This Is Us Season 5, Episode 14
“The Music and the Mirror”
Posted by Shannon
Failure is an inevitability. It’s so easy to lose oneself in that specific, sinking emotion – to spiral out and zero in, losing all sense of perspective. This week’s episode explores failures of varying degrees and at very different points in time, and yet for each of the characters experiencing it, there’s that moment of spinning panic. It shows up so differently in each of them, but it’s always there. And so’s the recovery – whether they know it or not. One of the beautiful aspects of the structure of the show is that there are certain things we know will resolve. Kevin and Randall ultimately had to reconcile to be together at Rebecca’s side. Kate, eventually, pulls herself out of that diner and finds a career that fits her. Beth will end up running what seems to be a wildly successful dance studio. I suppose it could be easy for those known resolutions to suck the life out of this hour, making us wonder why the story is being told in the first place. But for me, it’s the exact opposite. It doesn’t evaporate the tension or make the losses any easier to manage. It elevates those losses, reminds me that it’s all a part of a larger puzzle. Failures, fits, starts, they’re as fleeting as they are inevitable. And so we, and our beloved Pearsons, carry on.
Beth and Randall
We’d assumed that the dance studio was hanging on by a thread, if it hadn’t closed already. In the wake of a global pandemic and a brand new small business that relies on close contact and in person practice, what else could possibly have happened? Yet it was still so awful and so sad to watch Beth’s dream deteriorate, moving from antibacterial wipes to zoom classes to much, much smaller zoom classes, until just a few boxes of personal effects remained. The fact that the opening montage reminds us (gracefully and tragically) that this isn’t the first time Beth has had to put a dance dream aside makes it even more painful. She handles that trauma in much the same way I have the past year – by being depressed and mindlessly eating comfort snacks.
Beth doesn’t stop there; she also throws herself into a corporate informational interview barely a week after officially closing the studio. It’s way too fast and clearly not what she needs, but Beth has never been good at sitting still. She wants a plan, or at least some semblance of one, and so she ignores Randall’s sweet but tiresome reminders about arts grants that she’s already given up on, dusts off a suit, and gets Annie to step in for technical support. Beth is barely sixty seconds into her discussion with an old work acquaintance before she’s politely but unceremoniously asked to reschedule thanks to a zoom double-book. I can’t tell if that shakes Beth out of it or makes the whole thing worse (or both? probably both), but rather than accept the reschedule, Beth pulls herself out of this whole situation with an exasperated cackle. (“I steamed this, all to get cancelled on for a meeting that I didn’t want in the first place.”)
This entire side of the Pearson family tree is made up of empaths. Not that it takes an empath to realize that Beth is hanging on by a thread, but it’s notable that I could see any of the other four members of her family stepping in to help out. Even Tess, who’s on the outs with Beth at the moment, would have been able to see what’s going on. Deja, though, is the lucky winner. Not just because she’s the eldest, or because she’s the first person Randall sees, but because she’s the more centered, more level headed version of himself. Randall is all over the damn place right now, and rightfully so. He needs the reminder that the best way to help out his partner right now is to just be there – not to try to fix it.
I do want to take a moment, though, and say this. Deja’s got her own shit going on right now. The Malik-Jennifer-Janelle situation is quickly becoming untenable, and while Deja has the same energy Randall had when he was her age, I winced a bit when he asked her to keep an eye on Beth. Randall was in that situation himself one too many times, and I hate to see him lean on her in that way, especially when we know the damage it did to his own psyche. That said, Deja can stand up for herself in a way Randall never really could. She doesn’t want Randall to swoop in and talk to Malik any more than Beth wants him to swoop in and send more arts benefit links. (“Beth doesn’t need a hero, Randall. Just be there for her. It’s kinda your best quality.”) Ultimately, though, Deja trusts that Randall will do the right thing with the information she gives him. And for better or worse, he’s got experience with this particular kind of pain.
Throughout the hour, we’ve seen not just adult Beth struggle with the loss of her creative outlet, but college Beth too. After leaving her ballet shoes behind, Beth wanted nothing to do with the artform at all, refusing Randall’s six month anniversary gift (bless) of ballet tickets because it was just too painful. Beth had spent the entirety of her young life standing in front of mirrors measuring mistakes “in fractions of degrees,” and when that still wasn’t enough to succeed, she lost her identity. She was suddenly “a dancer who doesn’t dance,” and she didn’t know how to cope.
Randall’s grand gestures are a different variety than his family members. He’s less showy, more earnest. And the way he was there for Beth while she mourned, both in college and in the present day, was by reminding her that, even if it’s only in slow dances with him, she’ll always be a dancer.
That apology call with DeNiro really did go off without a hitch, because at some point in the last few weeks, Kevin was allowed to go in and do re-shoots for his weird law movie. Now, the film is set to screen, and Kevin brings Nicky along to the movie studio to play tourist while he sits a safe distance from the director and sees how the whole thing is shaping up.
