this is not to say the Pearsons didn’t try. Rebecca standing up to her mother is one of the most important scenes in the show. But it didn’t break Randall’s pattern, didn’t give him a space to explore his own racial identity in a country that regularly puts him in danger. For now, Randall and Kate say goodbye with an “I love you” and a “happy birthday,” and Kate respects all of Randall’s boundaries in this conversation. Now it’s down to her to do the work alone, or with Toby, or with Kevin, and come back to Randall when she’s put in some time. She can do it. I just hope she does.
For all the edited text messages and painful distance left between Kevin and Randall, it feels like they have less of a bridge to cross here. Maybe because they’ve finally said everything they always wanted to say, no matter how evil, leaving behind only the love they still feel for each other. Maybe it’s because they HAVE been through so many fights already, that they know the road back to each other a bit more than Randall and Kate. Kevin makes the effort, breaking the news to Randall that Madison is pregnant with a boy and a girl. (“You’re the first person I’ve told.”) Part of it, I think, is that Kevin is willing to come to Randall and not demand help, but to leave space. Kevin gives Randall an opening to offer advice to raising a girl, and Randall’s girls are his everything, so he’s happy to oblige. They clearly miss each other, but their tentative relationship is already farther along than I feared. It’s just a matter of time with these two.
Once Randall is back in the safety and comfort of his home, he starts to come back to himself. He’s able to smile, blow out the candles on his cake, and feel some degree of genuine celebration. Still, Beth knows to check in on him to be sure he’s alright. He is alright. And yet: “I’m not having a breakdown, Beth, I’m really not…but what I’m dealing with at work, what we’re dealing with as a people, day after day, it’s just so tragic…It’s just so sad. I’m not falling apart, I’m not having a breakdown, I’m just really really sad.”
I feel this in my bones, folks. I know I’m not the only one. The existential pondering has just barely let up for the first time since the spring, and half the time I have to remind myself that I feel this way for a reason, because at this point it feels so natural. Beth’s father was right; tragedies are definitive. “They are the fence poles on which the rest of our lives hang.” The psychological ramifications of this year will be grappled with for generations. But look at what we built. Look at what we can do. Look at where we are now. We fight on.
Colors of the Painting
- So, uh, Laurel is alive? I’m not sure how I feel about this revelation, what with the increasing frequency of unknown or assumed dead relatives re-entering the narrative, but Randall’s wish for a year without surprises seems unlikely as hell.
- If there was any doubt left in his mind after his conversation with Malik that Randall is desperate for more Black peers in his life, his conversation with Kate settled it. I breathed an audible sigh of relief when Randall called Dr. Leigh to tell her he will be seeking out a Black therapist to continue his work.
- “It’s kind of a letdown to see a cake that just looks like a cake.”
- I absolutely adored the sequence with Toby and Miguel. It’s not just that Toby still calls him Migs, or that blissful “One Day at a Time” reference. (YOU. DON’T. CANCEL. RITA. MORENO.) It’s not even the casual discussion of antidepressants, and the way a potentially lifelong diagnosis can sit with a person’s psyche. Toby’s recovery was hard fought, and it’s beautiful to see a realistic portrayal of someone navigating the fact that mental health work is often done over a lifetime. Ultimately though, it’s that this is what we all need to hear. At least it’s what I need to hear. We, collectively, are still going through something unimaginable. Take it one day at a time.
- Shout out to Jermel Nakia, our 1980 William Hill. He’s always been magnificent, but the work Jermel did in that chapel was next level.
- Miguel having Rebecca plant seeds for a new tree in their front yard is a beautiful, hopeful thing, and he is a dear man.
- With Kate still reeling from her conversation with Randall, Toby comes bearing news. An adoption agency has already reached out to them with a possible match. It’s clear this will be a main plotline through at least the first half of the season, but I sincerely hope it does not come at the expense of Kate doing the real work she needs to do to keep her relationship with her brother and her brother’s family.
- It’s another high water mark episode for music. The episode closes on a Roo Panes track, “My Sweet Refuge.” At this point they’re just raiding my playlists, folks.
- John Prine, American folk legend and one of the kindest storyteller singers we’ve ever had, passed away this spring from complications with the coronavirus. This song, which played over the montage of Jack and Rebecca meeting Randall, was released posthumously by his wife Fiona. Rest in peace, John.
What are your thoughts on “Forty: Part Two”? Let us know in the comments!