This Is Us: “Forty” Parts I & II lean into COVID and set up a risky twist

Hello! This is normally a space for TV and movie essays, but I’ve decided, in my COVID boredom, to start doing recaps! Now that This is Us is back on the air, I’ve decided to throw myself into my old habit of appointment viewing — and offer my thoughts on the episode the next day. In the two-hour premiere Forty, we get the show’s establishment of how it’s leaning into the COVID-reality, an exploration of new dynamics and, of course, one hell of a twist in the very last second of the episode. There will be spoilers ahead, so read on with caution!

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This Is Us
“Forty” Parts I & II
7.5/10

Partway through the two-hour fifth season premiere of This is Us, I found myself wondering if two hours was really necessary. There were only two (two-and-a-half?) timelines in the episode, and by the time Randall received the text from Kate that Rebecca was lost, I felt like the episode was excruciatingly slow-paced, especially considering how effectively it zoomed through the first five months of COVID in the cold open. Normally, if you use montage in this way, it’s because you’re heading toward something really exciting or impactful. The Big Three’s fortieth seemed, on its surface, very dull, especially because Rebecca’s episode was very rapidly glossed over (I can chalk that up to the show not wanting to touch on its very incorrectly predicted future featuring people eating in packed restaurants and police officers escorting Rebecca home without wearing masks).

By the end, I came to appreciate it as more of a slow burn than slow-paced. There is an element of drag that seems intentional, particularly in Sterling K. Brown, who reclaimed his place as the standout of the cast in this episode. When you’re dealing with a pile-on of complex issues — internal and familial conflicts, the terror of a global pandemic, ensuing economic hardships, a global uprising against anti-Blackness — it’s hard to imagine that any words (or grand, Jack Pearson-esque speeches) will come. That’s what we see in Randall this episode, and it’s beautiful.

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I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that Rebecca’s clinical trial being cancelled makes the argument between Kevin and Randall moot. While it clearly threw off Dan Fogelman’s plans, the argument was a viscous projection of problems that the brothers have had with one another for years. If not the clinical trial, it would have been something else. The fourth season saw Randall isolated geographically, with four out of five living Pearsons in California and Kevin bonding more with Rebecca. Randall had always managed to gain Rebecca’s affection more easily than Kevin, so seeing adult Kevin be the lucky recipient now, after (in Randall’s eyes) not doing enough to earn it was clearly distressing. The brothers’ entire post-Jack lives have led to this moment.

It’s interesting to wonder what Fogleman would and wouldn’t have added into this season had it not been for COVID, as well as the renewed interest in Black Lives Matter. Randall’s relationship with his race has never been straightforward, and the fourth season really made sure that the thread still lingered. Even in tAfter The Fire, I got the vibe that Randall’s vision of himself embracing his Blackness at Howard — and then becoming a noncommittal, distant womanizer — was an indication that Randall has some serious unresolved issues. Nevertheless, I’m really glad that Randall’s reaction to the entire movement and protest wasn’t a sudden galvanization of his mixed-up feelings about his race, but rather one of exhaustion.

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It hangs a lampshade on something that the show has observed only very passively: the Pearsons are well-meaning liberals whose wokeness might actually be a bit of virtue signalling. And, like many other well-meaning white allies, they’ve been coddled into believing that their actions are good enough — even by the one Black member of their family (Randall also might soon realize that he’s spent most of his adult life playing into harmful systems as well; he spent a decade as a Wall Street guy and is a landlord. Or is he? Whatever happened to William’s building?). The conversation between Randall and Kate in front of the cabin really gets the best out of both Sterling K. Brown and Chrissy Metz, demonstrating that they’re actually very evenly as actors. And Brown gets points for playing this confrontation — and frankly the whole episode — very differently than he’s played the over-composed, tightly-wound Randall in the past.

I have had a lot of shit to say about Randall, but I will also add that he has always been my favourite character (followed closely by Kevin, who was under-utilized in this episode). The show takes Randall outside the typical parameters of likeability but still never downplays the things that make him sympathetic. That said, with much of his tightly-wound pretense stripped away, it was nice to once again see likeable Randall. His conversation with Malik was adorable and shows the interesting relationship they have considering Malik is a teenager, but like Randall, he’s also a Black father.

