This Is Us Season 5, Episode 3
Posted by Shannon
Looking back on season four, two things are becoming very clear. It’s been my favorite of the run – and it was incredibly emotionally draining. (Those two things definitely relate to each other, but that’s neither here nor there.) I point to last season to highlight the differences between what we got last year and what we get this hour; while the deep shit was great, I still love the warm and fuzzy stylings of classic This Is Us, and “Changes” was a real return to that form. This could easily have been a S1 or S2 style episode, with a unifying theme and plenty of cozy, emotional but predominantly harmless storylines to go around. After the few weeks we’ve all had in the real world and the whiplash of the two-part opener, this one felt really good.
Jack and Rebecca
The theme is set during Jack and Rebecca’s storyline – again, just like old times – when they bring Kate, Kevin and Randall to the doctor for their annual check ups. It works as a perfect excuse to do an age check on the Big Three, who are heading into eighth grade and the most awkward throes of puberty. (And while we’re at it, the actors themselves have clearly hit that moment too. Lonnie Chavis’ voice changed! Parker Bates looks like a whole other person! Mackenzie Hancsiscsak has morphed into a young Joni Mitchell!)
This plotline mostly works as a jumping off point for the adult’s storylines. It’s a big part of what makes this episode so delightfully old school; think about how long it’s been since we’ve had a clear line drawn for the kids from universal tween struggles to their adult lives. At the same time, it means there’s not a whole lot to parse out in the then and now. The whole sequence revolves around a study group, with Kate’s seventh grade ex Stuart joining her and her friend Tonya to work on a big school project. Kate just wants to spend time with Stuart, Tonya just wants to spend time with Randall, and Kevin just wants to hang with his dad in the makeshift garage gym.
Still, there are a few things to dig into. Considering Jack’s own long history with working out (it seems to be one of the only things his father taught him in good spirits), he seems remarkably unaware of how important this moment will be to Kevin. Rebecca has a throwaway line about Jack welcoming Kevin into his “sanctuary,” and while Jack is clearly feeling the weight of the moment, he focuses on teaching Kevin all the physical lessons he needed – but mostly avoids the emotional ones.
Meanwhile, Rebecca and Kate get a rare – and lovely – bonding moment. Stuart didn’t pick Kate’s study group because he missed her, but rather because he loved the subject they had assigned. (“I like deserts! This is where the action is!”) Rebeca’s insistence on being a “cool mom” falters when Kate opens up to her, and it was beautiful to see these two talk about the importance of keeping your heart open.
Kate and Kevin both needed their parents in these moments. And both Jack and Rebecca recognized the needs, could see themselves in the strain of their children, could at least start to speak to where they were and what they were feeling. But Randall, who had to go through the most traumatizing moment by far in that plotline, was left to process alone – not because Rebecca and Jack wouldn’t have jumped in if they had known, but because they couldn’t see the signs. Tonya’s naive, vicious othering of Randall wouldn’t have even crossed their minds as something to look out for. Which is the real problem.
Randall and Beth
Randall and Beth are on the receiving end of pubescent agita this week, with Deja and Tess settling into their respective forms of “teen attitude.” It’s all very sweet and relatable when Deja and Tess refuse Beth’s pancakes, not to mention the charm of Annie still enjoying the innocence of her pre-teen youth. (That said, I am very curious to see what Annie’s form of rebellion will be. She’s the only one of the girls we haven’t really dug into yet, and thanks to Watchmen, we, the viewing public, are VERY aware of how adept Faithe Herman is her craft. Let the girl do some acting!)
Tess has been coming into her own for years now. It’s a joy to watch her become herself and wonder about the ways she will begin to morph into the social worker we’ve met from the flash forward. This storyline felt like a very natural culmination of several character development moments: Tess and her friend Alex made a “profane, mocking dance video” calling out two teachers at their school and put it online “for all the world to see.”
