This Is Us Season 6, Episode 7
Posted by Shannon
It’s the end of an era, folks. More than anything else, more than the early-season surprise endings, more than the time shifts and flash forwards and surprise character reveals, This Is Us has made its name with Thanksgiving episodes. From the season one tradition-establishing “Pilgrim Rick” straight on to “Taboo,” the Pearsons have gathered to celebrate together, to share a meal, and to cry their respective faces off. They’ve been some of the best and most effective episodes in the entire run; my own personal favorite, “So Long, Marianne,” hails as a Thanksgiving episode. Building on the resounding theme of season six – the character evolution and exploration of Rebecca Pearson – this hour focuses on our family matriarch in three pivotal Thanksgivings for her own personal trajectory. And it’s a hell of a run.
We begin with the very first Thanksgiving Rebecca and Jack host themselves, while Rebecca is still a Malone. The tension and expectation laid upon her by her mother is palpable, and it goes beyond the standard expectation of cleaning and sorting the house before a parent arrives. Rebecca’s mother Janet was a picture of 50s perfection, going so far as to prepare and cook a full Thanksgiving meal in a cocktail dress and pearls. The traditions of the Malones couldn’t be further from the later traditions of the Pearsons; it’s all classical music and pristine kitchens and teeny tiny slices of sugar pie for Rebecca and none at all for Janet. (“We have to watch ourselves, Rebecca.”)
So for this first Jack-and-Rebecca hosted holiday, she tries to emulate the same habits, even without knowing the secret ingredient to the aforementioned sugar pie. It’s a rough start, with Janet wandering the kitchen making judgements about the gravy and leaving the men to drink Tom Collinses and act like they couldn’t possibly understand the depth of emotion that’s driving mother and daughter to snipe at each other. (Is it “a dynamic that us men will never understand,” or is it fundamental human emotion bubbling to the surface after decades of condescension and withholding? Who’s to say.)
The main crux of the tension, at least for this moment in their relationship, revolves around Rebecca and Janet’s relationship with food. As a wealthy housewife in the 50s, Janet would have been put under an enormous amount of societal pressure to appear a certain way. This was the age of tiny waists and infinitesimal serving sizes, and Janet felt it deeply. She’s carried that pressure through to her daughter, not only setting a troubling example but often speaking with direct harm. (“Starve yourself early on and it’ll give you a buffer for bad decisions later” is both horrific wedding dress advice and a disturbingly concise sampling of the kind of thing Rebecca would have heard most of her life.) It comes to a head during the meal, when Janet firmly whispers at Rebecca to “go easy” on her Thanksgiving plate and Rebecca finally snaps.
Because for whatever reason – genetics or emotions or a combination of both – Rebecca has never abided by that kind of self hatred or restriction. She’s comfortable in her skin and sees no place for the kind of toxicity that has a grip on her mother’s relationship with food. It combines with the very specific expectations Janet has for her only daughter’s wedding and all bubbles up in the inaugural Pearson Thanksgiving meltdown.
Maybe it’s knowing that Janet’s subtle and insidious racism would come to the surface a decade later, or maybe it’s knowing how Janet’s relationship with food would travel through the generations, but the resolution of this particular fight left me feeling cold. Rebecca and Janet’s relationship is rightfully complicated, and I get that at this point Rebecca is still at the stage of her life where she values her mother’s opinions and connection. But I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at Rebecca’s immediate reaction to learning that her parents were about to move to Connecticut. Still, it was balanced out by the first of many phenomenal acting turns taken by Mandy Moore this week; the switch on her face from livid to devastated was completely believable. Future-related frustration aside, it makes total sense that Rebecca would be heartbroken at the idea of her parents moving away at this stage of her life. She’d want her mother there during her wedding, not to mention the first years of having kids, and that loss is real. Jack knew it the moment Janet broke the news to him; while he would have inserted himself into this fight anyway, I think that’s when he knows it’s a non-negotiable. And that promise is what begins their first Thanksgiving tradition: driving to Connecticut every year, until they end up at the fated Pilgrim Rick hotel.
