This Is Us Season 6, Episode 4
“Don’t Let Me Keep You”
Posted by Shannon
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As we work our way through this sixth and final season, I’ve found myself going back and revisiting my old recaps more than I ever have before. Not just for plot consistency or story reminders, but to see how different versions of these episode formats have played out over the years. So as I stared at a blinking cursor without knowing where to begin on this particular bottle episode, I went back to revisit a few old favorites with similar structures: “Birth Mother” and “Vietnam.” I found something in both. In “Birth Mother,” an echo of another Pearson son revisiting the life he should have known his mother was leading, and learning about it too late. And in “Vietnam,” where I went hunting for a reminder of Nicky Pearson’s relationship with his parents, I found that I’d written this: “I hope that we learn more about Jack and Nick’s mom. I hope that we hear more about HER life, her time after leaving her husband…”
Well. It took three years for us and even more for Jack, but we finally got there.
“Don’t Let Me Keep You” isn’t quite an exploration of Marilyn’s life, and it’s not quite an exploration of her and Jack’s relationship. It’s about the space in between. The walls they both had to build, and how they kept each other at arm’s length out of emotional necessity and unintended consequences. It’s about grieving, and trauma, and PTSD. It’s a heavy, dense, beautiful episode, and it’s anchored magnificently by Milo Ventimiglia, who’s at the top of his game beginning from last week’s introductory cliffhanger.
It’s easy to label Jack as simply “good.” A good husband, a good father. Last season, the quiet and sneakily destructive expectations he put on his sons – and that his sons put on themselves at his example, intentionally and unintentionally – was a fascinating and frustrating look at the complexities of Jack Pearson. But in truth, he’s been a more emotionally fraught character than he seemed on the surface for a long time. It’s never been clearer than in the first few moments of this episode. Jack’s first sense of grief is terse and matter of fact. It’s all quick sentences about buying a new black suit and how distant his mother was from the kids. (“That’s all she’s been for years, just a voice on the other end of a telephone.”) Then there’s his insistence that he’d need to make all the arrangements himself, because “knowing my mom, I’ve got a funeral to plan and a lifetime of loose ends to tie up.” It’s spoken like the practical child of an impractical parent. To put it callously, it’s spoken like someone who is used to having to clean up the messes left in the wake of a parent who cannot manage their own circumstances.
And the last time Jack spent any real time with his mother, he felt that was exactly what he had to do. After all, he was the one who got her away from her abusive husband, first with a nearby friend and then to her cousin Debbie’s house the next state over when it became terrifyingly clear that she needed “to get further away.” From the moment they set out from Stanley’s clutches, mother and son became two separate people trying to heal. They stopped seeing each other almost immediately and instead, they saw what they both assumed the other person needed. Marilyn may have needed Jack to pack her things and drive the car, but she didn’t need him to set up her new life or establish her own boundaries. And yet, Jack took that as his responsibility. It’s that fundamental misreading of each other’s emotional needs that turns their weekly Sunday night calls into platitudes, two people speaking at each other instead of with.
It’s no one’s fault. Not really. Jack and Rebecca were juggling triplets who could not be bothered to care about standing phone dates. Marilyn, painfully aware of the responsibility she’d already placed on her son – and likely blaming herself for the damage caused by his father – never wanted to trouble him with the details of her new life. No matter how happy they may be. It’s likely Marilyn thought she’d tell Jack everything when he came to visit her; god knows it’s not her fault for being so deeply traumatized by her husband’s abuse that she could never settle during her own single visit to see Jack and the kids. (That trembling “Do you think he knows I’m here?” tells you everything you need to know about the haunting nature of domestic abuse. It never lets go.) Jack’s dismissiveness at her trauma, his callous and hyper rational assurance that “it’s a big city, mom,” doesn’t exactly invite conversation; nor would it encourage her to try again. So he promises to visit her next time. And never does.
It’s only after her death that Jack sees the house his mother shared with Debbie. From the start, it’s not what he expects – and not just because the funeral arrangements were made by his mother years previously. (“Marilyn planned it all out herself ages ago. I guess she just didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.”) Debbie is in mourning, and she’s not interested in holding Jack’s hand. From Debbie’s perspective, Jack considered his responsibility fulfilled thirteen years earlier, and he never looked back. He’s completely unaware of the facts of his mother’s life, whether they were as specific as her enjoyment of poetry or as seismic as the existence of her boyfriend Mike.