Listen, cards on the table: I’m with the teens on this one. A thousand percent. These teachers have repeatedly misgendered Alex, Tess’s friend and compatriot in video protestations, and are running around touching Black students’ hair despite Tess’s complaints. Both are unacceptable at best and harassment at worst, and each of the kids tried to address the attacks “the right way” to no avail. Sometimes, yelling “screw you” on a youtube video is justified and healthy! Beth’s main point of contention is that the “internet has a long memory,” which is true, and it’s easy for me to defend as someone who’s not raising a child and doesn’t have to concern herself with the impact of this rebellion on things like college applications. But at this point, if a college would look down on her application for this comparatively tame declaration of self defense, Tess probably wouldn’t want to go there to begin with! Randall is clearly proud of her too, and that’s before he reminds us of one of his biggest fears – that Tess was too much like him, too internal, too inclined to sit on her trauma without acting on it. Reciting Ginetta Sagan at the family table puts that fear to bed.
Beth’s got some points about the need for these two to be on the same page, and that parenting teens is “what they’ve been training for.” And despite Tess’s protestations, a six week grounding period does not fascism make. But mostly, I just wish Randall could have been able to tell Tess that he was proud of her for speaking truth to power. I think it would have done both of them some good.
While Tess is busy making protest videos and fighting the Man, her father is deep in the tortuous process commonly referred to as “interviewing therapists.” As much as I yell about the need for therapy for everyone on this show – and will continue to! – I did love to see this particularly awful part of the process displayed. Therapy is a two way street, and it’s so important for the patient to feel comfortable with the person they’re relying on to do this work. All things considered, it’s a pretty quick turnaround for Randall before he finds Dr. Vance, an endearing young father who immediately clocks Randall as “a guy that likes homework” and prompts him to do work on transracial identity instead of music theory or acronyms.
Randall is thrilled to be doing the work with a man he feels a kinship with, but that doesn’t mean he’s immediately comfortable. He’s not. It was striking to me, just as it was when Omar Epps made his appearances last season, how rarely we’ve seen Randall have a conversation with a Black man his own age. He’s visibly uncomfortable with that dynamic – and that’s the work. Dr. Vance can clearly see what he’s working with here, and asks Randall to write down a story from his childhood, something Randall thinks will tell him about his upbringing – something he wants the doctor to know. So Randall thinks back to the plot from the beginning of the episode, with Tonya going to kiss him on the couch, only to hear her say “I always wondered what it would be like to kiss someone like you.”
It’s a horror show. And as I’ve said earlier, it’s yet another thing he deals with alone in his bedroom, locked away from anyone who might understand the experience he’s just been put through. So Randall records it for Dr. Vance in his new journal, which lives on his bedside table – right next to William’s poems.
Kevin and Madison
It’s easy to forget in the midst of so much excitement that Kevin and Madison barely know each other. Partially, it’s because we both know them so well; there’s always more to learn, but we’re not playing catch up with an exciting new person. I also think it’s because pandemic time moves very differently than non-pandemic time – and both Justin Hartley and Caitlin Thompson have done excellent work portraying that bizarre, speed-up connection that comes from a relationship launching during a global crisis.
Still, there’s a caution to the way they interact with each other. This is something like the fifth home we’ve seen Kevin happily move into; we’re used to this kind of re-settling from him, and he’s used to it too. Kevin Pearson is nothing if not adaptable, and he’s always still so very much himself no matter his surroundings. But Madison is not used to any of this. All of a sudden, she’s found herself pregnant, engaged but not “engaged engaged” and living with a movie star who’s getting in 2+ workouts a day in case he’s cast in a legal movie that has SOMEthing to do with glass eyes. To call it an emotional whirlwind is an understatement, and that’s before the audience is reminded of just how Madison came into Kate’s life to begin with.
I’m sure Kevin is used to non-actor types he’s in relationships with being anxious about sex scenes and getting jumpy when strangers stop him for “socially distanced selfies” on the street. I don’t blame him for fixating on those things – but they’re both worries that center on him, not on Madison or her life experience. None of that has been slowly broiling inside her. Madison is enduring dramatic changes to her body, in a situation where strangers feel perfectly entitled to comment on her physicality, all while living with a lingering eating disorder. She has come SO far and worked SO hard, but this isn’t the kind of thing that just shuts off. And – say it with me now – she should still be in therapy! Madison should NOT have to work through this alone, and I sincerely hope she’s still attending meetings online or talking to a professional through all this.
