This Is Us Season 5, episode 5
“A Long Road Home”
Posted by Shannon
Solitude is a mixed bag. I’ve always been a person who needs a lot of time on their own, not just to recharge, but to process and settle myself. (Living alone during a global pandemic has pushed that to the brink, even for me.) The thing about processing in solitude, though, is that it’s easy to lose perspective. Without someone to gut check a spiral, it can easily take on a life of its own and wreck any growth that would have come along with that processing time. This week, the Big Three all carry their own burdens to varying degrees. The results are mixed, but for each of them, the crisis gets a little lighter – or at least, clearer – after they choose to engage the community of loving humans around them.
After 40 years of searching, all it took was a viral video and an open city complaint form. Laurel is within striking distance of the plot within mere moments of Randall returning to his office; Jae-Won can’t even wait until he’s out of his “naked man shirt” to break the news to his boss about the mystery letter that arrived in their inbox overnight.
Just like that, we have so many answers at once. The mysterious Vietnamese grandfather’s got a name – Hai Lang – and after seeing Randall’s city council video all the way from New Orleans, he immediately got in touch. Hai fills in the gaps so Randall (and us, the anxious viewing audience) doesn’t have to wait and wonder. Hai is the one reaching out because Laurel died in May of 2015. It’s a blow and a shock in so many ways, but also I’ll admit it’s a relief. I was so anxious about Randall re-connecting with and subsequently losing yet another parental figure. We’re all spared that particular trauma, but there’s still plenty to struggle with before Randall can decide if he wants to get back in touch with Hai.
Without the knowledge of the trailer, I’d have been mystified by Randall’s behavior when he comes home to Beth and announces, dead-eyed, that this discovery has been made. But of course, it all boils down to what this means for Randall and William. Because for Hai to be telling the truth, it would mean WIlliam was lying when he told Randall the story of his mother dying just days after giving birth. And THAT would be unfathomable; especially once we see the flashback of William telling Randall all about the meeting, pregnancy, and her subsequent loss.
Randall is obviously and understandably sensitive at the suggestion that yet another one of his parents was lying to him about a fundamental part of his origin. Having moved away from his anger at Rebecca and deciding not to engage with that conflict further, the idea that William could have been lying too is just too much for him to bear. But at the same time, there isn’t an iota of deception on WIlliam’s face. The two truths cannot exist simultaneously, and it’s so much easier for Randall to think – and maybe even hope – that Hai is just some random guy taking advantage of his history.
Randall is insistent that he doesn’t want to discuss this – not with Beth, and not with his therapist. He’s ready to take that spiral all by himself, to carry this alone – just as he carried so many youthful traumas. But he changed therapists for a reason. And THIS is why. So he has someone he can trust, who will understand and know how to engage with him when his origins are swirling around him. It takes just a few pointed questions from his therapist for Randall to hear the key perspective: “Your whole life, your instincts have been telling you you need to know your history…. You’re already in the journey, Randall. Why not be in it in it?”
Kevin calling is the final straw. After a painful, touching, complicated few moments of dialogue (more on that later), Randall knows what he needs to do. He makes the call to Hai then and there, jumping in with the biggest and most important question: “My father told me that Laurel overdosed and died shortly after I was born. So are you saying that he was lying?”
The sigh of relief I let out when Hai had a solid, stable response to that question was almost as intense as Beth’s. I’m so grateful that we didn’t get this dragged out – that Hai wasn’t taken aback by Randall’s question, and that we didn’t have to wait to hear his response. (“From what I know of the story, I believe he was telling you what he thought was the truth.”) Hai delivers that news calmly, but he quickly becomes overwhelmed and wishes that they could all meet in person. After a few pointed looks and nods of agreement, Beth and Randall wordlesssly agree – if Hai will have them, they’ll embark on a trip to meet in person. And off they go.
Pandemic be damned, I guess.
Kevin and Madison
With only five weeks left until Madison’s due date, baby preparations are in full swing. Kevin’s making furniture and calling up famous LA nannies and generally puttering around in a state. It’s all very sweet until, in the midst of his preparations, Kevin basically hangs up on his agent after delivering increasingly clipped one word answers and then trying to sweep the whole conversation under the rug before Madison presses him on the subject. Practically speaking, Kevin’s movie being moved to Vancouver is pretty nonsensical. Why go through the trouble of all the aforementioned quarantining and testing for a production only to repeat the whole operation in a different city?
