This Is Us: In “The Ride,” the stakes are low, but we finally have a cohesive season

“The Ride”

Dir. John Huertas

Wri. Julia Brownell

6.8/10

Author’s note: I’ve struggled with photo uploading on Medium today, so today’s recap will be a visually unappealing wall of text! Apologies!

I don’t want to beat this dead horse too much — This Is Us has been hampered by a lot this season. The COVID-accommodating rewrites can be damaging enough to the kind of show that relies on intricate plots that converge at a central point. Then factor in all the episode delays and long stretches between episodes and you end up with a season that has, at many points, felt like a collection of sketches rather than a gently unfolding narrative.

(On that note, I live in Canada, but I keep hearing about how people in some parts of the U.S. are getting vaccinated quite quickly, so are we going to see Rebecca, Miguel, and possibly Kate and Toby, since having a high BMI puts you “at risk,” get their jab soon? Maybe Randall too since he’s a city councillor? It certainly would give them an easy excuse to get multiple Pearsons together again, and unlike the whole “wow, everybody tested and quarantined!” thing, it would actually be believable).

Anyway, within the last few episodes, it does seem as though the season has finally hit its stride, so I want to reward it for that. The last several episodes are direct continuations of each other, although we do get four (four!) different timelines. So as much as this episode was kind of a big pile of nothing, it was also comforting for me to finally truly feel like I’m watching This Is Us.

We open with another This Is Us signature: an unknown person in a mystery timeline! Is it going to be someone who invented something to do with cars or car seats? No, it’s a medical intern, and very clearly Déja. I have to both applaud and chastise the casting department here; Artificial’s La Trice Harper is a gorgeous dead ringer for Lyric Ross. I don’t even have to wait for adult Annie to pick her up to know, but her pulling up at the beginning of the first episode (and revealing that Déja is pregnant) is all the confirmation you need. And they’re en route to Kevin’s home to gather at Kevin’s home where what I truly believe will be the ultimate This Is Us full-on series good-bye is taking place. I’ve complained enough about how Randall’s kids have barely been characters this season, so it’s nice that as much as we’re not getting them in the present day, we’ve got backstory (with Tess’s birth) and a relatively meaningful flashforward. More on that later.

The episode is all about the different experiences bringing children home from the hospital, and each couple has their own unique set of circumstances. Jack and Rebecca have triplets and are grieving the loss of a baby. Kevin and Madison are handling twins and paparazzi (another episode that remembers that Kevin is famous!) and Kevin turns out to be the bigger basket case. Kate and Toby drive Ellie home as well and are shocked when the latter changes her mind about the open adoption process. And Randall and Beth bring home Annie, their second baby, and while they seemingly have the smoothest ride home (the mild/classic Randall-Beth argument at the Dairy Queen is one of the most low-stakes these two have ever been), it’s all tied to the future storyline at the end when Randall shares (or, in true Randall style, projects) his feelings about his status as an adoptee onto Annie.

As much as each storyline is unique, there are threads that tie together the stories in pairs. Rebecca/Jack and Kevin/Madison are tied together by parental anxiety, and Kate/Toby/Ellie and Randall/Beth are tied together by adoption. As a result, you have to directly compare them to one another. The Rebecca/Jack storyline, while much more stressful, is communicated much better than Kevin/Madison, while the Kate/Toby/Ellie thread is much more emotionally compelling than Randall and Beth’s.

From a directorial standpoint — and hey, John Huertas, good to know that as much as I’ve missed you on-camera this season, you’re doing some good work behind the camera! — Jack’s anxiety is extremely well-captured from minute one. Mandy Moore is also amazing here, balancing physical and emotional exhaustion and pain. As much as she and Ventimiglia are great at portraying love for one another, they’re also amazing at lived-in, married tension. It’s much more effective than the slightly pissy, manufactured drama of last week. Mandy Moore plays grief so well, in numerous timelines. Her facial acting is truly where she’s strongest, but her delivery of “what if I’m never a great mother because I’m too sad for too long” made me tear up a bit — as someone with depression who doesn’t even have to deal with the responsibility of being a parent, the worry about being too say to enjoy or be good at life is very real.

