This Is Us Season 5, Episode 16
Posted by Shannon
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Let me preface this by saying I am not into spoiler culture. I don’t look them up. I don’t seek them out. And there is a special place in hell for people who go out of their way to spoil things for others. But, I’m also of the belief that knowing the ending doesn’t mean we lose value in learning how we get there. It’s a good thing, too, because once This Is Us got over the blatantly manipulative plot twists and leaned into more surprising, character building, timey wimey plot shifts, this kind of became their whole thesis. As we get ready for a long stretch before the sixth and final season starts up in January 2022, we know the location of several of the final chess pieces. We know Kevin will build his mother her house, and that Randall will be by his brother’s side with Beth. Now we know, for certain, that Kate and Toby will no longer be married. (Which does not for a SECOND undermine the years they’ve spent together, but more on that later.) We know, generally, what the life of Jack Damon will look like in adulthood. The careers of Tess and Deja are locked in. Knowing all that doesn’t diminish the path to getting there.
I’m already getting a little sentimental about the final season, so pardon me if I jump the gun a little. But that path, that winding, strange, jumped up timeline has done exactly what Kevin’s painting promised all those years ago. It’s shown us pieces of who we are, and who the Pearsons are, in snapshots. Sometimes it’s faltered and sometimes it’s zoomed in, but it’s all there. It’s taken all those pieces and used them to build something beautiful.
Thank you for going on this season’s journey with me, folks. I hope we, too, have built something beautiful.
Jack and Rebecca
There’s a whole lot of heavy, dense, emotional catharsis that goes on in this season finale – but honestly, none of it is in Jack and Rebecca’s storyline. It’s all meta fluff and it’s all a delight. It would be an unbelievable plotline in the hands of anyone other than Jack and Rebecca Pearson, but it boils down to the kids insisting their parents stage a second wedding to prove their commitment after getting into a fight over the Dynasty season finale. That’s it, that’s the plot.
The thing is, though, this meta play on a big, emotional, spoilery finale, which Rebecca saves for her whole week before finally being able to get away from the family to spend an uninterrupted hour watching her favorite show, speaks directly to my heart. And probably, to many other TV and movie watchers out there. Because we rely on these pieces of art in a real, tangible way. We rely on them to keep us dreaming, and laughing, and wondering what weird twist the writers thought up next. When Rebecca barged into Jack’s bedtime with the Big Three to read him the riot act, the most important thing to come out her mouth was that this show was “the only thing that is keeping me going right now.” Goddamn it, did I feel that. For so many weeks and months in the last year. And for so many other traumatic moments in my life. Sometimes, when shit is really bad – or even just really tiring and seems like it won’t end – all we’ve got is our art.
Woe betide anyone who tapes the hell over it.
Rebecca, Randall, Beth and Tess
There’s always way less time to catch up at big events than you think there will be. It’s all chaos and crisis management, and before you know it, you’ve gone a whole three days in the company of someone you haven’t seen in ages only to barely share some brief words and a hug or two. That’s certainly the vibe for these selected Pearsons during Kevin and Madison’s wedding preparations, even as they fight against the surroundings to carve out a few vital moments for true togetherness with varying degrees of success.
Nicky is trying to be there for Kevin in his own, weird way. Miguel and Rebecca are trying to catch up on hugs with their grandchildren. And while she’s at it, Rebecca is trying – hard – to corner Randall and get a genuine conversation going with him about New Orleans and Laurel. She was right to listen to Beth’s advice, and be honest about her hopes with Randall – but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily ready, or that she’s thought quite enough yet about what she needs to say. So while the effort is there, instead of opening up, Randall shuts right down, ducks out of as many corners as he can, and tries to busy himself with various best man duties.
