This Is Us, Season 5, Episode 7
Posted by Shannon
Welcome back from our impromptu break, folks! I have to admit, it is really hard to get into the rhythm of the season when so much is up in the air and schedules change in the blink of an eye. Will we still manage our usual 18 episode stretch, when we’re only up to the seventh episode in early February? What kind of a regular cadence can we really expect, with Mandy Moore giving birth any minute and the pandemic throwing production calendars out the window hours before we expect to see the next episode? I’m sure the This Is Us production team likes this even less than we do, and lord knows I feel for them, but the uncertainty of the standard season rhythm is really getting to me.
Be that all as it may, “There” is a return to one of the show’s standard episode structures, and it’s a strong entry at that. With a car crash lingering from the beginning frames and the audience on the edge of our seats to see if Kevin will make it back home for Madison’s birth, the hour still takes it time. It brings us along slowly, intentionally, and walks us back to Kevin’s youth, and to the concept that, no matter what we do or who they are, our parents will always live in our minds. For good or for ill.
Jack and Kevin
It’s hard to get excited about tween Kevin learning to play football. It’s not just that I don’t know (or really care) about the sport; it’s that we know it will lead him to serious physical injury, and to being out of the house during the fire in a few short years. It’s that we’d been told in the narrative, explicitly or implicitly, that this was something Kevin enjoyed and something that came naturally to him. When in reality, the whole thing seemed really taxing and horrible for him, at least in the early years.
Kevin is sticking to his notecard system, staying up late and learning plays in advance of a trip to quarterback camp with Jack. Jack, who’s holding fast to his insistence that Kevin must stick to this game he seems to only kind of like, and who keeps rattling off other camp attendees’ qualifications while Kevin gets paler and paler. We know from his fight with Rebecca that Jack thinks he’s being encouraging. He thinks telling his young son not to worry about the cost of camp because “when you get a football scholarship to Penn State, this weekend will be the best investment I’ve ever made” will be a point of pride, not crippling anxiety. It’s a sign of how little he knows that side of Kevin, and of how determined Kevin has always been to raise his bar as high as he can to make his father happy.
If I’m being honest, I was glad that Jack walked in on Kevin being sick in the bathroom. And I was glad that Kevin told Jack he heard what he said to Rebecca about being “soft.” Jack needed this wakeup call, needed to finally understand what’s been piling up in his son’s psyche. The entire sequence was one of the first times Kevin let himself speak a truth that we’ve all seen developing for years; that with Randall and Rebecca’s relationship and Jack and Kate’s, he’s left out alone. Everyone has always assumed that Kevin would be fine, that he could take it, that he understood his parent’s intentions and knew where they were coming from. But that’s not something you can take for granted with a kid, and it doesn’t mean they don’t need that same kind of attentiveness.
Jack has been pushing on Kevin so Kevin knows he’s believed in. But he over adjusted, as so many of us often do. He took it so far that Kevin was physically ill under the pressure, and that he never felt comfortable telling Jack what was really happening in practice. This coach, this standard issue toxic football motherfucker, has been belittling Kevin daily. His condescension was written off as “go get ‘em” bullshit, with Jack never stopping to wonder if he’d crossed a line. In hindsight, the fact that this skeeze welcomed Kevin to the lobby of the hotel by saying “It’s time to see if anything I’ve said in practice has actually gotten through to you” should have been a tell. To Jack’s credit, once he does finally see what’s been going on, he realizes it. He confronts the coach to defend his son, he sits down with Kevin for a heart to heart, and he shares the things that lead to him making these parenting decisions in the first place.
By putting Stanley Pearson back in the forefront of the plot, we’re reminded of just how steadily emotionally abusive Jack’s father really was. This was a man who sucked every bit of joy out of Jack’s favorite pastime. He belittled his son at every opportunity, torturing Jack for any tiny mistake during a drunken car ride home. It’s brutal, and it’s a nightmare, and it’s understandable why Jack would overcorrect and go too far the other direction. But while the motivation and the execution is very different, the pressure on your child is the same. The sick fixation on winning the “big game” – through threat or expectation – propagates the toxic masculinity that still flows through the Pearson line.
I’m glad Jack told Kevin about his own upbringing; really, I am. This kind of honest conversation is what helps break down the walls, it helps Kevin see his father as a person, not as an icon. But Jack still goes a step too far when he opines that he’s “just” like his own father. He’s not “just” like the abusive nightmare who raised him. And he knows it. But by letting his fear speak that out loud, it puts Kevin in a position to say that he’s “nothing” like Stanley – and it sets up the pressure that Kevin will feel deep into adulthood to rise to his father’s image. And he’ll be wrestling with that for the rest of his life.
Kevin and Madison
It’s such a delicate balance, building tension when we already know some of the key resolution points. From the few moments of the final timeline that we’ve seen, we know that at least three concerns with Kevin’s current plotline would be handled. We know he and Randall will reconcile. We know he’ll have a relationship with his kids. And, obviously, we know he’ll live to see Rebecca’s bedside. (By the same logic, we know the ultimate fates of Toby, Randall, Beth, Tess, and Nicky, too.) So it’s hard for me to not roll my eyes at least a little when the show tries to stoke tension on things we know for a FACT will not stand. But of course, I was curious at the least and anxious at the most for what would come of that shot of a car on fire on the side of the road, with Kevin’s license conveniently located photo-side up in the grass.
Showing us that potential resolution and then leaving it alone for the first half of the episode is a move we’ve seen from This Is Us before. And it’s a clever one! That, at least, lets them hold on to the tension. It’s not about the end, because we know – ultimately – where we’re going. It’s about how we get there. And before Kevin’s license can end up on the side of the highway, before he can hang up the phone when Randall calls to reconcile, he has to get out of Vancouver.