But what the call lacked in logic, it made up for in plot movement. When Kevin and Madison are interviewing the aforementioned “nanny that makes Timberlake weep,” the two are immediately on different pages. Madison had just gone to bat for Kevin, insisting he still make the movie – even if it meant delivering him back just under the wire of her due date. But that doesn’t mean she’s totally fine with the kind of life Kevin outlines to Natasha; a life constant motion. The only consistency Kevin is used to is with people. He doesn’t think about location, because he can’t and he doesn’t have to. Madison, though, wants to have her kids in a single location as much as possible. And of course she does.
It’s all very fair and very understandable from both their perspectives. Still, this is the kind of disagreement that could have real repercussions for their relationship. It’s an impasse: the same kind of impasse that led Zoe to leave Kevin back in the day. They just want different things, and since Madison had already been willing to go it alone, she’s open to revisiting the idea if it turns out she and Kevin are on different pages after all. I’ve always loved it when Madison breaks out quiet, succinct, genuine truths, and her insistence that Kevin take the time he spends in Vancouver to decide what he really, truly wants is just another example of that emotional intelligence. She knows he needs a minute, and she knows that if he doesn’t take a beat, he’ll just speechify and convince himself to do something he may not genuinely want to do. Which brings Kevin back to the very first time he had to make this kind of a decision – when he left Sophie in New York to head out to LA for pilot season at the request of his first talent manager. We still don’t know what broke Sophie and Kevin’s marriage apart, but all signs are pointing to that few months in LA. Which Randall, in all his youthful wisdom, strongly advised against.
It breaks my heart that these two still haven’t had an actual conversation about their argument at the end of last season. It’s realistic, of course. Blowouts among close family members don’t just resolve themselves overnight. On top of that, both men have been going through a lot – they need to stay in touch for practical, safety reasons – but that doesn’t mean they’ve been ready to talk about what they said to each other. And from the way the conversation starts, it’s clear Randall, at least, is still not ready. Kevin’s getting there. He’s willing to call Randall with an open heart, to approach him for advice not once but twice now. Randall IS getting closer, certainly more than he was in the driveway back at the cabin. He’s moved to tears by Kevin telling him he often asks himself what his brother would do in tough situations. (“It’s a nice thing to say. It’s a nice thing to know.”) Kevin finally, cautiously, broaches the subject of Randall’s isolated adolescence as the only Black member of a white family. It’s a start. But it’s not enough. And more than that, the timing just isn’t there. Randall isn’t yet in a place where he’d be comfortable telling Kevin why he had to hop off the phone so urgently. Kevin doesn’t react to it in the moment, but how could he not be hurt by Randall cutting his advice short? Yet again, he’s left as a second priority to the family closest to him. It stings.
Kate and Toby
Deep breaths, folks. There is a whole lot to unpack with Kate’s storyline this week, with tons of nuance and complications. None of this was easy, but none of it (thank god) was blatantly mishandled. Which is not to say the hour passed with nothing but flying colors! Some of this was exceptional, some of it was moving, and all of it was really fucking complicated.
First, we have Kate and Toby’s conversation at the kitchen table. Kate tells Toby about her decision to get an abortion with a clear head and an honest perspective. (“It was the toughest decision that I’ve ever made in my life, but I don’t regret it.”) Again, Chrissy Metz plays it beautifully, without any shame or embarrassment, but with a visible awareness of the heft of the moment. Five stars all around on that. And then, we get to Toby’s reaction. I’ll admit, for a few minutes I was worried we were veering back into pre-turnaround Toby territory. He’s clear from the start that he’s not upset about the abortion itself (not that he’d have any right to be, but still). He is upset, though, by the fact that Kate never told him about it. And this was where my hackles went up. This is a part of her history that she owes to no one. Hell, she doesn’t anyone owe ANY part of her history. But Toby’s got a point that she made the decision to keep it from him, consciously or unconsciously. After spending two years trying to get pregnant, it easily could have come up in conversation if she wanted it to. Which means she didn’t want it to. And AGAIN. That’s understandable and fair and her decision alone, but it’s also okay for Toby to be hurt by it.
Ultimately, I think, it boils down to this. I wish Toby had been clear that he was just as upset that she never told him about her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, or the trauma he put her through as a teenager. That’s a far bigger part of her story to leave out than the abortion alone. Her evening of cyberstalking just goes to prove my point. And this is what brings us to San Diego, outside a random record store located via Marc’s somehow active MySpace page. (Toby’s got a point, an active MySpace page in this, the year of 2021 is high on the list of creepiest things about this man.)