Speaking of those best man duties, it was fantastic to see Randall and Kevin really, truly rebound. Their relationship is still on the tentative side, but it’s also warm, supportive, and it feels like it’s on a new sort of bedrock after their confrontation earlier in the season. Randall and Rebecca’s relationship, though, sat firmly on the opposite end. That distance is exacerbated by the fact that we’ve barely gotten any of Randall and Rebecca this season, though the reasons behind it make perfect sense. Logistically, it wouldn’t have worked for him to be at the cabin all the time, and more importantly, the emotional focal point of his story this season needed to be Randall’s relationship with Laurel and his siblings. He’s been keeping Rebecca at an arm’s length ever since he decided not to pursue their relationship in therapy. (A decision I sincerely hope he’s revisited off-screen and with his new, improved therapist and support group combo.) But these two and their dynamic, as much as it’s been put on the back burner this year, is still pivotal. Rebecca was the last white family member standing who Randall needed to speak honestly with about his experience. And while they didn’t totally go there with Rebecca, they did go somewhere very important.
Rebecca has a rough start with Randall during their first go at this conversation. She doesn’t engage; she melts into tears, and doesn’t explain why, which leaves Randall feeling both helpless and validated. Why push his mother to have this conversation when most of his healing has been done already, and when she’s on such an emotional edge? It would have been so easy for Randall to leave it here. To keep the boundary up and not trust his mother with this last trauma. And I suspect, left to his own devices, that he would have done just that. He’d tell himself it was for her own sake, and that he was fine, or fine enough, and move on. But Rebecca Pearson doesn’t play like that. She knows what she has to do, and she does it.
In so many ways, we’ve been waiting for this since the first season. As much as Rebecca has apologized for keeping William a secret, she’s never spoken to Randall about what that DID. About what it meant. And while they still don’t go as deep into Randall’s racial identity, and the harm done to him for decades as a result of that secret, we get the distinct impression that Rebecca feels the weight of it differently than she has before. (“I let you let me off the hook far too many times… I knew things, and I hid them. I’m very ashamed.”) I can’t speak directly to Randall’s healing, and how much he has left to unearth, but I do think the show wants to make the point that the most intense catharsis for him this year came in three waves. First, with Laurel in their lake. Second, with Kevin on the couch. And third, now, with his mother, standing in front of him and saying it’s okay for him to “tell me how I’ve hurt you.” It’s a hell of a combination, and Sterling K. Brown takes each moment in stride. It’s beautiful and moving and it feels like, at least in this very specific way, Randall has finally found peace.
There’s one other parent/child relationship that needed mending this season, in a very different way. Beth and Tess have been struggling with each other, in one of the most gentle, considerate versions of that mother/daughter struggle that I’ve seen. It’s been awful and painful for both of them, even while they’ve continued to treat each other with relative grace. The most genuine risk to their relationship here wasn’t Beth; it was Tess’s walls. Very naturally, very understandably built up, but still. That was the biggest risk. Because Beth is the kind of mother who saw how uncomfortable Tess was in that classically pretty but also a bit much bridesmaid dress. She knows how delicate these years are for Tess as she forms her own identity. And so she takes the leap and pushes Tess to talk about how and why she’s uncomfortable.
The punked out dress that Beth makes with seemingly no supplies defies logic, but I couldn’t care less. It’s gorgeous and killer and classy and still absolutely fits with the theme. This gesture is so clear, so genuine, and so completely about Tess and her own needs that it finally breaks the cycle. (“I haven’t been nice to you. This whole year.”) It takes a lot for Tess to make this apology. It’s certainly more than I had in me at her age. But it rings true to her character, and to her deep self awareness and the fundamental love and trust she has in her parents. Taken together with Randall and Rebecca, it’s also a symbol of the lightening of generational trauma. Beth and her own mother have had a hard path. Certainly, so have Randall and his mom. Beth and Tess’s road would never be without a few bumps, but it’s certainly smoother than the two that came before her. It’s a gentle, but insistent, mark of hope and progress.
