This Is Us: “Both Things Can Be True,” in that this episode can be good and it can also be a drag.
This Is Us: “Both Things Can Be True”
Dir. Chris Koch
Wri. Danielle Bauman
Every now and then, This Is Us has an episode that is perhaps not the most emotionally driven episode or one that is all that essential to the plot, but is a crucial part of keeping the plot moving, bringing us back to the present after too many meandering flashbacks and answering key questions. This is especially true for this season, when key questions include things like “Will Rebecca and Miguel ever be allowed to be in the same room as their kids again?”
This was one of those episodes — and it also delivered on a few much-needed emotional and interpersonal hits. We have Beth admitting that she might actually be projecting some low-key homophobia on Tess, Mama C gently integrating herself into the main cast, Randall sitting back and listening to the stories of other adoptees and, something we’ve been wanting for five seasons now, Miguel finally addressing out loud to someone that he married his best friend’s widow.
For an episode that hits on a lot of much-needed things, it still managed to feel like a bit of a bummer, and not in the pathos-overflow way in which we typically view This Is Us. Part of it might be that the most compelling aspect — Randall’s sit-back-and-listen approach to group therapy, the root of the “Both Things Can Be True” title — takes the farthest back seat to the only-somewhat-carefully-treated Beth/Tess/Alex plot, the utterly sitcommy Miguel/Jack plot and the predictable Kate plot (straight out of a Hilary Duff movie at times).
The group therapy scene is the strongest because Sterling K. Brown communicates so much in his silence. When he’s offered a chance to be the first to tell his story, we can see him ask himself if he should, and for a few seconds, we do feel his compulsion to jump in — tempered only at first, perhaps, by Beth’s lampshading of his “orator” nature. But eventually, Randall volunteers to only listen, and the stories of the adoptees around him grapple with the kinds of utterly complicated feelings that are unknowable unless you’re an adoptee, more specifically, a transracial adoptee.
It’s refreshing to see Randall listen because he has at times, probably without realizing it, weaponized his status as a Black man who grew up in a loving, but still white family. That was before he started therapy and also dealt with race being at the centre of virtually every discussion in 2020. And, more importantly, he was (presumably) the only transracial adoptee he knew. He projects himself onto every story in the group, both good and bad — wondering if every stranger he knew was one of his birth parents, but also feeling so grateful for his adoptive mother and father. There’s a reason we end on the Latinx woman who says that ultimately, she wishes she’d never been adopted, because she would rather know a life with her bipolar, Spanish-speaking mother than with her stable, white family. When the episode ends on a not-quite-cathartic call between Kevin and Randall — will there ever be a good time for these two to talk? — I immediately go back to the Season 4 finale, in which Kevin tells Randall the worst day of his life was when Rebecca and Jack brought Randall home. There may come a time when they’re all together, physically (“Once we all get our shots,” according to Kevin, and as someone watching from Canada, it would appear that those things can be procured and scheduled in five minutes) and Randall admits that he, too, wishes he had never been adopted. Perhaps it’s something that deep down, the brothers agree on.
Perhaps that storyline wasn’t given the screentime it deserved because there’s only so much you can get out of silence. I wouldn’t mind the Beth/Tess conflict taking up so much real estate, especially because it gives Phylicia Rashad an excellent chance to shine, but it would have been nice to meet a little bit more of the respectful, sweet Alex. The storyline is very much not about Tess — and, at the very least, Beth admits to her daughter that her hang-ups are not Tess’s fault, nor are they about Tess — but it feels like they should be. This Is Us is not great about knowing how to make kids the centre of the story unless we’ve already seen how it will affect them as adults. It’s easy to make young Kevin’s pain the centre of the episode because we see it projected onto 40-year-old Kevin. But 14-year-old Tess is, for some reason, only ever a supporting character in her mother’s neuroses.
Alex knows they’ve pushed a boundary by making out with Tess with the door closed and knows to make themselves scarce when Tess calls Beth a psycho. A lot of fans have not been willing to be generous with Beth, pointing to Tess’s accusation that she’s told Beth not to misgender Alex “a million times” as proof that Beth is somehow doing it maliciously — I’ve tried to take a bit more of a measured approach. Tess is 14, so for all we know, “a million times” might be more like “three or four.” And, as we see in this episode, she is really, really trying to not alienate Alex, or Tess. But when she has to actually see Tess’s queerness on display, the facade breaks. And this is where I start to lose patience with Beth, even if she is trying.
Beth is amazed herself, because she thought she accepted Tess’s queerness when she came out two years ago. But being queer is not the same as acting queer and living the life of a queer person. We’ve also seen Beth struggle to accept Tess’s shorter haircut, and now she’s scandalized by Tess dating someone who is, frankly, more visibly queer than Beth might have allowed herself to be comfortable with. It reminds me of when I came out to my Mom as bisexual. There were tears and soft acceptance, but later on, she just didn’t want to talk about it, especially when there was anything that even implied sexual experience or desires with another woman. And, for how heartbreaking Beth is being, I do need to point out that at least she’s equal-opportunity in her uptight, freakout nature; she was just as irrational about Deja dating a boy who’s had a child.
