This Is Us Season 5, Episode 4
Posted by Shannon
Buckle up for an unevenly distributed season, folks. “Honestly” is only the fourth episode of season five, but thanks to pandemic production schedules, it’s called upon to serve as our impromptu mid-season finale. Knowing how down to the wire the two-hour premiere was, I was not shocked to get that information at the end of the episode; just a little sad to miss out on our traditional This Is Us Thanksgiving heartbreak. On its own, “Honestly” doesn’t quite settle on a theme. Which is not to say it doesn’t serve its purpose; while this isn’t the flashiest way to kick off a month and a half hiatus, there’s still plenty of stage-setting for what’s to come in 2021.
Jack and Rebecca
Full disclosure: I never quite know what to do with the “parenting of young children” subplots at first. Most of the time, I can call upon other learned experiences and form an opinion I can stand by. But this one is just not coalescing for me! Jack and Rebecca are struggling through sleep training for Kevin, who just won’t seem to go to bed while his siblings (miraculously, I might add) sleep soundly next to him. That’s fine enough on its own, and it sure as hell sounds torturous to me. But there’s some very uncomfortable gender expectations being put on Kevin by Jack in this episode from literal birth, and that part, I don’t quite know what to make of. “Show that crib who’s boss?” Really? Ugh.
Toxic masculinity is one of the main themes of This Is Us; it’s just hidden in plain view. (Because, you know, the patriarchy.) Paired with the sequence about Kevin refusing to sleep as an infant is a whole plot about Kevin not working hard enough at football as a teen. I guess? Kind of? This is where I really throw my hands up in the air. There is a part of me that agrees with Jack. It’s extremely important to stick to a commitment and to carry through with dedication – not for the sake of the game itself, but for Kevin. If Kevin truly loved football at this point, and was frustrated by his inability to memorize plays, or was feeling especially self conscious about his physicality, and was acting out on either of those things by refusing to practice, then Jack’s insistence would be spot on. He’d need to work through that fear to dedicate himself and learn that he does, in fact, have the skills he needs to do what he loves. And there’s JUST enough hinting that those things are indeed true. We know Kevin wanted to weight train to a dangerous degree with his dad. We know he’s constantly poking at Randall for his success in school, which could easily be hiding self consciousness about his own skills. But I just want to hear it said out loud. I’ll grant that a tween (particularly THIS tween) isn’t going to wander around talking about his feelings with that degree of sophistication, so if Jack thinks that’s what’s going on, HE should be the one to give voice to the narrative. And he doesn’t. He makes it about his own childhood.
Buckle up for some generational trauma. What Jack describes here is genuinely awful. What he thought was his father celebrating his willingness to jump in and learn a bit of everything was intended as a slam, an implication that he could only ever have a surface level skill and never act as an expert. Which, for the record, is not an inherently terrible thing! The ability to be adaptable, to be flexible, creative, and to wield transferable skills is so important. It’s very much Jack Pearson, and I wish he could be proud of that without having it stomped out of him at a young age. Since his father was not meaning it as a compliment but as a cruel barb, it landed as trauma. Jack then turns around and refuses to allow his sons in particular to be anything less than their very best. Is this part of what lands Randall in his constant drive for perfectionism? Is it actually why Kevin has a constant need for acclaim and recognition? I’m not saying it’s all that simple, but I am saying it’s a troubling building block in the boy’s psyches – and it’s notable that Jack does not turn that same expectation on his daughter.
Still, this particular effort bears fruit. Kevin begrudgingly asks Randall for help studying, which results in a genuinely lovely scene between the two boys – and gives Kevin a tool he still uses to this day.
Randall and Malik
Back in the beginning of the season, Randall half joked that Malik was the closest friend he had. It’s a little too close to the bone (GET ALL THE PEARSONS MORE FRIENDS 2KFOREVER) but I won’t complain at these two getting more time together, because my god are they delightful. Malik starts out the episode shadowing Randall at city hall, arriving six minutes late but with a snazzy suit and strict instructions from Deja. (“Don’t talk about us, don’t talk about me.”) And a quick word for Lyric Ross here – in just a few scenes, she absolutely nails the vibe of being both mortified and proud of BOTH Malik and Randall simultaneously.