Kevin and Madison
I once swore off predicting Kevin’s lovelife in these recaps. I (kind of) mostly stuck to it. But I have to say this up front. Until we got the first images of young Madison and her hellish family, it didn’t occur to me that in all my thoughts and predictions about the wedding, and what it would have to say about the show’s POV on love, I was missing a whole other person. I was missing Madison. What she wanted, what she cared about, what was most important to her. I’d been going on the unfair assumption – much like Madison had herself – that the fact that she loved Kevin would be enough to pull them through, and that only he could “fuck it up.” But let me tell you, no one fucked this up. It happened exactly as it should have. And I am unspeakably proud of my favorite girl.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Madison’s revelation comes in a slow burn of flashbacks, all with varying degrees of trauma. She starts with her mother, leaving her with a pair of earrings and the sentiment that she may “land a better man than I did. It’s a pretty low bar.” Then it moves to evidence of that extremely low bar, with her father encouraging a teenage Madison to “just find someone to go with you” to the prom after getting dumped by her date. And finally, we come back to the Madison we first met, high pony and all, telling an ex it’s okay if he doesn’t feel as strongly about her as she does about him because that’s not what’s important. Suffering through some of the darkest days of her eating disorder. And meeting Kate.
Kate, who is there for her best friend on this day in many ways – but who, in her own mess of life and love for her brother and fear for her marriage, misses Madison’s distant looks. Kevin certainly isn’t able to see them. He spends the entire first two thirds of the episode running around on high alert, reciting the dinner menu in his sleep and fritzing out when his uncle can’t take a hint. (“Uncle Nicky, I’m gonna need you to interact with me as little as humanly possible today.” “You got it.”) Kevin is fixated on what this day should be. Not just for Madison, but for everyone else. He’s anxious to get involved in Randall and Rebecca’s conversations, though Randall reminds him that this is not his priority right now. He’s exasperated by Nicky and Miguel’s increasingly hilarious double act and frustrated by his own impending sunburn, but not quite enough to do anything about it. He even tries to get Toby to talk honestly about what’s going on with his questions about a long distance relationship. Kevin’s laser focused on everyone except himself in a way that only Kevin really can manage. It’s one of his best qualities, but it’s also a sign that he’s spiralling and missing the most important things in his OWN story.
I’ve been rooting for this relationship for the whole season, folks. I wanted it to work. (I’m still not totally convinced it doesn’t, in the long run.) But as I said at the start of this section, this is the right move for Madison and I am so, so proud of her. She’s right. Kevin and Madison have always spoken about the love they’ve found as a unit. As a family. But not as a couple. Madison is in love with him, but she’s not convinced he’s in love with her. And her instincts are true. Kevin wants to be in love with her. He does love her. But it’s not enough to wait and hope for that to grow. Kevin isn’t about to run out on the twins, or to abandon co-parenting. They can do this together, in their own way, without getting married. It’s the right call. Madison deserves to marry someone who’s in love with her today. Not who may be in love with her tomorrow. And I’m just so grateful that she can see that.
Of course, it’s still a loss. It’s heavy, and bittersweet. But as the four Pearsons gather together in Nicky’s adirondack chairs, there’s a real peacefulness to the scene. These four have gone through hell. This season, and for years previously. At some point in the last few seasons, as many new and wonderful people as we’ve welcomed into the household, it really did become about these four. The memory of Jack is there, but he steps further into the distance every year. As Rebecca says, “It’s getting harder for me lately, to add your father into our family situations. It used to come so easily.”
It’s another, quieter, meta moment. The show has a harder time adding Jack into their family situations, too. And yet, he’s ever present. In an effort to keep Kevin busy, to keep him distracted and safely out of a relapse, Rebecca solidifies Jack’s memory and builds on it at the same time. Kevin didn’t build the house by the cabin for himself. He builds it for Rebecca. Because she’s asked him to. We don’t know how long it’ll take to finish, or what he’ll find within himself as he builds it, but I think it’s safe to say that house will be the crux of season six. I can’t wait to see what’s inside.