Another interesting dynamic with Randall is that the show no longer regards him as financially invincible. The show has never been great at handling money issues with real depth, and when characters have come into money issues, they’re solved pretty quickly; Jack and Rebecca were short on funds, so Jack sold his car and borrowed money. The insurance money was running out, so Rebecca got an entry-level job. But it won’t be able to weasel its way out of this one; I was already annoyed during Season 4 at how little financial strain owning a dance studio put on Beth and Randall. Studios were among those hardest hit in the pandemic, so now the show is forced to confront the fact that Beth’s venture is one of high overhead and minimal returns. We obviously know from the future that Clarke School of Dance will still be there in the future, but it’s going to be a long, hard road.

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Speaking of the future: did anyone get the vibes that they are increasingly laying the groundwork for Madison to not survive childbirth? There were a few ominous hints and dialogue about “being there” for her kids that just seemed a bit too ironic. The show might be too toothless to do something as bleak as kill Madison after the good work it did developing her character, but on the other hand, it feels like the show is also too gutless to get Kevin with anyone other than Sophie.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the show handled the COVID reality; on one hand it might become tiresome after a while, but on the other hand it makes me more grateful for the flashback scenes during which we’ll surely get a reprieve from the present-day uncertainty. That said, I noticed quite a bit of COVID-induced production pragmatism which I can imagine might lead to the show being less ensemble-focused this year. This is Us has an extremely large cast (although some cast members will never interact with others), and social media posts by Jon Huertas and Justin Hartley have indicated that the on-set protocols are no joke. I was a bit worried by the fact that we didn’t see any Young Big Three in this episode, although this isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a premiere without them. I can’t imagine they’ll close the door on the flashback concept, but I do wonder if it will be considered safer and more efficient to film more of the 1990’s sequences together, rather than episode-by-episode.

Speaking of which, I’m getting borderline-antsy about when the pre-teen Big Three is going to age into the teen Big Three, because all three actors are in the throes of puberty and changing rapidly. Mackenzie Hancsicsak looks much older than she did before and appears to have a different body shape now. She’s also taller than her brother-actors, which might work for now (girls do grow faster than boys), but she also looks taller than Hannah Ziele and Chrissy Metz. Lonnie Chavis has also grown a lot during COVID. He’s only 12, but his voice is now deeper than Niles Fitch’s. I can imagine it might help the show to film more of the 90’s stuff all at once for this reason alone: puberty is a fast and furious beast.

One person who is likely saying good-bye to the show: Pamela Adlon! I do think it’s a great decision for Randall to opt for a black therapist, but I did enjoy the dynamic he had with Dr. Leigh, and it was nice to actually see Adlon in a role, considering she’s typically a voice performer (it’s really interesting to try to draw lines between her speaking voice and her Bobby Hill voice).

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Now that we’re at the end, it’s only right to talk about what the hell happened at the end of the episode. This is Us loves twists, so I shouldn’t be shocked. But I couldn’t help but wonder if this twist is really earned. Past twists have been set up a bit better — Nicky being alive, for example — whereas little groundwork was laid for Laurel being alive. We did get a few mentions of her in After the Fire which indicated that despite Randall “making peace” with her death, there was probably more under the surface. But is that enough? I suspect the Laurel twist might have been a last-minute plot induced by COVID. For that reason, as well as the fact that they’ve done “this person was alive the whole time!” before (expertly, but nevertheless, it’s been done), I’m trepidatious.

Still, while the first few seasons of This is Us were certainly about fathers, the post-Jack seasons of the show demonstrate that it is very much also a show about mothers. Laurel, who was something of an activist back in the 70s and has likely experienced the worst of the carceral system, could be the big link Randall needs — not just to his past, but just to his identity. If they don’t try too hard to recreate the William magic — and really, could anyone do that? — this could just work.

In summary:

The good:

  • Sterling K. Brown and Chrissy Metz’s performance
  • Welcome back, Malik!
  • Miguel and Rebecca acting like an actual couple instead of just geriatric roommates.
  • This is bad in the good way: Rebecca’s repeating of an innocent question and Kate’s line “Her face was not her face” sent me right back to the worst of my Grandma’s Alzheimer’s. The terror is very real.

The bad:

  • Jack Pearson couldn’t find anyone to monologue to, so he monologued in a church. Pass.
  • Randall longing for a year with no more surprises right before that big surprise was way too on-the-nose.

Well, that was it — my long-winded recap for a slightly drawn-out but ultimately satisfying premiere. Next week’s recap will be shorter, since the episode is shorter and won’t be as focused on addressing the “how did we get here” matters. I’m looking forward to a season that delivers on its twist promises while also dealing with the COVID curveballs!

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

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