This Is Us Season 6, Episode 2
“One Giant Leap”
Posted by Shannon
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I was so nervous going into this episode, y’all. Between the less-than-ideal few moments we got with my beloved Nicky Pearson last week and the promotional material, I spent most of the first viewing holding my breath and hoping my boy wasn’t steering face first into a character assasination. While it wasn’t exactly a relaxing viewing experience, I didn’t have nearly as much to worry about as I feared. “One Giant Leap” actually gives us a thoughtful examination of the ways youthful love affairs impact and change us throughout the decades – and the impacts of aging on, particularly, the female psyche. All that, plus the first flash-forward puzzle piece of this season snapping into place made for a successful second entry in the season.
Deja and Malik
It’s been ages since we’ve had some good old fashioned wholesome teenage rebellion! With Malik off at Harvard and he and Deja at least a few weeks into a long distance relationship that is still close enough to manage under the radar, it was really only a matter of time until she snuck off for a weekend. This is a big deal for a TON of reasons: it’s very likely the first trip Deja has ever taken alone, it requires her lying to Randall and Beth, and last but very much not least, it involves her sleeping at Malik’s. While there’s no doubt in my mind that there was zero pressure on his part for this to be the night she lost her virginity, it’s clearly something Deja has given a ton of thought. As well she should! She’s a thoughtful, emotionally mature and realistically minded girl, and this isn’t the kind of decision she would make lightly.
But before we get to any of that, Deja’s got a few more emotional hoops to jump through. Since Malik’s ex Jennifer is also in Boston and had previously asked to get back in Janelle’s life, she’s very much around. And she’s possibly kind of awful? I hate to judge this woman with very little context, but the image we get of her is far from complimentary. She’s constantly criticizing Malik, dismissing his academic work and complaining about his perceived failings in caring for Janelle. It’s just not great, and this kid has enough on his plate. Like a substantial paper on Russian lit that’s taking hours to complete.
It wasn’t a surprise to me that This Is Us handled the realities of Malik trying to support himself in college with a kid so well, but I was still really happy to see the honesty of this portrayal. Going to college on your own, without parental support – even on a scholarship – is no joke. The academic requirements of a place like Harvard assume that you will not need to work a job to pay the rent, or support a child, or keep your fridge stocked. God knows Deja gets all of this. So of course she offers to let Malik focus on his paper for two hours (after he begrudgingly asked for one) before they have a night out.
I don’t know if Deja and Malik will stay together long term, and frankly, it doesn’t matter one bit in the context of the story or their characters. They’re good for each other in this moment. They each understand where the other came from, and what they need, and the kind of vulnerabilities they share. When they go back to his apartment after the (very tame and sweet) college party, both of them transform from adult-looking teens to nervous and scared ones. It’s a perfect examination of that strange time of life, when we vacillate between being shockingly grown up and beautifully childish. Yes, Randall is about to be extremely upset when he realizes that Deja lied to him and snuck off to stay with Malik. But this was an idyllic first time for Deja in so many ways, and I’m so glad she got to have this.
Nicky, Rebecca, and Miguel
At Rebecca’s insistence, Nicky has “finally” reached out to his own long-lost first love, Sally, who he claims to have been low-key cyberstalking for weeks, leading the three of them to climb in the car for a road trip to reconnect Nicky and Sally in person after something like fifty years.
Before I get to all the things this storyline did right – and again, there are plenty! – I need to get some of the more egregious frustrations off my chest. Let’s start with that whole damn premise, shall we? While lord knows Rebecca has plenty going on right now, it does disappoint me that neither she nor Miguel suggest that Nicky’s announced online behavior crosses a line. This is a delicate sequence to pull off in the best of circumstances, and unfortunately the tone of Nicky’s phrasing, both pre-and post-reuniting with Sally, just felt consistently icky. This man has complex PTSD, has been living alone for decades, and was ignored by his last known living relative. All of those character traits should play a part in what’s going on here. But those traits do not need to equal him using phrases like “she deflowered me” in front of everyone at the table, blatantly saying he would be happy to watch the video of Sally dancing topless that made it into Marty’s Woodstock documentary, or talking about her in the third person while she is literally in front of him. Again, we got there in the end, and this story was far more delicately told than it could have been – but it still left a significant amount to be desired from my perspective, specifically around Nicky’s characterization.
Alright! Now that I can climb off my soap box, let’s get to the good parts.
One of the things that struck me immediately was Rebecca, for the first time in several seasons, taking the time to talk about what Jack would have made of the three of them together. In my more gracious moments, I think this is really why Rebecca pushed Nicky to do something about his unrequited love; it’s absolutely the kind of thing Jack would have done, and without him there, she’s taking responsibility for that sibling shove and cheering him on every step of the way. And smugly, I loved watching Nicky, Rebecca and Miguel sing their hearts out together to the same song; I always knew Rebecca and Nicky would have bonded over their identical musical taste, and while Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” is no “So Long, Marianne,” I’m still choosing to call this a victory, thank you very much.
With regard to Sally herself, I was willing to go along with Nicky miraculously googling the right person on the first go, actually reaching out to her, discovering she lived nearby, getting an immediate response, AND her sharing that she was also single because it’s TV and not the first time This Is Us has structured itself on significant coincidences. But while what actually happened was still pretty miraculous, it’s much more true to character that Nicky didn’t actually reach out at all, and that he wasn’t certain he’d found the right person. Nicky’s meltdown in the antique store was the first comforting sign that I could start to trust again in the writing of his character. Because of COURSE he didn’t actually reach out. He’s still in the beginning years of rejoining civilization, for fuck’s sake. And it’s perfectly real and perfectly necessary for Rebecca and Miguel to have to walk him to the door and speak for him. Nicky has come so far, but he just doesn’t have the social skills for this kind of high pressure social situation – and to pretend that he suddenly does would be a slight against all he’s gone through.