A few decades later, Rebecca finds herself in a different kitchen making the same sugar pie with her own daughter. Kate has had a remarkably speedy turnaround on the matter of Matt; in the span of just a few weeks, she’s gone straight to teasing Rebecca about her new maybe-boyfriend. Part of it is knowing that Kate has plenty of other things to concern herself with, but I also think this is the first moment in the episode underlining the fact that Kate and Rebecca have a deeper understanding of each other than they let on. Kate is depressed and traumatized, but she can see that same heartbreak in her mother, and knows how much it’s taking for Rebecca to try to open up.
The same can’t be said for Randall and Kevin, though Randall takes the appearance with relative ease. (Teen Kevin introducing himself to Matt with “firm handshake, you own your own house?” was a high water mark.) On the whole, the Big Three are all arriving at this Thanksgiving meal looking a little beaten down: Kevin assumes it’s the end of his marriage to Sophie, Randall is struck by how much weight his sister has gained, and Kate is surrounded by the trauma of both of her brothers. While Kevin played his own part in Kate’s current depression by driving the wedge between his sister and her best friend, he’s also the first to jump to her defense when Randall can’t bring himself to stop staring at her. (“She lives with mom, she’s got the worst ex boyfriend of all time, she thinks her dog killed our dad.”) Randall’s reaction is unusually callous and a sign of his youthful immaturity, but more than that, it shows just how disconnected he’s become emotionally from his siblings. He just never knows what to do with them anymore; even though he picked a college closer to home, his world has changed, and he’s already begun building a new base with Beth.
Regardless of their own emotional states, the kids are officially too old and too wise to miss whatever the hell is going on between Miguel and their mother. Matt and Marguerite barely have a presence at Thanksgiving, except to act as foils and snark-recipients from Miguel and Rebecca – and the kids see through it immediately. (“That was awkward, right?” “Yeah, there’s a lot going on here.”) They each spend the meal quietly judging the other’s date with remarkable passive aggression. (Rebecca reading Marguerite as “normal” instead of “worldly” is such a specific and unusually vicious take down!) It all culminates in a game of Taboo, when it becomes uncomfortably apparent just how many intimate details Rebecca and Miguel have shared and remembered about each other.
The whole thing is equal parts painful to watch and hypnotizing in its exceptional performances. Miguel is so genuinely delighted, so touched that Rebecca remembers all these small details about his life and opinions. The rest of the room has completely fallen away; it’s not just that he can’t imagine how this looks to everyone else, it’s that the question doesn’t even occur to him. And the same for Rebecca; she’s less visibly transfixed, but she is completely oblivious to the build of the game, even after the first time she literally jumps up and down and says POINT BLANK, “I love you, Miguel.” It STILL takes the second “I love you” before she snaps out of it, looks around the room and notices just how uncomfortable everyone else has become.
Once the spell breaks and the intimacy is undeniable, all hell breaks loose. Kevin is reeling, not just from his impending divorce, but from Jack’s imagined voice in the back of his head. From that disappointment that he assumes his father would have felt, fairly or unfairly. (“I can hear his voice, his disappointment in me, and my choices, and things I should have had a handle on.”) He finds an outlet for all that trauma and depression in Miguel. The curse that Kevin lays on his head is completely brutal, and all Miguel can say in response is that he should drink some water. (Yes, Kevin has had too much to drink, but it’s still a cop-out response to his best friend’s kid after the nightmare he’s been living in for years.) But Miguel didn’t need to hear Kevin’s vitriolic threat to know he had to do something about this connection, one way or the other. He’d already taken action by accepting a job in Houston, closer to his kids.
I’ll admit, I’m of two minds about what would have been best for Miguel and Rebecca at this stage. On the one hand, I do think it was too early. Too close to the death of Jack for something that serious and weighty, too complicated for the kids at their age. There was still enough tension later in life to make this partnership complex, much less at that age. But on the other – it’s undeniable how much these two leaned on each other, how much they needed each other. (“I don’t know what else to do. You’re my favorite person.”) And Rebecca’s isolation after Miguel moved must have been particularly harmful. The whole thing would be unbearably heartbreaking if we didn’t know that in another decade or so, the two will reconnect and ultimately accept their feelings for each other.