All that said, this entire sequence is just made of reasons why Kevin and Madison could work well together. They share a fundamental understanding of addiction. They’re both so much deeper than the general public thinks they are – while still being silly and fun. And they both have purely open hearts. Kevin and Madison are living through four exceptional circumstances at once; and still, they’re riding the waves, being honest with each other, and leaving their full selves on the table. No matter what happens, these two are going to give it their all – and that’s all either of them could ask for.
Kate and Toby
Now that Kate and Toby are back in LA, they’re set to meet Ellie, the (first?) potential birth mother for their next child. This is the one plot that didn’t directly connect back to puberty years, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s partially because the writers still don’t quite know how to connect preteen Kate to adult Kate. So much of Kate’s adult life stems from her rift with her mother and the loss of her father, but it’s not quite as clear what we’re supposed to carry through from Kate in her earlier years. We’ve seen that Kate went through emotional and physical abuse as a teen, possibly as a result of her trauma, which then impacted her relationships in her 20’s and early 30’s. But aside from her experience with weight, we get very little in terms of lasting characteristics before that. Which means there’s two options. Either Kate (granted, the first of the kids into therapy in earlier seasons) already worked through anything lingering from early childhood, or her adult definition didn’t really come until her mid to late teens. Either way, I continue to feel like the internal and mental world of Kate Pearson Damon is left the least explored.
All of that to say, the focus this hour is more around Kate than it is about her, as she and Toby work through the awkward, pseudo-online-dating vibe that is meeting Ellie face to face. It all goes remarkably well, and you get the sense that under different circumstances, Ellie would make a great friend for Kate. Ellie’s got an eight year old named Willow, after the Buffy character. Her ringtone is Ghostbusters. She breaks out a Steelers face mask in honor of Kate’s fandom. Ellie is even visibly charmed when Kate and Toby get into a run-of-the-mill argument about who did or did not buy and/or unpack a box of diapers. (To be honest, that whole sequence would have been tiresome if we as the viewing public were even slightly less endeared to this couple – and if it wasn’t just so good to see them fighting the way they usually do instead of enduring the more viscous barbs from last season.) The whole meeting has serious “too good to be true” energy, and for now I lean more towards Toby’s nerves than Kate’s blinding optimism.
But no matter what happens next week with Ellie, Kate and Toby, there’s one thing I need to say here. I bristled at Ellie slut shaming herself in the story of how she became pregnant and why she has decided on adoption. I appreciate that Kate and Toby didn’t shame Ellie for her one night stand, and that the show’s POV is clearly one of sympathy, but I hate that the writers chose to go down the road of a perfect, tragic story of loss. Ellie could have had a million reasons for making the choice that she made, and she wouldn’t owe that story to anyone.
Colors of the Painting
- I’m not sure what to make of the second connection between a long lost Pearson relative and Vietnam and/or Vietnamese culture, but the grandfather and granddaughter we meet in the opening of this episode are immediately endearing. And as for why Laurel is in all those photographs… we’ll just have to wait and see!
- Ellie naming Babu Frik as her favorite Star Wars character is a CHOICE, and I’m into it.
- My whole heart for tween Randall admonishing his doctor for not having a copy of Consumer Reports laying around for reading material.
- Take some time this week to check out the work of Kadir Nelson, the artist Dr. Vance and Beth share an affinity for. I’m willing to bet you’ve seen his work before, you just didn’t know it.
- The San Pee-dro/ San Pay-dro debate was delightful to me, an east coaster who would not know the difference.
- Lonny Chavis had some killer deadpan this week, from his exhaustion at Kate and Tonya’s project – which he claims to have done six years earlier – to his delivery of “I’m in the middle of my routine right now.” This kid has clearly learned from the best.
- “It’s validating that she has exquisite taste in pop culture but we should exercise caution!”
- For those who might not have caught on to Jack’s reference to Kevin as they walked into the garage gym for the first time, I feel an obligation to introduce you to the SNL classic, Hanz and Franz. They pumped so Bowen Yang’s SoulCycle crew could ride.
What are your thoughts on “Changes”? Let us know in the comments.