This Is Us: “I’ve Got This” is about manhood, mothers and money

This Is Us: “I’ve Got This”

Dir. Ken Olin

Wri. Casey Johnson & David Winsor

8.3/10

I’ve gone from lukewarm to all-in on this season of This Is Us, and this episode really solidified that. I can’t help but credit stalwart director Ken Olin and writers Casey Johnson and David Windsor for both a well-paced episode and a tight script that packs so much in.

In such a truncated season, we spent the first few episodes with things not really happening, then sent the Big Three out on their own for a bit, then seemingly had to spend several episodes re-centering everything in order to even remind people who they’re watching. This episode managed to do three things while actually advancing a real plot: it had two of the Big Three interact IRL for the first time almost all season; it brought back a number of supporting characters we haven’t seen in ages (including one extra surprise!); and it allowed several secondary characters who have more or less been props all season to once again exist in their own right with their own motivations, and not simply be cheerleaders for their spouses.

I’m talking, in this case, about Beth and Toby, who were both more-or-less the centre of the respective Randall/Kate storylines. In the case of Toby, we knew what was leading to this (his recent job loss); in the case of Beth, there was no build-up to her mother being at the Philly Pearsons home (although it obviously makes sense with her watching the girls), but it is at least a conflict we are used to seeing from Beth. And while there might be some annoyance that this perpetual conflict between Beth and Mama C has to seemingly be resolved over and over — this is at least the third time Beth has confronted her mother about how judged and boxed-in she makes Beth feel — I find it realistic. Parents, especially the Boomer generation and before, seemingly never take kindly to being told they could have done anything different, and the greatest form of concession they can offer is “I wasn’t perfect, but what can I do about it now?”

In that case, Mama C is a lot more generous. Of course, I’d be shocked if this role weren’t written specifically for Phylicia Rashad, who embodies to a T the steadfast dignity of Carol Clarke. Even in her vulnerability, she is unwavering and confident and sure of herself.

I found it to be such a nice, understated take on an old trope — that Beth and Randall’s girls, particularly the now extremely sullen Tess, seem to adore and respect Mama C without any of the difficulty that Beth displays. On one hand, this is something I — and I assume many people my age — can identify with extremely well. My maternal grandmother was always a far better grandma than she was a mom (at least, according to my own Mom), and I learned in my older years that the woman who was a smiling sweetheart to us in the 80’s and 90’s would have been unrecognizable to us 30 years earlier. Where This Is Us subverts that trope a little bit is that Mama C is not really warm or cuddly with her granddaughters either (unless you count introducing the girls to NCIS and helping Annie develop a crush on Mark Harmon). She is still a relatively strict disciplinarian — albeit a more progressive one than you might expect, defending the singular use of “they” for Tess’s non-binary BFF/partner. But the kids respond to her much better than Beth.

That’s why the conclusion between Beth and her mother is maybe a little unsatisfying. In other cases of Beth vs. Mama C, I’ve been firmly on Team Beth. Beth’s childhood was ripped away from her by a mother who had a very specific idea of what her daughter should do with her life, and Beth has seemingly felt boxed in for most of her adult life. And, in Beth’s own words, Carol has “no air” around her — there is only tension. But here, we start to see that maybe it is Beth who is boxing herself in, allowing herself to become tense at her mother’s relatively light criticism rather than simply turning around and saying, “Yeah, I’ve got this, Mom.” Beth is clearly becoming more and more unnerved by her mother’s presence, but she overcompensates and in turn becomes the one who steals all the air, making a big production of taking the kids’ (and Randall’s) phones at dinnertime, falling over herself to process Tess’s new relationship in a way that doesn’t upset her daughter. I was surprised that the final confrontation between Beth and Carol didn’t end in the former realizing that she may have been projecting, or even that she might be becoming her mother in the worst of ways. And Carol, the queen of accountability, doesn’t acknowledge this either. Instead, she takes the easy way out by saying she is jealous of Beth’s chaotic home life, because she is so lonely. It’s one of the weaker points of an otherwise strong episode — but now that we know that Mama C is sticking around, I’m excited to see how the show explores this relationship in the weeks and months ahead.

Parallel to Beth and Carol’s simmering tension is Randall offering some advice to Malik about Jennifer, Janelle’s mother, coming back into his life. It must suck for Randall that of all the things he’s good at, he has become everyone’s go-to advice giver for everything related to adoption, parenthood and racism. The guy clearly wants to find some levity in his life, as is evidenced by his newfound obsession with Isaac, his basil plant. But the plot is really more about Déja. Lyric Ross hasn’t been seen on our screens for some time, but she is as perfect as ever.

