This Is Us, Season 6, Episode 16
Posted by Shannon
Like any self respecting moviegoer, I’ve got a lot of thoughts and feelings about the Nicole Kidman AMC “heartbreak feels good in a place like this” commercial.
Stick with me.
There’s a lot of half baked ideas rolling around in my head about why it’s struck such a cultural chord. It could be a late-pandemic dadaist expression of comedic nihilism. It could be pure camp. Or the simple truth that it DOES feel good, cathartic, important, to sit in a dark movie theater or in front of the television and just have a good cry. To have that excuse to feel something deeply, to feel seen, to feel less alone. (I suspect it’s all of the above.) This last stretch of episodes has done precisely that. It’s allowed for cathartic cries and sentimental optimism and the kind of genuine understanding and growth that comes from spending six years with thoughtfully written characters. This episode is riddled with heartbreak, and I expect next week’s penultimate episode will be too. But at least it feels good.
We pick up right where we left off: a mere seven days after Miguel’s death. Interspersed with scenes of Rebecca in her younger years, caring for the infant, kiddo, and teen versions of the Big Three, there’s the main storyline of what her adult children will do about her care now that Miguel is gone. It’s rough stuff. Rebecca has spent the week waking up in the middle of the night demanding to know where Miguel is, and there’s no end in sight. Kevin, Randall, and Kate have all been present, but it’s only Kate who’s taking an active role in her care. The vision of her walking right in when Rebecca is yelling at her nurse about Miguel’s wearabouts, while Kevin and Randall stand helplessly in the door awaiting instructions, was striking – and set the tone for the rest of the hour.
Because while Randall is clearly building up to a suggestion to relocate Rebecca, and while Kevin insists that there’s no need for a new plan, Kate is the only one seeing all pieces of the puzzle. She’s the only one seeing what their mother needs NOW. (Look no further than the therapy cat Kate got for Rebecca, which her brothers immediately mock.) Unfortunately, she’s also seemingly emotionally frozen whenever her mother is out of the room.
Once the rest of the family clears out (Madison, Elijah, Nicky, and Edie head to town with the kids while Beth, Sophie and Phillip make for the old cabin), things progress exactly as anticipated between the Big Three. It’s so classically scripted that Beth and Sophie can — and do — act it out from a distance. While it was fair enough for Phillip to get spiky about it later on, especially considering it’s his wife who has to bear the weight of the final decision, I really loved that Beth and Sophie could predict this so perfectly. It eased the frustration of seemingly stalled character development while underlining the fact that, when it comes to their mother, all of the Big Three are fundamentally and emotionally frozen. Despite so much change and progress, they can only see the version of their mother who swept in to handle any and all emergencies in their childhood, or the version who held them together after Jack’s death, and they’re all faltering under the impossible weight of repayment.
It’s fair enough, all things considered. That drive is so strong in the best of circumstances, and the pivot from being the recipient of care to being the caregiver is – to put it simply – a mindfuck. It’s so hard and so painful to make that switch, and yet it’s inevitable. Add to that the disease attacking Rebecca’s mind, and the Pearson family history, and the fact that all three of them do have the capacity to provide for her in significant ways, and that drive to care in exactly the right way with the highest possible impact becomes unavoidable.
Let’s take a moment on that Pearson family history, as it’s woven in and around the hour. Rebecca Pearson has taken center stage this entire season, to great effect, and one of the things I’ve loved the most is that her moments throughout their history haven’t been grand gestures. They’ve been small – and large – moments of meeting her kids where they are. Of showing the hell up. And those are the kinds of scenes surrounding “Family Meeting;” there’s the small, precious memory of the tooth fairy, and meeting each of the kids precisely where they needed her to be. (For Randall, it’s knowing he needs to know the truth because otherwise a “stranger” is in his room. For Kevin, it’s letting him think the Tooth Fairy has escaped his trap. For Kate, it’s manicures and girl talk about how she will – eventually – leave her brothers in the dust.) And there’s the significantly heavier memory just months after Jack’s death, when Kevin dragged his siblings to a party that got dark and could have gotten infinitely darker.
Each of the Big Three carries the same echo of that party into the new-modern day timeline. Kevin is still acting out against who he was for so long, knowing he put himself and his siblings at risk – both physically and emotionally. (“I was a pain in her ass her entire life.”) Randall still believes he’s the only person who can “save” his family, individually and as a unit. (While we’re at it, Rebecca’s “thank god for you, Randall” would have fucked ANYONE up, much less a kid with that much anxiety and level of personal responsiibility.) And Kate still believes she’s incapable of helping or doing good in any real way. That same self doubt she had as a teen is still there, eating away at her – but only when she’s around her brothers. The rest of the time, Kate’s just as exceptional at her professional and personal life as Kevin or Randall – and again, she’s the only one showing up for Rebecca in a real, daily way. But when Kevin and Randall get into their standard issue pissing contest, she just shuts down.