It ties into Kevin’s storyline. There’s nothing really wrong here, it’s just hard to take Kevin’s anxiety with all that much weight. He is physically exhausted as anyone would be after fleeing Canada (and stay out!) and doing a nonstop road trip to California to deliver twins. It’s hard to take his postnatal anxiety with anything less than a grain of salt here, and it comes across more like Kevin simply has a case of the grumpies. However, the real star of this plot is… Madison! Madison, whom I’ve grown quite tired of this season, has morphed back into a character, and a funny, self-possessed one! Is it a bit jarring to see her go from being somewhat of a drip to being strong-willed and sassy (especially after birthing twins), but I’ll take it, because we have seen this person underneath. My actual big complaint about this thread is Ghost Jack, who comes to deliver Kevin a reassuring conversation in his 15 minutes of slumber (when the real solution is: all he needed was a nap). At first I thought this was just an excuse to squeeze in Milo wherever we could, but I do think that this season has really pivoted to focus on how much Jack’s son Kevin is, and I actually feel like we’re preparing for Kevin to leave acting and start Big Three Homes.

As for Kate/Toby/Ellie and Randall/Beth, I do get really nervous the way the show treads into the dynamics of adoption and trauma, although that’s where Randall comes in handy. Randall is the reminder that adoption is always about the adoptee, but Kate comes across a bit obnoxious with her pushing Ellie, because it feels like it’s more about the adults in the situation than the child (even though Kate explicitly says that she doesn’t want Hailey to have the same issues Randall had, it just feels like a conflict that could have easily been solved with a little bit of time and space. But a Pearson has never known the concept of giving someone time and space). Given that, it feels weird for Toby to be the one to launch into a philosophical talk about how adoption is a journey, but at least we don’t have them at each other’s throats all season. I still think this plot is stronger than Beth and Randall, because the acting is on point and Toby’s shocking swerve that he lost his job finally adds some damn stakes (I’ve always felt like the Pearson-Damons are very conveniently comfortable, since Toby seemingly makes good money in tech, so it will be nice to see them have to be a little uncomfortable).

Finally, both Randall and Beth’s fight and his talk with baby Annie don’t move me as much as they should. In the first season, the writers seemingly felt afraid to have Randall and Beth have any real conflict, so it came across as lazy and predictable. In seasons two and three, the conflict was so bad that I started to dislike the two of them — basically, they were all or nothing. I thought they actually found the balance in season four, but now we’re back to the writers pussyfooting around Beth and Randall’s occasionally problematic dynamic. The one thing about his story with Annie that’s obvious is that while Randall is himself an adoptee, he also seems to have some sort of bias toward biological children — wanting kids and grandkids with “his eyes.” I like that the show doesn’t lecture him too much about it, because he’s the one who’s allowed to have these complicated feelings (although did he not hang Kate out for her alleged predisposition toward biological children? How the turn tables). But it is nice to see the future vision in which Randall shares his special moment with Déja. Again, because we haven’t seen enough of Randall’s kids this season (I feel like we’ve seen Malik more!) it’s easy to forget what a sweet relationship he has with Déja, so their embrace at the end, and Randall’s affirmation that she, too, is a “branch” on his family tree, is that classic This Is Us emotional manipulation that I’ve really, really missed this season.

In summary

The good:

  • Maybe I’m biased because I feel like John Huertas is the unsung hero of the show, but I thought this was one of the best-directed episodes of the season.
  • Jack is too exhausted to do a Jack Peaerson speech, so we instead get to see a much more effective and vulnerable side of Milo Ventimiglia.
  • The dynamic between Kate and Toby feels so refreshing and healthy!

The bad:

  • This episode is one of TIU’s classic “transition episodes” where not much happens in the episode but we simply need it to get out of the hospital and get on with the plot. As a result, not much here is going to stick.
  • Maybe I’m just cynical after seeing Framing Britney Spears, but how much of a thing is paparazzi these days? Social media has basically rendered paparazzi photos valueless anyway, right?

Episode MVP:

  • Mandy Moore all the way, but Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan get some props too.

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