For all of the complication of Malik and Jennifer’s relationship, Deja’s angst over Jennifer is not overly complicated. But it’s also sweet how child-like it is. And also sweetly child-like is that she feels possessive over Randall just as much as she feels possessive over Malik. And it’s true that Randall might not have meant to cross a line with Malik, but he still broke her heart a little by being on Team Malik rather than Team Déja. Lyric Ross really seems like Sterling K. Brown’s child with this bond. It’s as though she hasn’t been conspicuously missing all season!

We zoom to the other coast with the LA Pearsons — Kevin and Kate are both new parents, and Toby has been hitting the pavement on the job search! We are kind of treated to two fake-outs with Toby — it seems like he won’t get the job at first, then we think he will, then it turns out he doesn’t. But this job is less about Toby’s financial situation than it is about his pride. There’s a lot of exploration of what it means to be a man and a provider; his situation is parallelled with a fairly straightforward story about Jack going out to dinner with the suits at work and losing a game of credit card roulette because he simply couldn’t bear admitting that the entire bill was beyond his means. Toby, similarly, cannot admit to Kevin that he lost his job. And when he does, a particularly ugly side of him comes out, even lashing out at Madison, who has pretty quickly transformed back into a delightful supporting character (and the show remembered that Kate and Madison are best friends! Yay!) and taking his frustration a bit too far.

Toby’s views with regards to Kate working shows a bit of an old-school side to Toby. I don’t necessarily think it comes from misogyny but rather from the toxic expectations we place on men to be providers, and their inability to play second fiddle. His inability to be happy for Kate at the end is incredibly heartbreaking, but it’s nice that after the episode really being about Toby, we also get some resolve for Kate. Kate-and-Toby has been very much a dynamic of Toby always saving Kate. In her brief conversation with Rebecca, Kate has a bit of resolve to lean on herself a little more. It’s very clear from both their scene in bed as well as Toby’s kitchen apology to Kevin that the situation is far from resolved, and who knows? Maybe the show will indeed have the courage to break up Kate and Toby for the future.

None of Toby’s ugliness excuses Kevin’s role either. And, much like most privileged people, it’s a role he never intended to play, but plays it anyway. Simply by existing, Kevin can unnerve Toby (or anyone who lacks the means). He can try to be generous, self-aware and even self-deprecating about his money, but ultimately, Kevin is a rich guy who has the privilege of being able to walk off a set and tell off a director and still live a very cushy life. It goes to show that even though they’re both exhausted new parents, exhaustion for Kevin is different than exhaustion for Toby. Kevin doesn’t have to worry about being able to buy all the best things for his children.

Yet another slight disappointment to an otherwise strong episode is the fact that Kevin’s realization at the end is not about that, but is about realizing that his family perhaps doesn’t need to be so weirdly codependent (a relevant realization but one that feels out-of-place this season considering this is one of the first times two of the Big Three has been in the same room in six months). It is, however, at least nice to see that Kevin and Madison have become a nicely functional relationship. I was actually certain that the knock on the door would be Sophie, or perhaps Cassidy. And just as I was shouting, “Oh! It’s gonna be Nicky!” surely, the door flung open and we see the delightful Griffin Dunne. Welcome back to the show, Nicky! The one thing I still felt the season was missing (aside from Gregory) has returned!

The good

  • I have to really praise Ken Olin for the direction of the scene in which Toby finds out via mobile that he hasn’t gotten the job. You can feel the lightheadedness of being trapped in emotional amber; I’m sure we’ve all been in similar situations of receiving bad news in mixed company and having to hold it together. The tension carries into the scene outside as well, and it really is superb work.
  • I’m really delighted and excited to see the continued dynamic of Mama C and her three granddaughters.
  • It’s kind of hilarious that Jack’s speech at the dinner table goes nowhere and, while it doesn’t turn anyone off, wins him no favours. Not everyone is into a Jack Pearson speech!

The bad

  • I really truly wish the episode had taken a moment to acknowledge Beth’s projection onto her mother and perhaps play up the nuance of their conflict a bit better.
  • Why are the West Coast Pearsons and the East Coast Pearsons seemingly always on the same timeline? How are they eating dinner at the exact same time? Kate even phones Rebecca after, and Rebecca is still gorgeous and doesn’t at all look ready to turn in for the night as Kate is about to. Did Kate, Toby, Madison and Kevin have dinner at 4 p.m.? Did Kate call Rebecca and then go to bed at 7?

Episode MVPs

Chris Sullivan, Susan Kalechi-Watson, Lyric Ross

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