Enter Toby Damon.
I’ve had two main arguments throughout the six season run of This is Us. First, that they all need therapy. (Thankfully, most of them got at least some of it.) Second, that they all need more friends. THIS is exactly what I had in mind for that second part. Each of these beloved fools need someone to call them on their shit. For Kate, the only person who can do that right now is Toby. With “permission to overstep” granted, he can hone right into what the audience has been seeing the whole hour: Kate is a badass with excellent judgment and a clear head. Her mother chose her for a reason. And yet, “when you get around your brothers, you become this unsteady version of yourself and I just, I don’t get it.” This is the kind of observation that can only come with years of intimacy and trust. It’s exactly what Kate needed to hear. Because even if she knew it, deep down, having someone else articulate those kinds of truths always hits different. It always makes more of an impact.
Rebecca did choose Kate for a reason. First and foremost, before she can make any semblance of a call about her mother’s care, Kate knows she has to address the distance that struck me from that first shot. She has to get her brothers to show up for their mother as she is NOW. Not to be debilitated by her illness. (“You two have got to be able to LOOK at her. How can we even talk about her moving into your house when you can’t even look her in the eye?”)
That simple but impactful moment of caregiving is what flips a switch for Kevin, and what plants the seed of the final version of the plan for Rebecca’s end of life care. But for Randall, it’s Beth. Because again, in the spirit of needing someone intimate to call you on your shit, Randall needed someone who knew him and who knew the family dynamics backwards and forwards to be able to articulate what it was he was doing – and how deeply unfair it is to his siblings. Randall isn’t the only one who can fix it anymore. Kevin’s not a mess. And Kate’s not to be underestimated. (“She has had to navigate her larger than life brothers and their massive egos her entire life, and that is a load to carry too.”)
I think it’s beautiful that, at the end of the day, Randall’s biggest lesson has been to take a step back. To trust in his family to carry their weight. To know they’ll have his back. So while he was the one to start off strong and insist that Rebecca move in with him and Beth in Philly (a plan that made zero logical sense even before he became a Senator), he spends the second, larger family meeting in silence. It’s Kate and Kevin who steer. Kate, first by insisting that the spouses and extended family should be present too because “they’re our family and they should be a part of it,” and then by laying out her ground rules. She “can’t allow” Randall’s suggestion to stand. She knows, though, that something must be done. So the first iteration is to move Rebecca to LA with her and Phillip. It’s solid enough on its own, and it’s so important that Kevin clarify that he’ll honor her wishes regardless. But his second plan fits like a glove.
With The Manny’s season finale kicking off in a week, and Elijah and Madison itching to move to the east coast, and Nicky and Edie wanting to spend their retirement in their favorite town, the majority of the Pearson clan will relocate. Kevin and Sophie will live in the house itself, and most of their loved ones will live in a lazy Saturday driving distance. Kevin gets the dream he’s articulated for at least two seasons: a big, giant house, with his big, giant family, all surrounding himself and his kids. And security and permanent care for Rebecca.
After Kate signs off, we find ourselves spinning quickly to the ultimate flash forward; through years of care and dedication, and countless trips to the best Chinese takeout in the area, until Kevin makes the call to Randall. The family descends on the cabin to say farewell to our matriarch.
And that concludes our family meeting.
Colors of the Painting
- Susan Kelechi Watson’s delivery on “I’m gonna take your better halves down to the cabin, post up and enjoy this beautiful day away from this energy.” Beth Pearson, I might just miss you most of all.
- Teen Kate’s makeup was perfectly badly done, and it just added to the pain of that sequence. It’s hard enough figuring out who you want to be and how you want to look as a teen without the tragedies and personal suffering surrounding her, and that was all portrayed in some bad eyeliner and messy lipstick that was just a shade or two off.
- “Beth said all this sadness called for some carbs.”
- “Senators before celebrities. C’mon, take the kitty.”
- Sophie finding the VHS of Jerry Maguire in the old cabin was a beautiful touch, as was Beth digging out her old Tommy Girl perfume. The place is just as much a time capsule for them as it is for their spouses, and I love that they get their own nostalgic due.
- Mandy’s face, y’all.
- The only song to get repeated treatment in This Is Us has been The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build A Home.” It’s been used twice before; first in season two’s “That’ll Be the Day,” when the original Pearson family home caught fire, and then in season four’s “The Cabin,” when Kevin begins to see his father’s vision and imagine the space he’ll build for his mother in her final years. Breaking it out for one final time here is brutal and effective and… well, let’s just play it again.