This Is Us Season 6, Episode 8
“The Guitar Man”
Posted by Shannon
Let it never be said that This Is Us is structurally subtle. In preparing this week, I realized that this current and final Big Three trilogy has now formed its OWN trilogy as the third cycle in the unit. And within that larger trilogy, there are clear character themes to pull upon.
Enter this week’s main sibling: Kevin Pearson, our Number One. Each of the two previous entries have touched on a few threads that appear in this episode. On a surface level, we have plots revolving around Kevin’s relationship with – and fallout from – Sophie. But the main thing that struck me was the fact that, in each of these entries, Kevin intentionally revisits a previously impactful location and searches for some lost or undefined part of himself within his known history. There’s the return to high school and the site of his football accident in season two’s “Number One.” There’s the return to Sophie’s parents house – twice – in season four’s “A Hell of a Week: Part Two.” And this week, his return to the pool where they all spent so many formative summer days – not to mention the cabin grounds.
Kevin Pearson may think himself shallow, but he’s a deep thinker. He has never shied away from significant personal exploration or meandering internal existential debates. (Teenagers who feel comfortable spending a night audibly exploring the meaning and failings of their own personalities are not entirely common, and I should know because I was one.) He’s remarkably nostalgic, even more so than any of his other siblings. I’m speaking particularly of the way he uses nostalgia for personal exploration. Randall goes searching for missing pieces of his history, for answers he never had but always assumed would hold the key. Kate rebuilds herself from the ground up, sometimes more often than she should, only looking back to frighten herself. But Kevin shows, time and time again, that he believes the lessons he’s searching for can be found by connecting to past versions of himself, his emotional life, his personal journey. He uses nostalgia as a tool for internal exploration. Which gives us teenage Kevin insisting that, if he had just been able to touch the drain at the pool in his youngest years, he’d have somehow been a stronger version of himself.
It would have been futile. No one can speed up their own journey – physically or mentally. And the best thing about the Big Three is how completely they all know each other, which means Kate sums it up best with “Oh, and also, you’re gonna be a screwup for a while. But I know you pretty well and you’ll figure it out someday. Not tomorrow.”
And not the next day. Or the next few years. But while modern day Kevin Pearson still has some shit to learn (like how best to travel alone with infant twins on a cross country flight and how NOT to butcher a Counting Crows song on the guitar), he’s not in terrible shape either. He’s come so far and learned so much, and he has the tools he needs to take himself to the next level. To try to connect to the version of himself Rebecca has instructed each of her children to leap for.
Once he and the twins land back on the east coast, Kevin passes off Nicky to his namesake and settles in for a weekend of construction check-ins with Cassidy and Matty, her 12 year old son. Kevin doesn’t arrive in the best of moods, despite his endearing as hell interaction with Edie. (I love that she played right along with his whole hostage bit, and that she’s visibly so endeared by Kevin and Nicky and their delightfully weird dynamic. Basically I love her and I’m ALSO thrilled we don’t have to engage in any big drama around Nicky and Edie’s endgame.) Kevin’s grumpy and exhausted and mad as hell when he hears a jackhammer, signifying that something went wrong with the foundation pour over at the work site.
Cassidy has hired a group of vets who, Kevin later learns, built schools in war zones and worked in Navy construction battalions. She’s made the call on her own, as is her right as the foreman, and they’re exceptionally competent; it was the architect who scaled a piece of the foundation wrong, though it went unnoticed by Cassidy, and that’s the error that finds Kevin making his first appearance at the site yelling at everyone he can find. It’s an unfortunate first interaction and not Kevin’s finest moment. (Though I will never tire of watching Nicky and Cassidy lovingly poke at Kevin’s movie star status. These two are a perfect example of why FRIENDSHIP is IMPORTANT, SHOW.)
The resolution on that argument is quick, Cassidy and Kevin’s respective apologies adorable, and they all land comfortably back at the cabin for dinner. Matty spends the night feeding the twins and asking Kevin to teach him how to play guitar. Edie and Nicky dance to Smokey Robinson. Kevin watches everything, clearly moved at this merging of families and friends, and Cassidy is moved, too. She’s also spending a lot of time staring into the middle distance, distracted and dissociating, and asks to sit at the table so she’s facing the door. And Kevin doesn’t notice any of it; why would he?
The last time we saw Cassidy, she was reminding Kevin that their internal darkness was different. While I’m loath to describe mental illness as “darkness” in this particular context, it was all I could think about while I watched Nicky notice all of those small emotional tells – and watched Kevin miss every single one of them. There is a sort of kinship that comes from experiencing significant mental illness and trauma; it’s a clear line from Nicky and Cassidy, since they both served in brutally misguided wars and are both living with PTSD, but the experiences don’t need to be quite that parallel to work. It’s not to say Kevin hasn’t had trauma. His struggle with addiction, the loss of his father, all amounts to significant emotional turmoil. But it just hits at a different level with Cassidy and Nicky than it does with Kevin. Which means, when Kevin receives a call in the middle of the night telling him that Cassidy is in the hospital after a car accident, he’s completely shocked – and Nicky’s rattled, but unsurprised.
Kevin thinking Cassidy’s accident was somehow his fault was painful in its misguided foolishness. It’s understandable, and I don’t mean to be harsh; it’s that same difference of realities that made him miss all of her tells earlier in the evening. Kevin can only imagine that Cassidy would get into the car that late at night because she was driven back to addiction, and the only thing he can think of that would cause her to relapse after such a lovely evening would be his own outburst, so he clings to that possibility – even though it’s almost laughable when he says it outloud. He doesn’t even track when the doctor reports that Cassidy, who will be fine and is refusing painkillers to stay clean, got off relatively easy because the pole she drove into took a “direct hit.” Kevin’s visibly relieved. Nicky’s visibly heartbroken.
