This Is Us: “Honestly” tells a subtle story of how parents shape our neuroses

This Is Us
“Changes”
7.8/10

Dir. Ken Olin
Wri.: Elan Mastai

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When I think of the perfect episode of This Is Us, I picture myself like a grandmother passing down a family recipe that she never wrote down, but is nevertheless extremely picky about. It should have just enough Jack. It should make me cringe, but never for more than 40 seconds. It should have not a sprinkle, but a heaping tablespoon of Rebecca, even if she isn’t the main dish.

And, for me, the perfect This Is Us episode is one where Kevin is the focus.

Last week my major complaint with an otherwise solid episode of This is Us was about the pacing, and how the emotional payoff didn’t seem to arrive until late in the third act. This week’s episode, while perhaps less emotionally weighty than the first two of the season, fixed its pacing problems thanks to tight, intricate and never over-indulgent scripting by Elan Mastai. It’s admittedly very easy to do that with a Kevin episode because while his siblings have a tendency to internalize their trauma in ways that are harder to show onscreen, Kevin projects everything through physical, tangible actions, whether it’s through his addictions, over-working or his overly showy, generous nature.

Here, we see the seeds of some of Kevin’s neuroses and his eagerness to please, planted in infancy and sown into adolescence. Whether it’s baby Kevin’s inability to self-soothe or tween Kevin’s lack of work ethic on the football field, the conflicts are just as much about Jack and Rebecca as they are about Kevin. The problem now is that Kevin is his own man, but as his new director — and I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be this unlikeable, or if this is just me — points out in his dressing down of Kevin, the man is more motivated by making someone else happy than he is by a desire to actually make himself happy.

(I can’t be certain, but I think perhaps the reason Kevin’s director comes across like a pretentious hack might be that it’s hard to see his hammering of Kevin’s acting as anything but unfair. There’s a real conundrum in shows where actors portray actors; actors can easily pretend to be bad actors, but how can someone, like Justin Hartley, who is a fine actor, portray an actor whose performance is good-but-not-quite-good-enough? It’s tough, and it’s very hard from an audience perspective to discern between Kevin’s shortcomings and the director’s unfairness. This is also one of the first times we’ve seen Kevin work with a director who isn’t a real person, like Ron Howard or M. Night Shyamalan).

Anyway, what makes Kevin’s plot so likeable is that it doesn’t simply take a stance on which approach — Jack’s tough love or Rebecca’s softness — is better. Like all children who grow into adults, Kevin’s life is a culmination of all of the good and bad aspects of the decisions made around him. Much like Randall’s After The Fire explored, it’s unlikely that Kevin’s life would have been perfect or horrifying if he’d taken Rebecca’s warm and well-meaning advice of quitting when things got hard. We know that Kevin’s ability to stick with difficult things has led him down some good paths — his sobriety, for one, his relationships, and his success on The Manny. But many of those things also, at some point, blew up in his face. He was once madly in love with Sophie, and that ended in shambles — twice. He committed to The Manny before completely breaking down from it. His sobriety has not been a linear path either.

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We see the regret in Jack and the hidden desire to be soft in a beautiful moment of the episode where he is finally about to break, to go and comfort Kevin. Despite my issues with the hospital chapel monologue, I really do think we’re seeing Jack at his best — both from a writing perspective and from that of Milo Ventimiglia’s acting — this season. The show is once again demonstrating remarkable restraint by not having Jack rile everyone up in the third act with his speeches, and this episode he also shared the quieter emotional weight with Rebecca throughout, an improvement on last week.

Speaking of the final act, a late-in-the-game appearance by Hannah Ziele satisfied my curiosity — for now — of whether or not we’d ever see the Mid-Three (not that I’m complaining about the screentime for the Little-Three, considering how much they’ve all come into their own as young actors).

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Am I a bit nervous as to how the show will handle the topic of abortion? Yes, naturally. I’ve said before that the show does have a history of handling delicate issues better than I expect it to, but I can never be too careful with this subject. It’s been done more justice recently through shows like Sex Education, which presented abortion matter-of-factly, and, surprisingly, in 13 Reasons Why, which managed to present the difficult parts of the process while still demonstrating that Chloe had no regrets (where 13RW went wrong was in not having any focus on Chloe after her abortion, which I know This Is Us won’t have to worry about). And I will add that I don’t think Kate’s emotion or sadness about the subject will turn into a plot point about how she regrets it — there are some for whom the subject makes them extremely, extremely sad, and they still do not regret it (I do have to wonder how Chrissy Metz’s very strong Christian faith plays into her feelings about the role, although of course I know that being a Christian doesn’t automatically preclude you from being pro-choice, but starring in movies like Breakthrough and recording songs like “Talking to God” definitely cause me to make some assumptions).

Anyway, I predict that we’ll veer into that territory next week which could be a welcome shift; This Is Us tends to give us things that, despite their strength, we need a reprieve from. The Kate-Toby-Ellie triangle is fine, but in a matter of two episodes I already feel so jerked around with misdirects and gotchas that it would be nice to take an episode away, like a quick vacation.

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Finally, even though Kevin was the welcome star of this episode, I have to save the actual best for last with Randall’s plot, which was downright sitcommish, but perhaps was what we all needed (and thank you, This is Us, for remembering that Sterling K. Brown is the sexiest man alive). And, just as last week I remarked that there were some positive aspects in which the episode reminded me of Season One, and another one re-emerged this week: the show remembered that it is funny. I know some critics have criticized the overly sitcommy nature of the plot, and I myself found myself wondering how something so contrived could happen (why did Malik have to be in a different room anyway?), but you know what? It’s a hilarious and brief reminder that Randall is a weird dork, and that not everything with him has to be a one-way ticket to Heavy Town. Plus, I don’t see this plot entirely going away — Randall humiliated himself and embarrassed the office online, after all — but it brought some light into the Philly Pearson household that we’ve been missing for three years now.

In summary:

The good:

  • Once again, Parker Bates proves to be one of the most delightful surprises of this season, and is starting to show that he has studied Justin Hartley’s movements and expressions to a T.
  • Deja’s fairly minimal in this episode, but Lyric Ross makes the most of her screentime with her warm, vivacious energy.
  • It’s nice to see Jack and Rebecca share the spotlight in an episode and represent binary oppositions without being outright hostile to one another.

The bad:

  • After building up Tess’s present-day plot last week, if feels like a disservice to focus even the slightest amount on Philly-Pearson household stuff without doing a check-in on her current status.
  • I get that we’re going for pragmatism at this point, but it does feel like the show is tripping over itself in conspicuous ways to explain a lack of social distancing with lines like “thanks for doing all the testing and quarantining!” and Deja referring to Randall as being in his “COVID pod.”

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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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