Wheeeew. Okay. This is where things get particularly rough. The first time around, I cried through this entire confrontation. I couldn’t see its flaws, and I couldn’t see its strengths. I felt it all too deeply. So many people can identify with at least a portion of what was happening here, be it in the flashbacks to Kate at 18 being forced to answer a slew of manipulative, evil legal questions before getting a standard medical procedure or in Kate at 40 standing strong in her skin and asserting that she was taken advantage of emotionally by an abusive ex who’s every bit as dismissive and self involved as he was 20 years ago. It is all too familiar to so many of us who also had our self esteem held in the palm of someone else’s hand. So many of us have lost years to trauma, years we’ll never get back. For all of that, this scene was honest and powerful and cathartic.
But. It’s not a home run. It’s just not. And maybe it would be too much to ask for it to be one, but I still have to call it out. It’s all in the word “broken.” I’m just not comfortable with how cavalierly it’s being used, and I’m not sure what the show is saying when it’s used in this context. I appreciate that Marc was the kind of guy who would see a traumatized, grieving 18 year old (at 24, no less) and see her as broken. I’ll also grant that the kind of 24 year old who would do that – and all the other horrific things we know about – would grow up to be a 40 something who would throw it around again as a point of attraction. Obviously, Kate would and should react against that. But it’s a complicated word, another side of the coin of “normal.” Show me a person who’s lived through an ounce of trauma who’s not a little bit “broken.” It’s not slander. It’s human.
There’s something slightly off, too, in Kate and Toby’s car ride home. I love that Toby went with her and stayed in the car. He’s a good man and he’s respectful of her boundaries, and for that, I’m grateful. He knew she could be her own white knight and he left her to it, even though he must have been boiling with anger and protectiveness. But this all feels too easy. It’s taken full season long arcs for Kevin and Randall to work through similar levels of trauma. For Kate to just push through this in two weeks is unbelievable at best and yet another example of giving her less material at worst. Yes, Marc has been around for a while in flashbacks. But we haven’t seen the impact of that relationship on her daily life, not nearly as much as we have her brothers. I get the need for an empowering moment for Kate in that car. God knows she’s earned it. But if this is the end of her processing of her teenage trauma, it would do her a disservice.
What was empowering, though, even in its complications, was teenage Kate getting up and leaving when Marc made it clear he hadn’t changed. I hate that she went through her abortion alone. I hate it. But being alone is better than being with the wrong person, and in this moment, that was the only choice Kate had. It’s so natural for her to have not picked up the phone any of the times her mom called during that weekend. Rebecca’s instincts are going off, too. She can tell something’s amiss with her daughter and that it goes deeper than a Pleasantville rewatch. But Rebecca doesn’t push, and doesn’t entirely trust her instincts, and so Kate went through with it all alone. But with a vision of a healthy partnership as her guiding light. And she gets to her own version of that in the end.
Colors of the Painting
- Bless and keep every single staff member in Randall’s office for their boxer-and-muscle-shirt dance party.
- I know we all say it all the time, but good lord is Sterling K. Brown exceptional in this show. His performance during the span of that one phone call alone was worthy of another Emmy.
- “Screw her and that glorious range rover that she ran in on.”
- “I am deeply aware that you come from a family of great speech givers.” Understatement of the century, Madison.
- “I would like you to tell me his name, and then I would like to find him and I would like to kill him.” Toby, my man. Relatable energy.
- Shout out, as per usual, to the casting department. They outdid themselves yet again with the casting of adult Marc. Lucius Baybak absolutely nails the vibe that Austin Abrams has been building over the last few years; so much so that I only needed to see his silhouette to know that it was Marc.
- “Did you really just peck and go? Randall, this is not a peck and go situation!”
- I made a snarky comment about it earlier, but I do want to say that I’m frustrated at how cavalierly the pandemic is now being treated by the show – particularly with Randall and Beth travelling to New Orleans. This is not a hop, skip and a jump from Philadelphia, y’all. I stand by my original opinion; a show this steeped in reality needed to address what we’re living in now. But you can’t THEN throw it out the window when it’s not convenient. Consistency is key, folks.
What are your thoughts on “A Long Road Home”? Let us know in the comments!