This Is Us Season 6, Episode 9
Posted by Shannon
We have been through the wringer with Kate Pearson. There have been writing ups and downs, there have been half-baked plots, there was that whole era where she was maybe a personal assistant slash project manager but also maybe not. But at some point – I can’t even pinpoint when, exactly – Kate as a character clicked. She settled into herself and her position in the family. The spotty job history became a symptom of a larger emotional journey rather than shoddy plotting. Basically, Kate came into focus this season and “The Hill” is a pivotal flashpoint for that focus.
The throughline is particularly effective; we start off with toddler Kate positively refusing to so much as set foot in the pool. Rebecca can’t get her to walk down the stairs, much less put her face in the water. The only way she’ll move from the safety of the pool edge is in Jack’s arms. Hearing all the ways her family believes in her doesn’t make a dent; as Jack assures her that “the only thing that needs to happen is that you believe you can do it,” Kate responds “I will never let go, Daddy, ever. Why would I??”
Folks, we have GOT to take a step back on this one before I can move on because there is a lot happening here. On the most surface level, we have the fact that a five-ish-year old Kate would already feel so anxious and unsure of her own abilities as to dig her nails into her mom’s arm and bury her head in her father’s shoulder. But I’m willing to let that go, because kids say shit that sounds emotionally traumatic but doesn’t actually connect to their lives all the time and the weight of the scene is predominantly coming from what we know to be Kate’s adult life.
The thing I really want to focus on is the difference in Jack’s response to Kate’s fear as opposed to Kevin’s behavior in the pool. Jack didn’t hesitate to push Kevin beyond his comfort zone. Not for one second. But for Kate, he’s overly patient, even coddling. The difference in Jack’s treatment of his only daughter is striking, perhaps more so now that we see less of him episode by episode. Given the outcome of the rest of the hour, I couldn’t help but wonder how different Kate’s formative years would have looked had her connection to her parents (and yes, Jack in particular) been different.
But of course that’s not how life works. Kate’s dynamic with Jack was what it was, and in her late teens she finds herself in an extended and generally miserable mourning period – and locked in an abandoned pool with her brothers. Kate had put it all aside to talk Kevin through his crisis in the deep end, but once he’s in a more emotionally stable place, she can’t help but let some of her own misery out. And frankly, it’s impressive that she never snapped more firmly at these two and their sweet but pathetic counselor act. Kevin and Randall want their sister to be happy, and they want her to try to see some semblance of a silver lining, but the day-to-day reality of Kate’s life is completely different from theirs. Hers is a deep, monotonous sadness, without a clear picture of what she wants to work towards or how she may choose to change her life.
The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing what you want to do with your life when you’re 19 years old. (Or when you’re 35 or 50, for that matter.) From Kate’s POV, Kevin and Randall have a clear vision for their future; but lest we forget, just a few years previously Kevin was planning to be a football star, not an actor. Randall wanting to “change the world” is not exactly a detailed agenda. My point being, it’s easy for Kate at this stage of her life to look at her brothers and feel less than. To feel stuck, frustrated by the fact that “when I look into my future, I literally see nothing. No job, no family, nothing.” Yes, at this precise moment in time, it would have helped for Kate to have something specific to work towards. But that’s not reality. Not for her, and not for a lot of people. And it doesn’t mean that a vision for that future wouldn’t ultimately come into focus.
That focus, though, is rockier than usual in the present day. After their stay at the family cabin, Kate offers to spend a weekend with Toby in San Francisco to start testing the waters on how they could resolve their long distance stalemate. Her exact offer is to “see how it feels.” Honestly that offer was overdue – not just because they’ll have to resolve this living situation sooner rather than later, but because their marriage needs some alone time. They need a weekend without the kids to reconnect to who they are NOW. And who they are now is not who they were when they got married.