Once they get to city hall, the setup and punchline follow pretty quickly. Malik is attentive but exhausted, nodding off on the couch while Jae-Won preps Randall for his daily community bulletin, but snapping to attention the moment Randall says his name. Since Jae-Won has to take off for a budget meeting, Randall tasks Malik with running the camera for his daily online bulletin. It’s made explicitly clear that Malik’s only real job here is to start and stop the camera – which sets the rest of the scene in stone. The whole thing is so obviously going to go off the rails that I would be annoyed if it wasn’t so well done.
By kicking off his own daily pressers, Randall has created a community fixture. Not only does Deja watch them without fail, but Tess does too – along with countless Philly residents. This is the kind of thing we always knew would make Randall the city council rep of your dreams; he’s honest and kind and cries so often and so freely that his constituency has started taking bets on when and how often he’ll get weepy. I love it so much for him, and for his community, and it’s a perfect vision of what good people can do when they get involved with local government.
And, because Malik got stuck on the phone with one of his parents, who needed a hand taking care of Janelle, he doesn’t notice Randall has stopped being that perfect vision of a good person in local government and has started fully stripping in front of the camera before going on his run.
The whole damn thing is magnificent. It’s so like Randall for THIS to be his political scandal, rather than something genuinely harmful, like a hot mic during a bad mood. He takes it in stride, with good humour and just enough embarrassment to make it sting, and he’s perfectly willing to give Malik a proper talking to for checking out on his one job. Except this kid was never the type to just check out, and deep down Randall knows it.
Malik has got appropriately sized dreams, and he’s willing to make as many sacrifices as he can for himself and his daughter – and he’s comfortable enough in his own skin to defend himself to his girlfriend’s dad when he knows he’s partially in the right. (And that no real harm was done.) So obviously, Randall takes him up on the biggest ask yet: an internship at city hall. It’s just one more step towards a beautiful friendship.
It’s been a minute since Kevin’s had a high pressure acting gig. However ridiculous the movie title might be (Glass Eye? Sure, why not), Kevin is clearly placing this opportunity in the upper echelon of his cinematic efforts. It’s all down to the chance to work with a hotshot director, Jordan Michael Foster. At first, I googled to see if this was another moment of the show giving us a real director to set the film’s tone, but it became pretty obvious that this guy was fictitious the second he turned into a giant dick.
Listen, I hate this guy. I hate the way he showers praise on one actor and ignores the other, pretending not to know the implications that will have on the film or the power dynamic within the cast. I hate that he gaslights Kevin every step of the way, never actually having the guts to say anything and then acting high and mighty when Kevin dares to ask for an iota of clarity. I would have at least had respect for him if Foster admitted he was only going with Kevin because his movie needed a name, or that he got pushed into his casting by the studio – anything other than this exhaustingly toxic power play that exacerbates every single shred of doubt and self hate that Kevin has hiding just below the surface. There is not a single redeeming quality to be found within Foster, as a person or a creative. I’m railing especially hard at this because again, I think we’re meant to believe Foster is giving us some big truth about Kevin when in fact it’s all wrapped up in toxic masculinity – with JUST ENOUGH genuine character growth that it can’t be completely ignored.
Let me remind us all of the flashback and its fuzzy implications. Kevin needs to push through his own self doubt. He needs to fight against Randall’s accusations in his own mind, if nothing else. He needs to believe that he can be great. He needs to own it, to know it in his bones. That point, separate from the Foster nonsense, is real. It’s about Kevin coming into his own and solidifying his sense of self, now that he’s a few years into recovery and has his feet under him emotionally. But because Foster is so emotionally manipulative, and because he pushes on the same buttons of toxic masculinity that Jack pushed, I can’t in good conscience stand behind his case. (“I didn’t realize you were the kind of guy that needs an attaboy”!??!?! What?!? Fuck you, man.)
