This Is Us: “In The Room” is a predictable episode, but one that feels extremely needed

This Is Us

“In The Room”

Dir. Ken Olin

Wri. Vera Herbert

8.5/10

This Is Us has been accused of being a toothless show — of taking the most obvious, cowardly non-swerves under the guise of real-stakes drama. It occasionally parades as a specialty cable show of the HBO/AMC variety with a prestige cast and nuanced, ambiguous morals. But it is ultimately a 9 p.m. Tuesday night ABC (or in my case, CTV) drama meant to be easily digestible. Even when it’s tackling issues like infant death, the Vietnam war or, believe it or not, COVID-19, This Is Us is careful not to alienate.

Yet I was still a little bit surprised that This Is Us didn’t even pretend — save for one brief moment — to take a “holding no punches” approach to tonight, an episode I didn’t realize we were all waiting for: the birth of the “new Big Three” (of course), Kevin’s twins and Kate’s daughter. This was an episode in which, somehow, everything worked out. The stakes were as close to zero as you could get.

And yet, it was my favourite episode of the season.

This has been a weird season for reasons largely beyond the show’s control. It could have either chosen to incorporate COVID or not, and it did, and that meant we lost out on some crucial moments including the Big Three and their parents actually being together. And despite my thinking we’d rely on flashback stories more in order to get that Pearson chemistry we love, this season has felt even less flashback-heavy than others (I could be wrong, though). A brief glimpse at the Little Three (now teenagers, so not really little) is the most I’ve seen of any non-Parker Bates child actor in months. So the “who is this mystery person” plot that This Is Us likes to throw in every season or two in order to tie things together proved to be one of the sweetest and surprisingly touching things it could have done.

(For the record, because I don’t know my computer history, I did not piece together that the Indian-Argentinian couple were Nasir Ahmed, inventor of the Discrete Cosine Transform [DCT] which made it possible to digitally transmit photos and videos across devices — but my husband, who does know his computer history, did not know that either, and in fact hilariously thought they were Miguel’s parents, because Miguel being half-Indian is apparently something he thought was possible).

I’ll let that segue into one of my favourite parts of the episode: we finally get some worthwhile present-day Rebecca (and past-day Rebecca) and Miguel! They’re not able to do much since they can’t be there for the delivery, so it’s largely about distracting Rebecca. It could have been a nothing-plot, until Rebecca delivers to Miguel a speech that has been in the back of our minds for five years: that he’s had to shoulder Jack’s death in a different way, that his role in the legacy of Jack and the Pearson family is complicated. Mandy Moore is her usual amazing self here, but it’s rare I get to be moved by John Huertas. Even in the more serious times, he’s usually little more than plucky comic relief; here, his facial acting alone is enough to give Miguel a new depth and suddenly make you realize why Rebecca loves him so much — and why Jack loved him too.

In the nineties, Rebecca and Jack are a little less warm and fuzzy than Rebecca and Miguel. And as much as I loved Jack in the last episode, I can’t help but feel really sorry for how he treats Rebecca here. Jack, who might be feeling a bit too much like a melancholy version of father-of-the-year since he learned that driving his son to nervous vomiting is not the right approach to youth sports, chastises Rebecca for “ripping on [their] kids all day” and takes a pouty solo drive to the hardware store, leaving Rebecca to salvage their kids’ crappy little kid art. I do think Rebecca comes out the victor in the end, basically telling Jack to loosen up (although I full-on cringed when Jack said “we only have a few years left together under the same roof,” and again when Rebecca said “our family is not ending anytime soon.” This Is Us winks at the audience a lot, but at that moment, its eyes were fully closed). Nevertheless, I feel sorry for the shame Rebecca gets here. When women aren’t thrilled with everything their kids do, they’re made to feel like bad moms. Jack is maybe being a little bitchy here and projecting; Rebecca was the less eager one to jump into parenthood to begin with, and she’s spent more than 10 years giving up her career aspirations and individuality to care for triplets with their own set of problems and neuroses. I’d say she’s earned a little good-natured ribbing, and to question her love for her kids because she’s venting a bit is very shitty. Nevertheless, this episode is not really about Jack, which feels good, because two or three years ago it would have likely been all about Jack.

The real meat of this episode is “in the room,” which is to say the delivery room. Compared to the last big birth episode (baby Jack, who barely gets a mention!) it’s significantly less stressful, which is crazy considering we have KN95 masks all over the place and a minor character literally on a ventilator.

