This is Us: “A Long Road Home” is a long road to a decent conclusion

This Is Us
“A Long Road Home”

Dir. Anne Fletcher
Wri. K.J. Steinberg

This is Us knew that after more than a month away, it had to do big work to advance the plot. And, to be fair, this episode really did. While This is Us has a tendency to occasionally meander in nothingness and stretch 42-minute episodes into an eternity of morose montages in which nothing is accomplished, writer K.J. Steinberg managed to cram in a lot here. We have Randall learning about Laurel, worrying that William betrayed him, talking to his therapist and learning that William did not betray him all in one episode. We have Kate telling the story of her abortion, looking up Marc and confronting him as an adult all in one episode. We have Kevin… well, we have Kevin having a same-but-different conflict with Madison that he did last episode, so you can’t win ’em all. Nevertheless, a lot happens in this episode. And yet, it still feels so strangely stagnant, almost self-contained.

There are Big Three episodes, and this is definitely one of them. And it’s too early to say, since despite it being January we really have not had that much This is Us — and, I hate to say it, but a This is Us season without a Thanksgiving or Christmas episode feels strange as hell to me — but this season really feels like it’s a Big Three season. It’s literally been months since we’ve seen present-day Rebecca and Miguel, and 90’s Rebecca has been rendered a supporting character. It’s jarring, because as much as I do welcome a nice break from the Jack Pearson show, last season truly was a Rebecca season, and it was wonderful. This is perhaps the flattest we’ve ever seen Rebecca, and it borders on distressing.

Still, the Big Three aren’t the worst to spend an hour with, especially now that they’ve all done so much growing, emotionally, since the first season (which was also undoubtedly a Big Three season, featuring Jack). As self-contained stories, their plots are fine and functional. But perhaps it’s Anne Fletcher’s too-fast directing style (although I loved Fletcher’s last episode, Changes) that makes it feel like that’s all this is: functional.

Any bits of emotional nuance feel almost like they’ve been laboriously inserted in — so much so that it almost seems like lampshade hanging. For example, when Toby points out that Kate had four years, including a wedding and a pregnancy and childbirth to tell him about her abortion, his tone is more of disbelief than anger or disappointment. And it’s suitable, because I’m sure other audience members are wondering “why did it never come up?” It’s hard to say if Kate’s abortion plot was something the writers had in mind prior to this season (there’s obviously a lot of holes they had to write around due to COVID changing the course of production), but obviously, we know that something happened between Jack’s death and Kate meeting Toby that caused Kate to majorly pull away from everyone other than Kevin. And, to be fair, I know plenty of people who have had abortions who have never told their partner even after years. Abortions can be something that you live with, but you live with relatively peacefully, to the point where it doesn’t feel like something that needs to be brought up. People who have never had an abortion — even if they’re pro-choice — sometimes think of an abortion as the kind of traumatic experience that stays with you like a broken bone that healed strangely, that you have to explain to people in order for them to understand what you carry with you. For many, it really becomes a memory of a thing that happened that you do eventually no longer have to think about.

And, since I’m already digressing on this topic, I should say what we all ideally should be thinking: this episode belongs to Hannah Zeile, who spent the first three seasons giving us sour Kate and has now turned that into a Kate whose vulnerability actually connects her to both Mackenzie Hancsicsak and Chrissy Metz. Zeile is extremely good at acting with her face, and you can see especially in this episode how Kate’s trauma — both from losing Jack and her relationship with Marc — have led her to internalize the vibrant and curious girl she used to be, and to dislike herself even more for doing so. And I have mad respect to This is Us for treating Kate’s abortion as a factual matter. Regret over having done it is never even a question, and the decision itself is not what is upsetting to Kate. Having to go through it alone and having to confront her relationship with Marc is the matter at hand here, and I have to give it up to the show which I’ve accused of being toothless and trite in the past.