Beth does eventually do the best she can with her apology, one that Tess begrudgingly accepts. Again, my heart breaks for her when she apologizes for not being the “easy” child to raise, which got me, the difficult child, right in the feels (as they used to say around 2013). Beth assures her that they’ll always be close, but Tess’s eyes say otherwise, so nothing is really resolved.
It also begs the question about our flash-forward into the 10-years-or-so-from-now future: we’ve been so worried about whether or not Kate and Toby are together, but have we thought to question the state of adult Tess? We know she’s there, but she seems a little detached, a little miserable, and definitely closer with Randall than with her mother (for a moment, I forgot about adult Tess all together, probably because she was the first of the first of the Future Pearsons to be introduced but we haven’t seen much of her since then, and adult Deja and Annie are stronger in my mind).
The leftovers of the episode are a hackneyed Miguel-Jack plot — I think Mandy Moore’s recent maternity leave is what’s kept her out of this recent string of episodes — with a plot point so predictable that even my husband knew what was going to happen. Miguel gets Rebecca’s engagement ring stuck on his breakfast sausage of a pinky finger. We do see Miguel stand up for Jack and see the seedlings of his loving devotion to Rebecca (although it feels at times like even in the flashback scenes they are retconning the lecherous, mildly sleazy Miguel we knew existed in the first season). In the present, he has to defend his choice to marry Rebecca to Nicky, the one Pearson who’s still just not used to it. And that’s the thing: Nicky may have been an ass, but also, it’s weird. Nicky holds a lot of resentment toward his brother for concealing his existence, but he sees Miguel as a replacement for him, and then Miguel, in turn, betrayed Jack. It’s a complicated thing, and frankly, I can simply blame Nicky’s disgruntled reactions on the fact that, well, it’s a lot to get used to. Miguel has now been with Rebecca for about 10 years, so even if the kids aren’t thrilled with it, they’re used to it. The only really conspicuous thing about these scenes is that, as lovable as Miguel is, Jon Huertas is probably the weakest actor in the principal cast, and it’s never more obvious than when Griffin Dunne acts circles around him.
Finally, the Kate/Toby subplot gets a lot of screentime for being so dull, so it must surely be barrelling toward something bigger and, frankly, more annoying. I dislike that the show wouldn’t let us have a healthy Kate/Toby dynamic for just one season. Toby is not super into being a stay-at-home dad, and Kate is dealing with a caricature of a supervisor whose seriousness makes her feel ill-prepared. I think, like Kevin’s director, we’re supposed to regard this guy as a villain because he doesn’t think Kate is very professional, but frankly, he’s right. Kate should be showing up much earlier (as a dance teacher, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to play babysitter to a kid who was dropped off too early) and shouldn’t be running to her phone between classes. And, as much as she helped a little girl (reminiscent of young Kate) come alive during her solo, she can’t seem to do it without swearing. I actually thought we’d get a classic “you’re not special just because you’re a Pearson” smackdown from her supervisor after, but Kate comes out the victor this episode — for now. I actually don’t think it’s that bad or unhealthy that Toby kept his reservations to himself about being a stay-at-home dad. He did enough guilting of Kate in the last episode, and frankly, after a year of being a stay-at-home mom to a son with special needs, I don’t think Kate needs to hear Toby whine about how spending 10 hours a day with their kids is not his cup of tea. But I’m sure this will manifest in a big explosion down the line.
While we don’t get much Kevin in this episode, we get a good amount of Madison. It’s nice now that the twins have been born and we’ve rediscovered Madison’s personality; she’s also displaying a lot of strength and resolve and confidence that quite frankly makes her much more compelling. Caitlin Thompson does a great job with fleshing out her character as she tells the story of a fateful trip to Japan with her parents and kindly asks Kevin to change their venue. It segues into the final moments of the episode, where Kevin’s former flames — Cassidy, Sophie and even Zoe — react to Kevin’s engagement being national news.
To be honest, I’m not thrilled with the way this seems to come together, especially with regards to Sophie This Is Us seems to act like Kevin is the only person in the world who has had multiple relationships in the past (maybe it’s because Randall barely dated until Beth and Kate’s only significant relationship before Toby was an abusive hellhole). Having exes, in itself, is not complicated. Sophie also seems to be elevated above the rest because she’s his childhood/teenage sweetheart, which is something This Is Us idealizes a lot. I never cared for Zoe much as a character, but at least she’s more interesting than Sophie and has her own life outside of Kevin, so if they’re going to bring her back, I hope she at least gets something to do besides “be Kevin Pearson’s ex-girlfriend.”
- We’re finally making up for a season of barely including Randall’s kids, although Annie is nowhere to be seen. As much as Deja was just sort of there in this episode, it is nice to see that she and Tess actually have a sisterly dynamic — which includes being jealous of each other.
- Phylicia Rashad really, really embodies such a lovely combination of grace, restraint and regret with Mama C.
- Sterling K. Brown — a good silent actor, or just really handsome? I’m good with both!
- John Huertas is really the only actor who fits in better when he’s aged up slightly than when he’s aged down. He is about 10 years older than Milo Ventimiglia and 15 years older than Mandy Moore, so we can buy him as a dude in his mid-to-late 60s, but really not in his late-20s.
- Are we ever going to acknowledge that Beth owns a dance studio? And that the after-school hours are exactly when she wouldn’t be home?
- Eris Baker, Caitlin Thompson, Sterling K. Brown