This Is Us Season 6, Episode 1
Posted by Shannon
This post has been sponsored by Clinton, who is one of our wonderful Patreon supporters! If you’re interested in helping us keep the site up and receiving this and other benefits, check out our Patreon page!
Here we are, fam. We’ve made it to season six, and even though we’ve known for years that this would be the last season premiere of This Is Us, it feels strange and momentous. The episode itself is a bit of a mixed bag, and we’ll get to that. First, I want to take a moment and acknowledge that back at the season five premiere we – as an audience and as a country – were in a dark moment within an even darker year. God knows we’re not out of the woods. But we’ve made it farther than I, for one, remembered. And in that strange, perfect way this show manages time and time again, we get that realization mimicked in the episode. Shit is dark and it has been dark for a long time, in ways large and small and in between. And yet – we’ve all changed, there has been some light, and the world doesn’t stop.
Since September of 2016, This Is Us has walked us through crisis situations and family celebrations. It has mirrored the world we live in. It’s been spotty, it’s had ups and downs, it’s told some stories magnificently and left others wanting. But ultimately, and always, it’s been here to remind us that we can look backwards to look forward. That everything keeps spinning and changing and evolving, even when it feels like we’re stuck in the same cycle of hell. That there is a crack of light behind that closed door, and that the human spirit will persist.
It’s been an honor to bring us this far. So, for the sixth and final time, let’s hit play on a new season with the Pearsons.
Jack and Rebecca
The episode opens on the morning of January 28, 1986 (notably, not the birthday of the Big Three, though we’ll take that montage of their 41st in stages). It’s the morning of the Challenger launch, and Rebecca has organized a themed breakfast complete with Tang before sending the kids off to watch the takeoff at school. Which we, from 2022, know will end in a horrific, nationally televised tragedy.
As far as folding historical events into the life and times of the Big Three go, this one fell a little flat for me. I get what we’re going for – an examination of how each of the Big Three handle a shocking crisis, and what that says about them in adulthood – but for everyone except Randall, I was left without that usual feeling of a deeper resonance. Perhaps it’s because we already know how Randall, Kate and Kevin respond in the face of a shocking crisis, which robbed this echo of the more subtle, enlightening revelations we normally find with childhood vignettes being referenced in their adulthood.
So yes, each of them respond exactly the way we expect them to – and exactly as they respond to varying problems later in the hour. Kate mourns, but finds a way to think of hope for the souls that were lost. Randall worries about the children left without a parent, and makes a small and heartbreaking offer of sending the kids a box of mac and cheese just in case. Kevin completely disengages, insisting when Jack tries to speak with him again later that “it was just a story on TV, it wasn’t real” before ending the night by crawling into bed with Kate and baring his real fear: the realization that their parents will, one day, die. Jack was right; it’s not that Kevin was refusing to acknowledge reality. It was his brain protecting itself. Which is part of why this mirror just didn’t hit for me; Kevin opens his original 36th birthday montage talking about how it all went wrong for him the morning of the Challenger explosion, but there’s no link to that in reality. Kevin processed that loss the way that made sense to his young brain, and while his adult self disengages too, we’re lacking the clear line to a larger implication for him later in life.
Which is not the case for Randall.
Questionable Holden Caulfield comparisons aside, I was so struck by this moment with Rebecca. She can see straight ahead into Randall’s adulthood; to his undying empathy, his concern for those left behind, his kind heart and seemingly endless compassion for any soul in a crisis. It’s what makes him a remarkable politician, and a remarkable human. But it also damns him to a life of disappointment. Of constantly putting his hand out to lift someone else up, and only occasionally feeling someone on the other side. It’s compulsive, and it’s not healthy, and it leaves him in constant emotional danger – and I love that his characterization doesn’t shy away from the kind of damage that vulnerability can cause, even while celebrating its genuinely moving point of origin.
Randall and Beth
Which brings us to Randall’s 41st birthday.