Right before she leaves for the weekend, Kate spends a night hanging out with Madison, watching Fight Club and talking about their lives. Now listen — Fight Club is my number one movie of all time, so I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this particular selection, but I also just love that this is the movie Kate and Madison picked for their night together. Shirtless Brad Pitt distractions aside, the film does kick off an important acknowledgement from Kate. She’s found herself imagining “old Toby” keeping her company while her husband is living in San Francisco. And folks, the difference is striking.
I’ve been talking a lot recently about the fact that Toby as a person has fundamentally changed, and that it was a natural evolution of a character shift that just kind of snuck up on us without a firm turning point. When faced with “old Toby,” who had a completely different wardrobe, different jokes, and different movie night picks, the whole thing comes into a striking focus. (Honestly no wonder he missed the She’s All That reference at Thanksgiving if he’s shifted to spending all his free time watching Bill Gates documentaries.) Madison suggests Kate go in “with an open heart and mind,” and assures her friend that the “old Toby is still in there,” but from the first moments of old Toby’s appearance it’s clear that in this instance, Madison’s unfortunately off the mark.
The whole thing starts off shaky. Toby’s priorities have changed just as much as his wardrobe. It’s easy to understand juggling work when he’s on four flights a week; it’s harder when he’s not able to get out of a rescheduled meeting that means he can’t pick Kate up from the airport himself. The whole thing is one step forward and two steps back; Toby arranges for champagne and delivery and is genuinely nervous for them to have sex again after god knows how long — but then he gets up almost immediately afterwards to get on yet another work call. He’s made “so many plans my plans have plans” — but those plans involve previously unannounced cocktails at his boss’s house. The whole weekend is scheduled within an inch of its life. Toby’s clearly excited for Kate to be there, to show her the city he’s also clearly falling for, but his arrangements were all made with an agenda. None of it was just to spend time one on one reconnecting with his wife.
At first, there’s enough here for both of them to cling to. Kate’s request for an “old school KaToby day” is honored (“you know well and good that when you use our ship name, you get whatever you want!”) and it’s all very cute and touristy and endearing. There’s a trip to the harbor, a stop to put one of those weird padlocks on a bridge, and plenty of trolley rides. When the two of them are having this particular part of the adventure, it’s almost like the old days. We can almost see Kate laughing as genuinely as she has during the Old Toby appearances. Until he steers her into a very particular neighborhood – not because of a movie location, but because of a house. A house up for sale. A house up for sale that he’s seen at least twice, so much so that he’s on a first name basis with the realtor. A realtor who also knows the kids names and has been looking into the HVAC systems and the upstairs trampoline.
Folks, it is bad. And it just gets worse.
Kate and Toby find themselves in an extended and brutally sad fight, which starts off at the house and hits a point of no return at Amir’s cocktail party after he drops the fact that Toby turned down a job offer in LA into casual conversation with Kate. A job offer Toby hadn’t told Kate he so much as received, much less turned down. Kate was willing to roll with the punches on the house offer and give Toby the benefit of the doubt for a misguided grand gesture combined with his desire to not present her with something concrete.
But concrete, 48 hour house deadlines and declined job offers do not equate “seeing how it feels.” They’re direct and immediate decisions that should only be made when a couple is in total lockstep about what it is they want and how they’re operating their lives. Which is not the world Kate and Toby are currently living in. Toby “made a decision that directly affects me and our children without telling me. You lied to me.” Kate’s right – completely – and draws a clear boundary by insisting that they leave the party and abandon their dinner reservation immediately. Which is when things really get intense.
There’s a whole hell of a lot going on in here. And the thing is, while the job offer bit is obviously not Toby’s shining moment, no one is explicitly right or wrong. Now that she’s in San Francisco, Kate can REALLY see all the ways Toby has changed. That he’s genuinely happy. Exhausted, but fulfilled. That’s not something to be discounted. (And for the record, I don’t think she discounts it at all.) Toby is thriving in San Francisco. He’s more comfortable in that office party with sweet but terribly start up-ie coworkers than he’s been in the Pearson’s cabin for years. Which is sad – but only because of what it represents for their relationship.