Putting a pin in Kate’s story — in which she gives Marc the ex-boyfriend smackdown we’ve probably all wanted to give at some point — the only true complaint I have about it is the Toby of it all. Yes, Toby does all the right things a supportive partner should do, even if he’s taken aback by Kate’s revelation. But looking at this season so far, I am getting serious monkey’s paw vibes. Last season, the constant bickering and back-to-square-one dynamic of Kate and Toby became a cause for concern, rendered both of them completely unlikeable and did little to advance the plot. This season, we’re spared this tiresome routine, but possibly as a result, Toby has been rendered almost a non-entity. We know Toby to be a fairly rich and interesting character, so seeing him become little more than a cheerleader for Kate simply feels off.

The back-to-square-one dynamic, however, isn’t completely absent from This is Us. Kevin and Madison appear to have taken up that space this season. And here we have another instance of a character who borderlines hanging a lampshade on how manufactured some of the drama seems. While I’ve been begging for the show to remember for at least a string of three or four episodes that Kevin is famous, and we’ve certainly gotten that this year, Madison seems to have just suddenly remembered that Kevin is famous too. It unfolds so predictably — I knew that the nanny interview was bound to be the set-up for what gives Madison second thoughts about raising twins with a man who has to fly out to Vancouver for random movie shoots (and, COVID be damned, shooting in Vancouver isn’t even all that weird. Just ask The X-Files). But because we’ve now had several instances of “Madison has only now just realized that Kevin is a complicated person,” instead of creating compelling conflict, it merely makes Madison seem a bit dopey. I said in the last episode that my favourite kind of This is Us episode is one in which Kevin is the focus, but with the romantic plot tumour of Kevin-and-Madison-and-babies now growing at a rapid rate, I found Kevin’s on-screen presence exhausting.

That is, until the last five minutes of the show (damn it, This is Us, you do it to me every time!) when he has his call with Randall. Much like his conflict with his new director in the last episode, when Kevin is untethered from his idling romantic plot, he is immediately so much more intriguing and deep. Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown are so damn good as these brothers that carry so much baggage. It does feel like Randall is getting off easy for what he said in the Season 4 finale, but I have a feeling This is Us would never let him go unpunished. Nevertheless, it did feel like witnessing the awkward and yet beautiful call between the two men was the reward for sitting through an uninspired Kevin plot.

Finally, we get to Randall. Once again I’ll say that I’m finding parallels between Season 1 and Season 5, and another one of those is that the writers have finally remembered what makes Randall interesting: his quest to find himself. He was the best part of Season 1, but after William’s death, the quest to give Randall something to do revealed some of the worst parts of him, and it wasn’t until Season 4 that we started to look at the pathology of Randall Pearson that he started to become intriguing again. This episode fortunately wasted no time dwelling on Randall’s feeling of betrayal, probably because after five weeks off, we don’t have the time to merely sit on our hands and be sad.

The show was smart to not have Laurel still be alive and make her into a second William, and having Hai as a conduit will, of course, allow for This is Us to do what it has almost always done well: build new character histories. I am looking forward to a “Randall season” that gets closer to the roots of Randall, rather than taking him through the ringer in the present over and over. That said, this season does appear to be doing so at the expense of Beth having any character whatsoever; like Kate and Toby, Randall and Beth are back on the same page which means Beth is on the sidelines and not doing the heavy lifting we know she is capable of.

In summary
The good

  • In terms of “shows that actually handle abortion well,” this show is up there with the good ones.
  • There’s something so surreal about seeing a half-dozen people dressed like George Michael Bluth in the Creation of Adam painting wearing face masks dancing to Lizzo, but I think I like it.
  • Even if Kate’s present-day Marc smackdown was pure fantasy, it was extremely gratifying for her character.
  • Last episode I remarked that the show was getting a bit too laboured about explaining away people not being socially distanced properly, and while it was a bit present in this week’s episode, the show appears to be more comfortable just casually living in this reality.

The bad

  • If I don’t get present-day Mandy Moore and John Huertas soon, I am going to lose it.
  • I am officially over Madison, who a few seasons ago I loved because she brought out the best in Kate — she now brings out the worst (or at least flattest) in Kevin.
  • I’m still waiting to get any hint that Randall’s children (and his wife’s business) still exist.

Episode MVP

  • Hannah Zeile, Chrissy Metz and Sterling K. Brown

I have a lot of feelings about movies and TV shows that would be embarrassing if it weren’t 2020.

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