Each of the Big Three are in a drastically different place during this birthday montage than they were during the pilot. Randall hasn’t stepped foot in a corporate office for what feels like a lifetime. He fits so much more completely into his current position, and his current life, than he did at 36. It’s unclear whether opening those emails from the cops about the house break in from season four reminded him about the PI emailing when they uncovered William, or if the show itself is drawing a line for us. Either way, Randall’s reaction is almost entirely identical: he declines a day off with Beth and opts to confront the man who has haunted his dreams for years, barreling in with the insistence of an emotional wall that we know cannot hold. (“Damn, I woulda chose door number Beth.”)
Almost as soon as David started speaking after his hearing, Randall’s defenses faltered. And even six seasons in, it’s remarkable to watch the work Sterling K. Brown does here; we can SEE his entire perception of the situation change in just a few blinks of an eye. Randall tries to deliver his prepared speech about how traumatizing that break in was, but even as he begins, it’s half-hearted. When it becomes more and more clear that David is an addict with holes in his memory, Randall sees him for what he is. A human, who’s made mistakes, who may very well be ill, and who just wants to know what happened to his dog. (“I didn’t know where I got that picture from, but you looked happy in it. I thought maybe it came from a good part of my life, but I guess it came from a bad part.”) The closure kicks right in, and forgiveness is practically instantaneous. Which leads to Randall bailing David out and offering to meet him at the shelter later on so he has a friendly face and a place to land.
Looping back around to Rebecca’s fears while Randall is left alone outside the shelter when David inevitably stands him up is what makes this whole thing so effective. Randall sees in David William, Kevin, Jack, Laurel, Shauna, and “thousands of addicts in my district I was elected to help.” Beth knows her husband. He is incredibly decent. The key here though, is that she knows the flip side too, and it’s a version of what Rebecca said decades earlier. His insistence on helping people, on providing endless wells of empathy, is compulsive and over the top. It comes from the same traumatized part of him that could have generated addiction or god knows what else. Instead, it comes out as kindness. And that’s beautiful – and it damns him to keep giving, and giving, and giving. Without people in his life who know the risks to protect him, and encourage him to support himself, and buy him replacement birthday cufflinks, Randall’s life would be infinitely darker.
Kevin and Madison
When last we saw Kevin and Madison, they had just broken off their wedding moments before walking down the aisle. It’s been at least a few months, but the only distance that’s been established between these two and their “finely tuned co-parenting instrument” is however many feet stands between Madison’s front door and her garage. This whole thing is equal parts extremely sweet and extremely disaster-waiting-to-happen. Sure enough, while Kevin’s out taking a meeting with his old Manny producer, Madison and her fantasy sci-fi book club buddy Elijah are hitting it off during clean up.
I am notoriously terrible at tracking who’s good for who romantically in this show, and I doubt Elijah is meant to be a long-standing and recurring character, but I HAVE to say how much I like him with Madison. From what we’ve seen so far, this man is a sweetheart who’s clearly very into Madison and probably has been for a while. He’s helpful and friendly and asked permission before geeking out at Kevin about his movie, and I want these two to keep watching shows together and generally being nerdy and adorable. And the thing is, I think Kevin knows these things too, in spite of himself. He clocks what’s going on immediately and he ALSO knows he has no ground to stand on when he starts to get jealous. Kevin knows that his reaction to this moment is due to what’s going on with Rebecca, as well as the fact that he probably should have left the vicinity of Madison’s garage weeks ago. He’ll still be there for the twins. He’ll still be present. And he’s got to let her live her own life.
Of all the Big Three, this birthday feels the most directly momentous to Kevin. Randall and Kate get important character moments, and some scene setting for the rest of the season, but Kevin uses his 41st birthday to make serious choices about how he’s going to move forward. It’s not just down to moving out of Madison’s garage; Kevin initially refuses an offer from the aforementioned Manny producer who’s pitching a new reboot with Kevin as the dad (“Not the Manny, you’re far too old”), but when he changes his mind later on, it’s not out of desperation or artistic weariness. It’s to give the twins stability, to stay in town, to be there for them. And it’s to be there for Rebecca, too.