For Toby, as a character and a person, it’s a GOOD thing that he’s come into his own. That he feels fulfilled, that he feels comfortable, and that he’s moved so far away from being “miserable and insecure and self loathing, and all of that goofiness and the loud jokes, that was out of self defense.” It’s brutal for him to tell Kate that she “fell in love with a coping mechanism” – but again, not because of what it means for him. It’s sad because of what it means for THEM. Because Kate did love that man, and she misses him, and while she still loves Toby, I don’t know that she’s IN love with him anymore. Or that she has been for a long time. And the same goes for Toby. He constantly talks about his love for “the family” and his desire to provide for Jack and all of his future needs. But it’s the same way Kevin talked to Madison about the twins; it’s not about Kate and their relationship anymore. Kate and Toby have, in the most complete version of the phrase, simply grown apart.
Because Kate has grown too. She’s ALSO happy living the life she has now. She’s also fulfilled in her job for the first time in her life, and she feels steady and fully realized: “I have a full life, that I could have never dreamed, and I feel healthy, I feel connected, I feel like I have a purpose. I love my life, I’m really really happy. Except the one thing that’s making me really really sad.”
Since the show made it clear that Kate and Toby would divorce, I’ve talked a lot about the fact that their separation doesn’t mean failure. That it doesn’t mean they didn’t grow together, or learn something from each other. This fight – as painful and awful as it was – solidified that for me. Because I don’t honestly believe that either Kate or Toby could have gotten here without the other person. I think they needed each other. They needed the lessons and support that they gave each other. And now they’ve found themselves on a road that has very much diverged.
Toby’s probably right in his practiced and mostly level headed comments the next morning; if they were to stay “a family” in the traditional and current sense of their relationship, Kate and the kids would have to move to San Francisco. But that’s not the only path forward. And Toby knows that in his heart of hearts too. He told Kevin the same thing earlier in the season, during perhaps their last true heart to heart: it’s better for the kids to have two parents who are both fully realized versions of themselves than it is for either of them to sacrifice something so deep and pivotal “just” to stay together. It’s not worth it. It’s painful and sad, but it’s not worth it.
So Kate finally lets go. She climbs the hill alone, calls her boss and throws her name in for a new job. There’s no coming back from this – and there shouldn’t be.
Colors of the Painting
- This week’s episode was directed by our very own Mandy Moore and co-written by Chrissy Metz, and seeing both of these women’s names at the creative helm of an episode made me very emotional.
- “Hey, Kate, how’s ‘Frisco? Is it foggy and expensive?”
- Once again, I have to say how remarkable it is to watch this crop of teens morph into the season one versions of their characters. Hannah Zeile has never been closer to 2016 Chrissy Metz than she was during the delivery of “there’s the added bonus lately of listening to Mom get flirty on the phone. She has a flirty voice, it’s haunting.”
- “This is how my obituary will read: Sunny Delight poster boy, valedictorian and ‘other’ die trapped in pool.”
- “He sold for a boatload of money… Like, literally, that’s how he got his boat.”
- Having been to the Top of the Mark in SF for a happy hour once, I am a little heartbroken that Kate didn’t get to take advantage of that window table.
- I do need to point out that character wise, “Old Toby” is more Toby’s Tyler Durden than he is Kate’s. Tyler Durden is the literal manifestation of the Narrator’s own misery, insecurity, and self-loathing, just as he was Toby’s. But he does appear to Kate in the same hallucinatory way, and moves HER plot along just as he does Ed Norton’s Narrator. So basically what I’m saying is the same thing I’ve said for almost 20 years now: we all have a Tyler Durden and we all have to watch the hell out for who he is and what he’s saying. Also go watch Fight Club. /Rant
What did you think of “The Hill”? Let us know in the comments.