Badly, it’s shaping up badly. Not from Jordan Michael Foster’s perspective – that asshole thinks it’s his best work because of course he does – but Kevin is horrified at the final product, and so’s his team. (“It’s actually one of the worst things we’ve ever seen, we all agree, and we never agree about anything.”) So Kevin throws Uncle Nicky’s tourism plans out the window and calls an emergency meeting of his whole team, post haste. Except all the scripts available at said emergency meeting are garbage.
I have to admit, Kevin finally facing professional consequences for his multitude of public walk-outs was overdue. He’s shown up well for some projects, but he’s also developed a reputation for his willingness to shove off at a moment’s notice. It’s a tough line to walk; obviously, family and loved ones need to come before professional opportunities. But the fact that Kevin has gotten away with this time and time again, without any repercussions, is a privilege that would not have been extended to anyone other than a very handsome, white male actor. He can pull himself out of this; of course he can. But it was refreshing to see real-life consequences for that behavior.
What was decidedly not refreshing was what followed from his meeting. I’ve been saying for a while that I missed Zoe; Beth could certainly use her support these days. But folks, this is NOT WHAT I MEANT. When Kevin walks past a conference room with Zoe waiting on a giant zoom screen, the two have what could be a lovely, centered catch up. She’s clearly happy for him, and she’s in a good place, herself. But her suggestion that Kevin flip flops his own dreams around depending on who’s closest at the time (cavalierly rephrased, but that’s how it’s taken) is a misrepresentation of his character and does the writing no favors. Yes, Kevin is flexible about how he supports his loved ones. He’s inclined to put his own needs on hold. But only when it’s about small stuff. The big things, he’s always been pretty clear about – including being clear about when he was undecided. Food orders and television preferences are not of equal weight to deciding he wants to be a father and falling in love with Madison. Hell, Madison didn’t even come to him to ask to be a part of the twin’s lives – Kevin decided that himself. Because it’s what he wants. It’s real, and it’s true, and it’s not the same as being willing to switch Bridgerton for GBBO.
But of course, that’s how he takes it, setting us up for a strong potential of a wedding disaster in the next two weeks. I really hope this doesn’t happen. I really hope Kevin trusts himself, and his instincts, and doesn’t let his fear get the better of him. Only time will tell.
Rebecca, Kate and Madison
Since getting engaged to Kevin, Madison’s had big important moments with most of the Pearsons. She and Kate had to get on the same page, fast. Then we had Randall and Beth calling in during Madison’s labor. The only person left was Rebecca, and wedding dress shopping with Kate is a pretty perfect opportunity. And a pretty intimidating one! I loved the distinction that Madison made with Kevin before their sweet and cringy game of good, bad, worse: “I know Kate’s mom, I’m great with Kate’s mom, but Kevin’s mom?” It’s a different relationship, and Madison acknowledges that immediately. She’s at least got some context around Rebecca, but she’s also dealing with the rollercoaster that is her own family.
Madison shares a common and notable trait with Toby that I hadn’t put together until this episode: her relationship with her own parents is strained at best and non-existent at worst. It’s interesting that both of the twin’s partners have such a different lived experience of family. In some ways, it’s refreshingly honest to remember that not all blood families are quite so supportive in Pearson land. But it also sets up a space for the Pearson family to step into, to fill the void, and that can be painful too. The fact that her father has just started calling on the regular and asking for wedding details hikes up the pressure for Rebecca’s dress shopping date, slamming Madison’s anxiety up even higher. She can’t let herself get her hopes up, even though Kevin suspects she wants to, because she knows how hard that fall will be.
The whole shopping trip is as lovely and complicated as ever. Kate’s there for Madison in every possible way, but consciously or unconsciously, she leaves space for Madison’s own relationship with Rebecca to bloom. Especially when the only good dress Madison tried on all day is immediately debuted with predictably shitty news: her dad’s already backed out of attending with a flimsy work excuse.
I loved watching Rebecca go full matriarch here. This season has been pretty low on Jack, and when he has appeared, it hasn’t been in the best light. That’s giving space for Rebecca to do more speechifying of her own, to step into her own light, and to lean into her own type of encouragement for the younger generation. She absolutely nails it (and so does Mandy Moore, while we’re at it), hitting just the right tone for Madison to come out of her crisis and put her disappointment in her father behind her.
If Kate and Rebecca hadn’t gone through their own reconciliation, this kind of thing would not have been possible. Kate wouldn’t have been able to get out of her own way, wouldn’t have been able to see the work that her mother is doing on the regular to hold everyone and everything together as best she can. It’s a beautiful, final-feeling resolution to the decades of tension between mother and daughter. Unfortunately, it’s also coming up because of Kate’s officially deteriorating marriage. She and Toby are simply not speaking; not in the way they need to. She’s too worried about upsetting him with the unabashed glee she’s feeling at her new job. And Toby’s too worried about seeming like a bad father, or an unsupportive husband, to be honest about his own feelings. The whole thing is a disaster waiting to happen, but at least Kate’s got Rebecca around at this point to find comfort with.