But of course, Rebecca doesn’t know that right now. She spends the rest of the night completely heartbroken – not just because her best friend is moving, but because she can’t deny what he’s become to her anymore. Once the dam breaks, Rebecca can’t stop crying. Randall doesn’t know what to do. Kevin insists that “this house is too sad.” It’s only Kate who knows what her mother really needs; a quiet moment of consolation and understanding.
All the Pearsons are heading to the cabin for Thanksgiving this year, excepting Nicky, who’s spending the holiday in Topeka with the girlfriend. (Things are moving awfully fast up there, Nicky, but as long as you’re happy!) The family hasn’t all been together in person since Kevin and Madison’s almost-wedding, and they’re a little worse for wear. Kate and Toby’s relationship spikes are becoming too serious and frequent to ignore, Randall is planning to record every single moment of this Thanksgiving for fear of Rebecca’s illness, and Kevin is channeling his angst in badly played guitar tunes. It’s all a bit of a mess, and that’s before Rebecca asks all the kids for a family talk after dinner.
Basically, the emotions are ramped up to eleven from the start, and it’s exacerbated with Kevin bringing everyone over to review the plans for the “Pearson Family Mecca.” He’s clearly pouring everything he has into this home, but it’s not just because of his mother’s request. A family compound has been Kevin’s dream since the moment the twins were born. He’s always wanted a single space where the next generation of Pearsons can run around together and grow up all in one bundle of endearing chaos. That, combined with his recent breakup and general life upheaval, is leaving him a bit fixated on the build happening exactly as he (and his father) plan. Randall’s fixation is showing here, too, while he runs around videotaping and photo taking and generally making everyone nuts.
It’s easy to forget that, for the young years of the girls’ lives, Rebecca lived just as close to them as she does now to Kate and Kevin. But Randall feels that shift deeply. He’s done so much work to understand their relationship and come so far in the appreciation for his mother’s connection to Kevin in particular – but it still acts up in moments like this, when he’s faced with the kind of intimacy Rebecca now shares not just with him and his kids, but with his siblings and the younger set of grandkids. On the whole, he takes it with grace, doesn’t act out or act up, and accepts it when Beth is sent out to confiscate his phone.
Grace, though, is not a word that can be used to describe Toby through most of this Thanksgiving. I spent a lot of time wondering if this was character regression, with Toby snapping back to his first season snark and dismissive judgment of Kate and her decisions. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Season one Toby was a combination of poorly sketched out writing and the show was presenting his behavior as endearing and quirky rather than harmful and condescending. That couldn’t be further from the truth here. Here, we’re watching a man who has fundamentally changed grapple with the ramifications of a different life. Jack’s diagnosis, his own relationship with his body, his treatment (and lack thereof) of his anxiety, and his job changes, have all resulted in a Toby who just carries himself differently. He’s being passive aggressive and nasty, yes, but it’s a symptom of the shift he feels and the fact that he’s growing apart from Kate and even the rest of the family he had once been so eager to join, not the cause.
All of it comes to a head at Thanksgiving dinner, in a very different version of the fight Rebecca and her mother had all those years ago. Toby’s been making asides about Jack’s eating for the entirety of the episode, trying to correct Kate about her own cereal purchases and assuming that Jack’s fussy behavior is the fault of licking the spoon from the sugar pie. Kate finally can’t take it anymore and stops the meal in its tracks when she directly asks if Toby’s “worried Jack’s gonna get fat.”
The resulting fight and later conversation are a layered, genuinely thoughtful exploration of food anxiety and body related trauma. Kate and Toby have taken very different roads in their current relationship to food, but they’re both speaking from a deep personal experience. While Toby’s currently more disconnected from the kids and their daily lives than both he and Kate would prefer, he IS still allowed to have an opinion about how the kids eat. And from his perspective, “we were both fat kids, and it was hell, and Jack has our genes. So if I can help him to eat healthy and to avoid any of that pain, I’m gonna do it.”