With all of that in mind, and thanks to Sally being a remarkably patient and kindhearted woman, the reunion goes as well as it possibly could. Which is to say, very awkwardly.
This dinner is sprawling and painful and I’ve already mentioned the parts of it that rubbed against me – but there’s plenty to be proud of. Most notably, Rebecca not shying away from Sally’s accidentally horrific mention of worrying she had “early onset alzheimers.” It would have been easy for Rebecca to try to spare Sally’s feelings, to let it slide and change the subject. But instead, she dives in.
There’s a very specific kind of intimacy that comes with meeting strangers in the right circumstances. If the mood is right, these kinds of passing acquaintances can hear the most personal details imaginable. There’s safety in the transience. In knowing that you’ll very likely never see these people ever again. So once Rebecca breaks the glass by telling Eric and Sally her diagnosis and its impact on her daily life, the dam breaks. Each of them admit to a seemingly small but substantive fear they’re holding onto. For Eric, it’s that the city will find out he put a deck up without permission. For Miguel, it’s losing his signature hair. It’s easy to categorize these fears as insignificant, but they take up the same amount of space in a person’s psyche. As Miguel says, each of them are losing years of energy “worrying about something that never happened.” It’s so beautifully human. And after Nicky opens the door to say that the thought of Sally wasn’t something that he regretted, but that it “got me through… it gave me reason to hope that one day, something good might happen to me,” it snaps something deep in Sally and Eric’s marriage.
As Kim said to me after the episode, I love that the impact of this on Sally’s apparently rocky relationship is unknown. She’s not about to blow up her life just because Nicky is there to act as a polar opposite to Eric. But again, the immediate intimacy found between these passing strangers allows her to see – and say – things she’s probably been holding on to for years. It does the same thing for Rebecca.
One of my most consistent refrains over the last few years has been that every single one of the Pearsons needs a friend. Someone outside the family unit to connect with, react against, share intimacies with. So it almost goes without saying that the entire sequence with Rebecca and Sally warmed my heart. I genuinely loved everything about it. I love that Rebecca finally has a woman her own age to speak to about the ways her body and her mind have changed; I love that the two connect over the ways their relationships with men have changed over the decades. And I love that it gives Rebecca the push she needs to get back to salsa dancing with Miguel, an extremely lovely hobby the two of them developed during their engagement that Rebecca dropped after being perceived as a “novelty act” because of their age.
By the time Nicky barges in on Rebecca and Sally insisting that “Miguel says it’s time to go,” the women have bonded enough to leave me sincerely hoping they’ll stay in touch. But even if they don’t, it’s been a significant moment in each of their lives. And for Nicky, the closure he’s yearned for more than anything else finally finds its way to him in the form of a picture of himself, staring at the moon, that’s still sitting inside one of Sally’s collages. (“It’s me, it’s me sitting in your van looking at the moon.”)
I mentioned this earlier, but I do want to take a moment to step back and think about WHY that picture still being in Sally’s collection would be so impactful for Nicky. There have been so few loved ones in Nicky’s life; the list before meeting Kevin was really just Jack and Sally. And Jack, for years, pretended Nicky was dead. His whole personhood had been erased. So for Sally, even without deciding to do so consciously, to have kept a photo of him for fifty years – to still have that symbol of him and his soul, particularly from such an intimate moment – is massively healing. Moreso than any rekindled romantic partnership would have been. Safe in this resolution, Nicky and Sally can say goodbye – and Nicky is emotionally freed up to head back to the east coast to help Kevin break ground on the cabin.
It’s during that journey back east, after Rebecca’s wistful hope that the “universe” would put the right person in Nicky’s path, that we get the first significant puzzle piece of the flash forward. The white car driving up to meet the family isn’t Deja’s significant other. It’s Nicky’s. Edie, whoever you are, I love you already.
Colors of the Painting
- Miguel and Rebecca’s conversation in the car while Sally and Nicky said goodbye was heartbreaking, but overdue. As Rebecca comes to terms with the reality of her increasingly serious diagnosis, she’s going to spend more time working through these kinds of emotional realities. And while both she and Miguel are indeed about to have quite the ordeal ahead of them, they’re as up to the task as anyone could be.
- Probably my favorite moment in the Deja/Malik storyline was the knowing hug Deja and Tess shared right before she left. Deja absolutely told Tess the plan, and I love that they have each other through these kinds of big emotional landmarks.
- A word for Nicky Pearson aggressively picking one blue plaid shirt instead of a second, nearly identical, blue plaid shirt. Dear, cantankerous man.
- “I always thought the wind in my hair would be overrated, but it is properly rated.”
- No shade to Rebecca and Sally, because everyone should make their own choices, but as a woman in my 30’s who has been going gray for almost ten years may I just say that Bernadette is NOT full of crap and gray hair is great!
- Is it too much for me to hope that Beth hops in to teach Miguel and Rebecca some dance moves? That feels like too good an opportunity to pass up.
- There are SO MANY fantastic musical moments in this episode that I cannot be expected to pick just one; especially when they all involve the same inherent theme of the passage of time. Enjoy:
- And while this was very much not the version used in the episode, I think Sandy Denny would be okay with me shouting out this gorgeous cover by one of my personal all-time favorites, Rufus Wainwright.
What did you think of “One Giant Leap”? Let us know in the comments.
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