Kate and Rebecca’s full-hearted acceptance and forgiveness of each other is paired with a sequence from Kate’s teen years, right after Jack’s death. Despite Rebecca’s best efforts to get Kate a job at her own office (which, tbh, would have been a disaster), Kate elects to work in the same diner where she and Jack had one of their last solo meals together. We know she’ll be in that diner for the better part of a decade. We know that, despite Jack’s encouragement, she’ll blow off Berklee. And we know that the choir job at her son’s school is waiting for her, decades later, merging all the most important things in her life together in one big, beautiful mission. But that doesn’t make it any less painful to hear teen Kate tell her mother that she should just give up on her. (“Get your wins from Randall. He’ll make you proud… Every time you get your hopes up for me, I disappoint you. So probably you should stop putting yourself through that.”) Hannah Zeile absolutely goes for broke in that scene, and it’s all the quietest of decisions. Kate is so certain at that age that she will simply never be anything but a disappointment. It’s not even something she’s overly sad about; it’s just a fact. Plain and simple. Except it’s not.
It takes time. It often does. But twenty plus years later, Kate finds herself with a job that not only makes Rebecca proud – it restores her own sense of pride. She needed to be able to give this gift to Rebecca, to teach the kids a Joni Mitchell song and perform it for her mother. She needed to believe in herself again, just as much as she needed Rebecca to see it. And it’s beautiful for both of them.
Which leaves us with Toby. Dear, isolated, stressed out Toby, who’s at home trying to fix a shower thing that’s turned into a leaky pipe that’s turned into a full ceiling drip. For as much as Kate has found herself, and centered into her own sense of pride, Toby’s spun around the other side. He’s completely at a loss at home, without his identity as an IT professional, and he’s taking it out on the plumbing. (And accidentally ignoring Kate’s attempts at talking about her own job while he’s at it.)
The minute he started messing around in the ceiling, the whole thing was a done deal. There was just no way Toby could manage that fix himself, no matter how many youtube videos he watched. Miguel could have fixed the whole thing from the beginning, but Toby (fairly!) doesn’t feel up to getting the whole clan involved. (“That would send up the Pearson bat signal, and I don’t really have the bandwidth today to sit around talking about my feelings, then crying about my feelings, then talking about crying about my feelings.”) So instead, he makes the marginally safer emotional choice. He calls his own dad.
In this case, at least, Toby’s dad does one better than Madison’s, showing up at the door with a whole mess of tools and fixing the pipe in what seems to be a remarkably short time. And while he doesn’t do a whole song and dance about feelings beyond a few quick mental health check-ins, you do get the sense that Toby’s dad can read the danger signs in his son’s marriage. Hell, the fact that Toby’s opening up to him at all is probably a dead give away. So he leaves Toby with a key, multi-leveled reminder: “People only look for leaks when the water’s coming out, but it’s the pressure that’ll get you.” Oof.
Colors of the Painting
- “Hey three names, let’s screen this sucker.”
- “You’re just not used to a color that isn’t black. Or off black.”
- Susan Kelechi Watson positively killed it this week, from her clear, insistent teaching voice to her maniacal laughter to her quiet mourning.
- I don’t know what I’m more endeared by; Nicky showing up for a fancy LA studio day in his regular, schlubby outfit without a hint of concern or his immediate purchase of Godfather onesies for Nick and Frannie.
- A word for Siddhartha Khosla this hour – the theme he composed for Beth’s montage was perfectly classical and perfectly sad.
- Question: Where was Mama C during the whole dance studio closure nightmare? I assume she’s still living with Randall and Beth, and I assume that Phylicia Rashad was busy being named Howard University’s new Dean of Fine arts, but her absence was felt in such a Beth-centric episode, especially given her character’s connection to Beth dance history. We coulda done with a throwaway line.
- Am I the only one who thinks Nicky will find gold in that pile of scripts he brought home from the meeting, saving Kevin’s career?
- “Thank you for reminding me why I never list you as my emergency contact.”
- The whole dress shopping extravaganza was adorable and all the dresses were atrocious (except the final, obviously) but I am still giggling at Madison sob-declaring “Let’s be honest, I’m a Pippa at best!”
- I was an absolute mess during Kate’s choir’s rendition of Big Yellow Taxi. It’s a timeless stunner of a song.
- While we’re at it, please enjoy this classic K-Ci and JoJo music video/time capsule/bop and a half.
What were your thoughts on “The Music and the Mirror”? Let us know in the comments.