A word here for Griffin Dunne, and Nicky Pearson specifically. He hasn’t had a lot of room to shine lately, and while I’m happy to keep Nicky out of the dramatic limelight if it means he’s living his best life, I do think his emotional intelligence and gruff sensitivity (when used correctly) adds an excellent dynamic to the Pearson family. This is a perfect example of that kind of addition. Nicky has been apart from the Pearsons in every way, and the result is a completely different lived perspective – and a light into Jack’s psyche, too. Nicky can translate this trauma for his nephew, do it bluntly, and draw the connection Kevin needs to make it all more real. (“People like Cassidy, they don’t give you a heads up when they’re not okay. You find out the hard way. Understand? … I’ve seen that before. I’ve been that before. You don’t just get better.”)
While Nicky’s been a little hard on Kevin this episode, it’s because he knows what his nephew is capable of. And that in and of itself is an echo to Jack letting Kevin try to swim to the corner of the pool as a kid; Jack pushed Kevin physically and bluntly to try to build character. Nicky isn’t any less subtle than his brother, but he works on the emotional plane instead. And because Nicky Pearson doesn’t have a single space for toxic masculinity in his whole heart, it comes off differently than it did with Jack. So Nicky leads Kevin to the understanding that he should be staying at the hospital overnight so Cassidy knows someone is there with her. He sends Kevin back into the lobby with a clear directive: “Don’t try to help her…Just do nothing. Just be.”
Kevin has been struggling with performative goodness his whole life. It’s the shadow of Jack Pearson, haunting his every mistake. It’s that he doubts his instincts, doubts that he’s “the right kind of person.” The monologue that Justin Hartley gives in the hospital waiting room is a natural mirror to the monologue Logan Shroyer gave at the bottom of the abandoned pool. Kevin has always doubted himself, always doubted the kind of basic structural person at his core. But the thing is, this kind of emotional exploration doesn’t happen for someone who doesn’t have that “goodness” within themselves. Kevin sometimes needs a course correction, someone to point him in the direction of something he’s missed. But he loves fiercely, protects completely, and always, ultimately, shows up.
So when he’s seated in front of Cassidy, beat up to hell but breathing, stable, and waking up, he first comforts her with the facts (Matty’s fine, Edie and Nicky are with him) and then delivers a pitch-perfect opening: “I’m not gonna bug you with questions about what you were doing or what happened. I’m just gonna sit here with you.”
Cassidy doesn’t owe Kevin – or anyone else – an explanation. But she also has a right to share her story and her mental state if it will help. And, so often, it does. She wouldn’t have opened up, though, if he hadn’t given her the permission to sit there quietly. Jennifer Morrison is absolutely exceptional in the monologue that follows. Cassidy explains that she’s developed a habit of going for long drives when she can’t sleep, and while most nights that’s triggered by loneliness and nightmares, on that particular night it was triggered by the beatific scenes of friends and family that left her feeling “warm… so light, I just wanted it to last forever. But I knew it wouldn’t. So I went for a drive because I couldn’t sleep. And I lived in our happy night a little longer. Until I got tired.”
Cassidy has found a safe haven with these Pearson men. With Nicky, in particular, she has a true friend who understands where she’s coming from, knows her tells, can lighten her mood with a joke. But most importantly in this context, he’s also someone she’ll listen to about needing to get help. Nicky makes arrangements with the VA for her to speak with a re-adjustment specialist; the same person Nicky spoke to when Kevin insisted HE find help. These are the kinds of cycles of support that vets, and anyone suffering from PTSD, deserve access to – easily, and without judgment or retribution. Nicky’s turnaround has been remarkably swift, and some of that is TV magic, but some of it is also the assumption that he has been following his program, showing up to the VA, and taking advantage of his support systems whenever necessary. Think about him KNOWING he’d need Rebecca and Miguel with him when he went back to see Sally. He’s come so far THANKS to that work, and I sincerely hope Cassidy can find that same peace.
As for our Number One, the return to an old stomping ground and the imagined memory of Jack sketching out the cabin sparks some expanded inspiration. Big Three Homes isn’t just about building a Pearson family mecca. Armed with his father’s vision, a newfound drive to hire as many vets as he can find, and his mother’s push to take a leap, Kevin has a new plan taking shape. Big Three Homes is about to take shape, and Kevin Pearson is about to put roofs over many more heads than he ever would have dreamed.
Colors of the Painting
- It has been remarkable to watch Logan Shroyer slowly but certainly morph into his own version of season one Kevin Pearson, and so many moments in this episode clinched that transformation. What a wonder each casted version of the Big Three is.
- I could have done without that whole “he’s just a child” “and someday he’s gonna be a man” exchange. Toxic masculinity does not look great on you, Jack Pearson.
- A word for Rebecca Pearson’s impeccable pool wear.
- In my own personal headcanon, Kevin never stopped painting before he got a new role – we just stopped seeing it. I hate the idea that he had actually stopped himself, but hopefully his reconnection with art through Matty and Cassidy’s get well card kicked him back into artistic gear.
- The entirety of this final Big Three trilogy is being directed by leading members of our company. This week, it’s Milo Ventimiglia’s turn behind the camera. And a damn fine job he does, too.
- This episode’s title comes from a track by Bread. I always think it’s a weird band name, but damn did they have great tunes.
- The song playing behind Kevin’s overnight hospital lobby stay comes to us from The National, and it’s a stunner.
- I’m closing out this week the same way the show closed out: with information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Please reach out if you need someone to talk to by calling 1-800-273-8255 or visiting https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/