Mandy Moore does a remarkable job in this hour of showing Rebecca’s health slowly but steadily deteriorating. She spends the hour in the present timeline desperately trying to remember the word “caboose,” fixating on the gap after she tries to tell baby Jack about the memory of her father walking her up and down the train cars on the way to Manhattan. Her resulting outburst during the birthday party is upsetting to everyone, particularly her, but it’s Kevin that it hits the hardest, at least during this episode. And unlike the aftermath of the Challenger, Kevin doesn’t hide his head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. He never has about this; not really. He’s tried to distract Rebecca, or to celebrate small moments with her, or to change the subject. But he has always known it would come to this.
In a beautiful mirror to the pilot, Kate and Kevin spend the final moments of the episode together, comforting each other as only the twins can. Kevin has always opened his heart most clearly to Kate, and the resulting speech Kate gives her brother rivals the best of the Pearson speeches. There is a deep unfairness to trauma, small and large, and to the expectation that we just continue moving forward. It’s painful and miserable at the moment, but the world cannot stop for Rebecca Pearson. It can’t stop for any of our darkest days. Kate channels her very best Samwise Gamgee to remind us all that “we have found the light before, big brother. We’ll find it again.”
Kate and Toby
Toby’s new gig in San Francisco has officially begun, which means these two are spending at least three days a week in separate cities, video chatting whenever possible and generally making the best of it. Toby still tries to pull out a big romantic gesture for Kate’s birthday, arranging for Nicky, Rebecca and Miguel to take the kids while a “woman with the hands of an offensive lineman” arrives at the house to give Kate a massage. While I understand Kate’s slight sadness at this arrangement (“he’s usually more of a giant, in-person grand gesture kind of guy”) it did grate on me. At some point, in some way, Toby will inevitably run out of big, giant, in-person grand gestures. And frankly, they were getting kind of exhausting half the time. This was a kind offering of support and celebration from a distance and it read as every bit as grand as his prior ones. Again, Kate has every right to miss her husband – especially on her birthday! – but the framing of this left something to be desired.
Which leads us to Philip. Thanks to the flash-forward at the end of last season, we know that Kate and Philip will ultimately get married. The progression towards that is clearly being seeded, and the breakup that Kate accidentally walks in on between Philip and some poor unnamed woman is an obvious example. In that short sequence, we learn that Philip has some kind of “traumatic past,” that he’s frequently referred to as a “condescending prick” (although to be fair that’s not so much news) and that he’s not able to be romantically involved with someone he doesn’t find interesting. Which is fair! I am, in spite of myself, endeared by this man and I think he clearly did the right thing by stopping whatever the hell was going on with his now-ex. But this may be a rare case of the flash-forward souring me against a plot before it happens. The choir surprising Kate with their own version of “Time After Time” is gorgeous, and I continue to love this career choice for her, but the way her and Philip’s connection seems to be playing out has been obvious and one-note so far.
But of course, we end the hour with Toby showing up after all for a grand, in-person gesture, appearing before the night is out to wish his wife a happy birthday in person – and to ask why, exactly, Kevin is in their guest room.
Colors of the Painting
- “A spaceship filled with heroes exploded on national television, I don’t think the Splishy and Splashy model is going to work here.”
- I for one am excited to hear more about this apparently very fulfilling new job Beth mentioned at the top of the hour!
- “It’s about this kid, this teenager named Holden. And he’s depressed.” “Well, his name is Holden.”
- You all know how I feel about Nicholas Pearson, and I am saying with my whole heart that I hate – HATE – the direction they’re taking his character this season. Nicky Facebook stalking Sally and subjecting Rebecca and Miguel to twice-daily misery updates is creepy and weird and not in character for his cantankerous but gentle spirit. I hate it and I want it to stop.
- I personally cannot handle the fact that we have now, officially, cycled out to a new crop of tiny Big Three children who are the same age as the original crop of tiny Big Three children.
- Madison. My girl. This is why you’re my favorite.
- This week’s notable musical entry is not REO Speedwagon (sorry, Jack) but instead, this stunning Sufjan Stevens track that plays behind the 41st birthday montage. “Every road leads to an end” indeed.
What did you think of “The Challenger”? Are you ready to say goodbye to the Pearsons? Let us know in the comments.