I swear I’m not being dismissive when I say we all knew this was coming. But it just HAD to happen. The minute Kevin boarded that flight for Canada with a five week buffer on Madison’s due date, we knew she would have to go into labor before he was done. The DeNiro calculus was new, though, and definitely felt thrown in for added stakes. Wouldn’t someone have mentioned it before now if Robert DeNiro was always intended to be a part of this weird lawyer movie involving one eye? And I also have to say- considering this was Kevin’s biggest scene yet, one he’d been hyping himself up in the mirror for all afternoon, I was a little mystified that he picked up the phone at all.
But he does, of course he does, and Madison is steady but insistent that her contractions are not Braxton Hicks. She’s set to go into the hospital ASAP. Of course she is.
It’s worth noting that Madison never asks Kevin to drop the scene and come home early. She’s true to her word; she wanted him to finish that movie, and all she asks is that he call when he can. And as much as I truly hate Foster The Asshole Director, he initially handles this better than I thought he would. Negotiating with Kevin to have him leave in the morning is honestly more than reasonable. Foster gives far more than I thought he would. But Kevin Pearson isn’t having it. He’s got a high bar to clear, and that bar includes being at the hospital with Madison when she undeniably needs him. No matter what.
What follows is one of the most genuinely tense sequences we’ve seen from the show in a good long while. Any agitation I had with Kevin in the moment for hanging up on Randall (and I admit, I had some!) vanished when we realized exactly what was going on there. Kevin is alone, freaked out, navigating random Canadian forest roads, balancing phone call after phone call from a rotating list of frustrated, pissed off, and/or flustered people who want something from him. He’s juggling Miguel and Rebecca, who are desperately trying to book him a flight, any flight, out of Vancouver or Seattle. His agent won’t stop calling, obviously horrified that his client has just walked off set and left DeNiro high and dry with no interest in trying to get back, ever. And he pulls every single bit of care and sensitivity he has left in his body to answer the phone when Madison calls to say the twins are healthy, changing his tone completely with one single inhale. So it’s no wonder, after all that, that he snaps when Foster calls and condescending tells Kevin he “knows you’re really emotional right now.” The only choice Kevin had at that moment was to quit, to walk out on that douchey director and (sadly) DeNiro along with him.
Despite that consistent build and a few terrifyingly close calls, Kevin’s car isn’t the one that lands on the side of the road. It’s a stranger’s car that’s on fire, and it comes into view shortly after Kevin gets a flight out of Seattle and completely loses signal. 911 isn’t an option, and no one else is coming. Kevin Pearson is a good man, and even without the consistent, idealized memory of his father in his mind at all times, he wouldn’t leave this accident once he sees it. He can’t. Which is how Kevin Pearson, a full fucking hero, loses his license without even realizing it.
Kevin saved this man’s life. There’s no question in my mind. There were multiple times when this guy almost lost consciousness, and without Kevin to pull him from the car, he never could have gotten himself out. The thing was fully on fire; it might have even blown up in another few hours. And STILL that’s not enough for Kevin to feel like he’s done his best. All he can think about is that he’s letting Madison down – letting his twins, who aren’t even born yet, down. This is the level of pressure Kevin puts on himself, even when his rescued compatriot reminds him that it’s a little bit ridiculous to think that the moment of their birth will be the most important moment in his twins’ lives. (“I have three teenagers. They don’t remember anything before kindergarten.”) He knows it matters that he’s saved a life. But in Kevin’s mind, Jack would have done all of it somehow, and if he falls even the tiniest bit short of that, he’s a failure. Full stop.
It’s that fear of failure, that all or nothing insistence, that leads Kevin to low-key harass a TSA agent into letting him board the flight without any proof of identity. I get this romantic insistence to let him just board the plane already. I do. I hate to be a downer about it. But as someone who’s worked with the public and suffered countless hours behind a retail desk facing off with insistent, rude or blatantly demeaning customers, I could barely watch this. Let people with public facing jobs just hold the rules of said job and don’t pressure them into endangering their livelihood for the sake of your own emotional perfectionism! PLEASE.
But we can’t leave it on that. Not when Randall and Beth Pearson, two of the very best humans, come through for Madison and Kevin the way that they do.
I hate that Madison has felt this alone; it makes the rest of the Pearson clan’s initial annoyance at her when she was “just” Kate’s friend even more frustrating. This is a woman with very few ties, who’s family is not there and who hasn’t made a lot of friends in this world. She’s more or less on her own. She’s not used to asking for help, and she’s especially not used to having anyone respond if she did ask. So Beth and Randall don’t ask. Not really. They just show up for her. They hear her loneliness. They hear that she’s scared, and sad, and doesn’t know what to do. So they just keep her on the phone, for as long as it takes. Because they’re family. And that’s what you do.
Colors of the Painting
- When that car door opened and Josh Malina, of all people, was the injured driver, I yelped. Fancy seeing you here, Will Bailey!
- “Tell the birth mother I said happy pushing.”
“Not gonna do that, but will you tell DeNiro I loved him in Meet The Fockers?”
“Not gonna do that.”
- A word for Kevin in that three piece lawyer suit for the DeNiro scene that will never be. Whew, lord, can that man wear a vest.
- “They were out of chocolate covered Tesla’s.”
- Justin Hartley’s delivery always, but especially of the throw-away line, “Well I’m not in Victorville, Mom!”
Next week will be our first big hospital episode since Kate gave birth to baby Jack. With Ellie set to be induced and Madison going into labor, everyone who can get to that California hospital will be there. By car, by plane, or by zoom. Buckle up!