Kate and Toby
The events of Kate and Toby’s storyline this episode personified exactly what I was talking about at the top. None of what happens between them is a surprise. The San Francisco job was a lock the moment it came out of Toby’s mouth. It couldn’t be more clear that he needs to take it, for his own mental health and sense of self, on top of their financial needs. And Kate’s job gives her that mental health support and sense of self, too. (Which is just one reason why I bristled at her reaction to Toby’s “I love our children, but” comment. The man is allowed to want a life outside the home! All parents are!) Kate leaving her job wouldn’t make any emotional sense, and it would be a sacrifice that would lead to bitterness and frustration. Just as Toby not taking this opportunity would.
So, after Philip rejects Kate’s resignation and Kate reminds herself that the vows she and Toby took meant caring “more about what they need than what you need,” they decide to try to make it work. Which means they’re looking at Toby spending three days a week in San Francisco, with Kate alone in LA with two kids under three, and four days with the whole family together. (Which is just another reason why Kate and Toby should consider taking Kevin up on his offer of jointly watching all the kids at the same time, assuming it still stands.) That sequence between Kate and Toby, deciding to take this leap together and to sacrifice for each other, was one of the stand-outs in the episode for me. It’s a beautiful example of teamwork and compromise, and maybe most importantly, of prioritizing both yourself and your partner. (“I’d rather spend four days a week with you than eight days a week with anyone else.”)
Kate and Toby have spent “four years and two kids” together, and they’ve seen each other through serious trauma. They’ve grown and changed for the better, both of them. They’ve learned about themselves and about their ideals and they’ve found firmer footing. And yes, ultimately, we now know they’ll divorce sometime in the next four years before the Big Three turn 45, with Kate marrying Phillip. That fact, that knowledge, does nothing to diminish their growth or their evolution. A relationship ending does not mean a relationship has failed.
Which brings us to the bookends around the episode. Kevin, looking fine as hell in my personal kryptonite of a vest and rolled up shirt sleeves, reciting a wedding speech and doing his very best Princess Bride impression. Holding a “Big Three Homes” notepad, which is conveniently hiding his ring finger. Madison and Beth are with Kate, looking magnificent in bridesmaid dresses and a wedding dress, respectively. (Madison’s hand is ALSO specifically out of camera the whole time, leading this recapper to suspect that these two will, eventually, truly fall in love. Listen, a girl can hope.) Nicky’s married, and running around to deliver stockings to whoever the lucky lady might be. Randall’s in the New Yorker as a “Rising Star,” very likely running for Senate by now.
The next season, from what we’ve heard, will spend a lot of time in this slight flash forward. It may even be a proper time jump; after all, a whole lot can change in four years. It’s a hopeful, forward looking, beautiful moment in time, and a perfect place to close out a tumultuous season and an unthinkable year. We’re moving into a new phase with This Is Us, and coming quickly to our close. To the landing that has been in Dan Fogleman’s mind since the beginning. I can’t wait to see how we get there.
Colors of the Painting
- You KNOW the writers had a field day with this one.
- I for one was extremely endeared by Miguel’s zombie Grandpa act. “Must! Hug! Grandchildren!!”
- “I guess Randall P’s doing that.”
- “I need air.” “You’re outside.” “I need inside air.”
- A word for Nicky’s extremely sweet gift of a pair of adirondack chairs. Not only do they give us the fakeout for the title, but they’re a beautiful symbol of his impression of love.
- I’m gonna need to know more about Annie’s freak bowling skills. But also, can we give THAT girl a plot point? Please? Someday? We’re running out of time here!
- “These slippers aren’t built to tiptoe, so what’s up?”
- Malik, dear, brilliant, young Malik, has gotten into every single school he applied for – all the top schools in the area, and also, Harvard. In Boston. Where his ex lives. Bring on season six!
Were you shocked by the wedding twist? Let us know in the comments! See you for the final season in 2022!