There’s good stuff here. There’s opportunity for growth, character exploration, and for Kevin to come into his own as an actor, a father, and a man. I just wish he could do it without being emotionally bludgeoned by the misguided and dangerous belief that a man must always be “strong.” It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. Imagine how he feels.
Kate and Toby
During the last recap, I spent a lot of time working through the gaps in how adult Kate relates to teen and childhood Kate. It seemed like a miss, without any suggestion at the time that this season would delve more fully into Kate’s history and how it all connects. I should have known that was a decisive move. Because now, at the end of a relatively low impact Kate and Toby storyline, we get the key to so much about Kate, all at once.
Before I go too far into that reveal, there are a few things I want to touch on. First, Kate was extremely out of line at the ultrasound. She and Ellie are clearly risking serious boundary issues; how else would she already be so comfortable and so certain as to refer to the fetus by the name she’s picked out? Kate’s apology covers all the necessary ground and Ellie handles it gracefully, but I’m still anxious about the tone this friendship has taken. Toby is right to still be cautious, this could go so wrong in so many ways.
Secondly, that phone call with Kevin in the car on the way home was exceptional. It’s one of the first good twin scenes we’ve had in a while, and it just comforted me to still see these two turning to each other during their most intense times of need. Most importantly though, it gave voice to the work Kate has been doing since she and Randall talked outside the cabin. I didn’t really doubt that Kate heard him that day; she was visibly in a different space around race and her own privilege, and it was clear that so many things were finally coming into sharp view for her that nothing would ever be the same. But as the months from the height of protest activity pass, and as fewer and fewer white people continue to do the work, it was heartening to see Kate rededicate herself to understanding where Randall and the rest of her Black family have been coming from all these years. It’s clear that Kevin still has a long way to go, and a lot of that is tied up with the idealization he still carries for his parents. Hopefully though, Kate can help him do that work – and model the behavior for countless viewers who need to see it.
Which leaves me with this final scene. Last season, we saw teenage Kate decline a trip to New York to visit Kevin. It was just weeks after the trauma she endured at the cabin, and I didn’t think anything of her wanting some time alone without the chaos of a big family trip. But that wasn’t what was going on. Her conversation with Ellie earlier in the episode brought it all back; Ellie had decided early in her pregnancy not to get an abortion, and Kate was clear that she held no judgement either way. (And props to Chrissy Metz for keeping her face completely clear in that scene; Ellie wouldn’t have known what that was all bringing up for Kate, and neither did we.) But Kate has been living with a memory that she has never shared with her family or with Toby. She had a positive pregnancy test that weekend.
It’s safe to assume that Kate had an abortion as a teen, and that it solidified so much trauma and so much pain in herself and in her body that she blocked herself off emotionally for years. We don’t know that for sure – at least not yet – but either way, this is a massive psychological puzzle piece for Kate Pearson. I just hope that it’s handled with the utmost respect for Kate’s decision, and for the journey she went on alone all those years ago.
Colors of the Painting
- I’m so delighted by Annie watching Little Women over and over again and calling her hair a fright. Protect this child.
- “Serious Toby is very excited, it’s just hard to tell because he’s so serious.”
- “His name rhymes with Gandall Gearson and he’s your Gahther.”
- Susan Kelechi Watson’s delivery of “there are some things you can’t unsee, baby, and this is one of them” SENT ME.
- Randall’s daily bulletin going viral means our mysterious Vietnamese grandfather from earlier episodes suddenly hears the name William Hill and visibly recognizes it, glancing at the photo of Laurel in his kitchen while he rewinds the clip over and over. We still don’t know how, but we are definitely one step closer to finding Laurel.
- We gotta talk about this Aloe Blacc cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” This is a song I will always connect with House MD; it’s basically their second theme song. I bristle at any other show trying to use the Stones classic. This version appears to be unreleased, so it’s possible this was a special request from the production – a point in its favor. But above everything else, this cover is stunning. It’s classic, operatic, original, sprawling and intimate. It’s so good I’ll let it stay, and that’s the highest compliment I could give.
What are you thoughts on “Honestly”? Are you ready for the rest of Season Five? Let us know in the comments.