I’m confident Toby has done a lot of thinking on this matter, and while this is the current version of the fight they both acknowledge they keep having because of the distance, it’s also pointing to a real disconnect between Kate and Toby. Because she’s done the thinking too. And the meal planning, and the grocery maintenance, and everything in between. We’ve seen in this very episode the way shame and binging took hold of Kate at a young age, entrenching itself in her sense of self and identity, and how she weaponized that feeling against herself. That cycle is what she’s trying to break: “Food has always had this intense power over me, and I don’t want it to have that power over our kids. I want them to enjoy Thanksgiving without having shame about it… I need you to know that I have put a lot of thought into what I feed our children. A lot of thought. And I just don’t know how you don’t know that.”
As much of this season has been Rebecca coming into herself, it’s been about Kate doing the same. She is continually stepping up, stepping in, and acting as the voice of reason – not just in the “good old Kate ” kind of way she used to in early seasons, but in a more grounded, comfortable, and assertive capacity. There’s just so much more intention with everything that she does and says. This isn’t the kind of monologue she could or would have delivered at any earlier point. While the evolution that got her here could have been written more comprehensively, I’m happy to sit back and celebrate how far she’s come at this point. It feels wonderful to be so proud of Kate on a regular basis. And it links her to her mother in a way that continues to get deeper and more realized.
Which brings us to the crux of the episode and, if there is any awards justice, the submission for Mandy Moore’s long-awaited Emmy.
As soon as she asked to speak to the kids after dinner, my mind went here. End of life care is traumatizing and hard in the best of circumstances, but if anyone at this table understands the need to keep a level head and share these needs with intention, it’s Rebecca Pearson. She may not know exactly what she’s up against, or how long a journey she’ll be on, but she knows precisely what happens when you DON’T have time to plan or speak plainly about who’s in charge of what. Rebecca presents the outline to her kids with a clear head and a straight tone, and all three of them listen. Really, truly listen. I’d like to think that they’d know better than to fight Miguel about Rebecca’s care, but things go sideways when emotions are high, and I was so deeply proud of everyone at that table’s response to Rebecca insisting “the last thing he needs to deal with is disagreements about my care, so I need to hear you all agree to that.” Kevin makes an immediate about-face from his previous snark about Miguel’s “fishing buddies” when his mother plainly lays out that she will likely need permanent care, and that they will be the ones in need of a guest house. But the highest bar to clear comes immediately after that, when Rebecca names a second in command in case Miguel isn’t around: Kate. The silence in this scene is deafening, and beautiful, and stunningly moving. Mandy Moore holds this delivery with complete perfection, and each of the kids go through their own visible, but subtle, emotional response. It’s so heavy and so perfect.
Because through all of this, Kate has been the one to know – when the shit really hits the emotional fan – what it is her mother needs. She always has been. Kevin has acted out, or thought short term. Randall has prioritized his own expectation of Rebecca’s needs above her actual needs. But Kate has let her be. She’s been there to listen, to sit with her mother, to trust in her judgment and act with clarity of emotion. So of course, it’s her. It always has been.
Rebecca’s decree for her family – not to make their lives smaller, but to “forge ahead with your lives in any and every direction that moves you” – is a clear throughline to where we know the Big Three will land. It’s stunning and perfectly delivered and I really don’t know what else to say about it, except that I can’t wait to see how each and every one of those kids take that demand and live by it with a resounding yes, ma’am.
Colors of the Painting
- There was plenty going on this episode and not a lot of time for more, but I couldn’t help being disappointed in the lack of any Kevin and Tess scenes this hour. My favorite uncle-and-niece combo is overdue for some bonding time.
- Sorry but when exactly did Jack and Rebecca’s father become so chummy?
- It’s notable, and heartbreaking, that Jack was quick to agree to drive the long trip to Connecticut with small children on an annual basis for Rebecca and her family, but not for his own.
- As brutal as most of the 90s Thanksgiving was, all the Y2K jokes at dinner were a delightful flashback.
- I sincerely hope that the Jae-Won cameo is the sign of things to come. I miss that man and he’s as close as Randall has to a friend. Bring! Back! Jae-Won!
- Deja and Malik are really going through a rollercoaster this season, with Deja commenting briefly that Malik hasn’t been texting her as much as usual. That’s not the kind of aside you include without impending doom.
- Three cheers to Eddie Berman and this fantastic cover of “You Can Call Me Al,” playing through the Thanksgiving montage mid-episode.