There are two major tensions in this episode; one, that Kevin is not there for Madison yet, and two, that Ellie pulls a bit of a swerve with Baby Hailey. I will admit, the latter is where the episode did feel like it had some stakes, and it fooled even me. At first, I went into the episode prepared for a happy, clean ending; the way the show had been promoting the “new Big Three” removed any doubt that two mothers would be walking out of the hospital with three children who were legally theirs. But when all three babies were born before 9:40, well, I started to worry that we’d have an unpleasant twist. And when Ellie asked Kate to hold baby Hailey and even have some alone time with her, I did start to hold my breath. My heart broke for Kate.

But then it broke for Ellie.

This Is Us has a lot of sympathy for the people that we like to erase from our narratives — like the partner in a second marriage, or a birth mother. Ellie’s scene talking to baby Hailey and telling her about her parents is very emotional; that said, I don’t know if there’s any show that can properly capture the nuance of adoption (the view in this episode is that choosing to have your baby adopted is a display of compassion, but the episode does ultimately centre the ethics and emotion of adoption around the parents and not around the child… but that’s a conversation that is far beyond a scripted primetime show). The only other complaint about this plot is that I feel like we’d care more about Ellie, whose actress Annie Funke is really giving it her all here, if we actually got to see her relationship develop with Kate a little more onscreen. We’ve had to go weeks without new episodes and each episode has felt so singular, that Ellie is introduced, then suddenly she and Kate are friends, then suddenly she gives birth. What’s especially weird is that she and Kate are at a chemistry point where Ellie has become the new Madison, but we can’t fully appreciate that.

Outside the hospital is Toby, awaiting the birth of Hailey, when his tailgate is interrupted by a man whose wife is on a ventilator. The show has lived pretty comfortably with COVID, but it did feel like it needed this reminder that despite its relatively rich characters who can seemingly test and quarantine whenever they want, there are still people who get extremely sick and die from COVID (for what it’s worth, Rose, the man’s wife whom we eventually meet via video chat, is taken off her ventilator). It’s a better version of what the show tried to do last week with the “minor character is introduced and teaches the major character something about themselves” hook, and although it’s hoaky that Toby gives Hailey the middle name Rose (I, personally, was a fan of his choice of “Foggy”), I was also happy that Toby actually had something to do in this episode! And it’s nice to see these characters talk to someone who isn’t a Pearson — and to let them tell their story instead of going on and on about the Pearsons.

Finally, we have Madison’s delivery. Randall and Beth are extremely funny and sweet with her (serious question, though — if Kevin walked off set around eight hours ago and it was dark then, and he arrives at the hospital in the same time zone and it is still dark, but it is also dark the entire time that Beth and Randall are driving from Missouri to Pennsylvania? And dark the entire time that Miguel and Rebecca are in the cabin in Pennsylvania? What?) but ultimately they are supporting characters here. There is a moment of reconciliation between Kevin and Randall, and while Randall is correct that now is not the time for them to be getting into those deep conversations, this season feels like an eternal repeat of “now is not the time for this conversation.”

Anyway, I can’t emphasize enough that this episode has almost everything I’ve been missing all season, with the exception of a reminder that Randall’s kids exist. We even get a brief glimpse of Uncle Nicky (who seems to be doing well!) at the end, and he’s chuffed that Kevin has named one of the twins Nicholas. Also, their girl is named Frances, after Madison’s grandmother, and it’s once again nice to remember that Madison has a life and history outside of any Pearsons (even if we don’t get to see them). We don’t get any last-minute cruelty, only the conclusion of the twist revealing who young Nasir and Esther really are. It’s a great little COVID-friendly moral-of-the-story moment, and while it might be cheap, goodness me, I needed it.

In summary:

The good:

  • This episode is packed but doesn’t feel overwhelmingly packed; for that reason I have to applaud the direction of Ken Olin and also credit the fact that we don’t see the remainder of Kevin’s journey to the hospital.
  • The Hanson story for Randall and Kevin is pretty damn cute, but it’s also touching that Madison is apprehensive about romanticizing Kevin’s young flirtations with alcohol.
  • I like that the show had the dignity to not only choose to highlight Rebecca more than Jack in their shared 90’s scenes, but also choose to simulcast that with a segment that shows just how crucial Miguel is to the family.

The bad:

  • Not much; I know some people find it hard to believe that Kevin made it on the flight at all, but I’ll stick to my point about the passport from last episode. That said, it’s very naive that Kevin acts like his set walk-off was career suicide when it’ll clearly come out that his wife was in labour and that he saved a car crash victim on the way. You’ll be fine, Kev.

Episode MVP:

  • So many, but I’d like to hand it to John Huertas and Annie Funke since supporting characters need a little love too.

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

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