Speaking of Mike, what a love that man is. He’s the first truly welcoming person that Jack finds, completely devoid of any of the bitterness Debbie is (fairly!) carrying with her. For Mike, Jack is the one who got the woman he loved out of harm’s way. Nothing else really matters. It doesn’t occur to him that he could know infinitely more about Jack than Jack knew about him. (If it does, he doesn’t let on.) And it’s a kindness that Jack never confirms that he didn’t know Mike existed. Still, Mike isn’t an idiot. He’s a kind man with an open heart, and the most important thing to him is that he welcomes Jack in Marilyn’s honor, that he shows Jack every memory at his disposal, in the form of lovely pictures of them together or sharing stories over a beer at the bar later on. And without saying a word, he can tell that the same trauma that lived in Marilyn lives in Jack.
Just as Marilyn could never shake the fear that Stanley would haunt her new life, Jack can never shake the desire for his father to step up and be a decent person. It’s what kids do. No matter what the trauma, no matter how completely they know better. Mixed up in the middle of that is Jack’s deep desire to tell his father off; to have a place to put all the anger he’s felt for decades that’s finally coming to the surface. (“She had a real life out here, and I never saw it, and now she’s dead and I missed the whole thing because of you.”) Stanley gives him just enough decency at the beginning to think it was an okay move, before switching into the misogynistic, manipulative, abusive sense of ownership that makes Jack realize that his father’s threat is still very real. That even after her passing, Stanley had the power to disrupt the delicate balance of Marilyn’s new life. (“She was my wife, Jack, I’ll do what I damn well please.”)
The one thing Debbie asked Jack to handle was the eulogy; it’s the only thing Marilyn couldn’t have done herself. Of course because of the nature of their relationship, it’s also the hardest thing for him to be tasked with. It’s an almost impossible ask, even for the king of big important speeches. Jack has completely walled off this part of himself and of his early life for his own emotional wellbeing, for his own safety and security. He had to do it, and the fact that it meant he knew nothing about the emotional existence of his mother in her happiest years was simply an unintended consequence. But he knows, now, how drastic that distance was. And that, to properly honor her and the thirteen years she spent rebuilding her life, he’ll have to figure out some sort of way in.
So he does. The eulogy Jack delivers on the spur of the moment is nothing short of magnificent, launched in equal parts by the fear of his father walking through the door and the relief of seeing Rebecca and the kids arrive unexpectedly instead. Honestly, I barely know what else to say about it. So much of it hits so hard. But the main thing, the most important thing, is that Jack recognizes the ways he and his mother healed, even as that healing took place separately. They both rebuilt their lives as best they could. They just couldn’t rebuild them together.
In that articulation and honoring of the life his mother built, Jack can finally let go. Suddenly, everything about him looks lighter. Mike teaches the kids wrestling moves; Jack, Rebecca and Debbie laugh about Marilyn’s habit of re-reading Clan of the Cave Bear time and time again. (“I think Marilyn went for Mike because around here, he’s the closest thing she could find to a Neanderthal.”) They finally honor Marilyn’s wish for her grandkids, letting Debbie and Mike teach the Big Three how to skate on the pond across the way with the ice skates their grandmother stored under her bed for years. It’s idyllic, and beautiful, and bittersweet. And once he lets go, once he honors his mother and gets the kids home safely and feeds them his old favorite childhood meal just like Marilyn made, Jack finally feels the loss.
Grief takes so many forms for so many people. It’s taken countless forms in this show alone, each one specific and true and meaningful in its own way. For Jack, it looks like this. Sneaking away for a moment to weep in the living room, quietly, so’s to not disturb his kids, before nodding to Rebecca when he can compose himself. I don’t doubt that this loss will stay with Jack for the rest of his life; but I do think he found peace in its closure. And that’s the most anyone can ask for.
Colors of the Painting
- That specific tragedy of shared grief was perfectly represented in Jack seeing his kids barely blink at learning of his mother’s passing. It’s one of the cruelties of trauma, the quickness with which it lessens the farther away it gets from the source.
- My family is originally from Ohio and as a kid, we always got there via one long road trip through Pennsylvania, so let me assure you that Marilyn was right. Those states look the same.
- Nicky gets only one mention this hour: when Marilyn and Jack are fighting about his old favorite meal. Otherwise, neither of them mention him – and while Stanley at least got a phone call, Nicky never did. It’s a cold and brutal reminder of how completely Jack cut him off, even in the midst of significant familial loss.
- Camryn Manheim brought a beautiful and layered depth to the character of Debbie, and her work as guest star this hour was exceptional.
- Finally, shout out to Cat Benatar, a top tier cat name for a top tier cat. Protect her from cars forever!
What did you think of “Don’t Let Me Keep You”? Let us know in the comments!